Critics, Gathered In Charleston, Honor A Leader

Robert Commanday, right, in 1999, conversing with violinist Isaac Stern at the San Rafael JCC. (Jeremy Portje)
Robert Commanday, right, in 1999, conversing with violinist Isaac Stern at the San Rafael Jewish Community Center.
(Photo by Jeremy Portje)
By John W. Lambert

IN MEMORIAM – Robert Paul Commanday died in September 2015 at the age of 93. Best known as the classical music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle for nearly three decades, he was widely eulogized at the time, in the greater Bay Area and within the community of writers and scholars throughout the country. His last decades were spent developing the prominent arts website San Francisco Classical Voice.

In keeping with a long-standing custom of the Music Critics Association of North America, he was also remembered at the organization’s 2016 annual meeting, held in Charleston, S.C., where my tribute, adapted for publication here, was delivered on June 2:

Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, site of the 2016 MCANA convention. (Julia Lynn)
Spoleto Festival USA, site of MCANA’s 2016 convention. (Julia Lynn)

Robert Commanday freely acknowledged his one big failure: retirement. Officially, he retired from The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. He was entering his eighth decade. And I suppose his departure was duly feted. But he was later to complain about the tyranny of commercial papers and their increasing neglect of the arts.

In 1998, with the help of his friend Gordon Getty, he and his other half, professional cellist Mary Stevens Commanday, launched the website San Francisco Classical Voice, in what was at the time an entirely new digital approach to arts coverage. As Janos Gereben wrote, it was one that embraced “independence, fees, and copyright” for its critics, at a time when all three were rapidly eroding in the commercial world.

His most lasting legacy is likely to be San Francisco Classical Voice and similar non-profit online sites that he helped to bring about – CVNC in North Carolina, CV New England, and Classical Voice North America.

Our West Coast colleagues knew him better than I, and for comprehensive obits I recommend articles written by Joshua Kosman – Mary calls him Robert’s hand-picked successor at The Chronicle; Janos Gereben, whose account was published at SFCV; and his down-the-road colleague Paul Hertelendy, whose tribute appeared in this website.

CVNC logo was founded with Commanday’s guidance.

But I did have the honor of working with Robert, mostly via email, when, in 2001, we launched Classical Voice North Carolina, to the establishment of which he was crucial, inasmuch as he provided all the paperwork he’d generated just three years earlier in the Bay Area. (He also made it sound very easy, although in truth it was a lot like real work.) I like to think he was pleased that CVNC began with four volunteers but eventually became a state-wide operation with 40 writers, interns at three colleges and universities, and extensive coverage of all performing arts disciplines. Indeed I know he was pleased, for he urged his friend Gordon to help CVNC too.

And in fact CVNC was a bridge, as it were, from the Bay Area to an entire state to what Getty had always wanted – a nationwide platform devoted to the arts.

So it was a source of particular satisfaction to us all when, with Commanday’s encouragement, Classical Voice North America was launched by the Music Critics Association to cover the US and Canada and to act as a showcase for their expert reviews.

Gordon Getty (left),with soprano Lisa Delan and Commanday. Getty helped Commanday fail retirement. (Viva Vivanista, SFCV)
Friend Gordon Getty (left), with singer Lisa Delan and Commanday.
Getty helped Commanday fail retirement. (Viva Vivanista,

Within months, this new venture attracted generous support from the Anne and Gordon Getty Foundation and other sources. That Robert not only saw its birth, helped bring the site to the foundation’s attention, and also contributed copy to it – on half-a-dozen occasions, starting in 2013 – gave the rest of us great pleasure.

And let us not overlook his four years at the helm of our association, during which terms he served to broaden our collective perspectives on this profession, its role in our nation’s cultural life, and the possibility of growth in terms of breadth and depth of the coverage we provide.

The facts of Robert Commanday’s remarkable life are reasonably straightforward. As Joshua Kosman told us, he was “born June 18, 1922, in Yonkers, N.Y. His musical training was at Harvard and the Juilliard School, and during the 1940s he taught at Ithaca College and the University of Illinois. He spent the 1950s at UC Berkeley, earning a master’s in musicology, teaching, and leading the Glee Club and Treble Clef. From 1961 to 1965, he was the chorus director for the Oakland Symphony. [He] joined The Chronicle in 1964 and a year later succeeded Alfred Frankenstein as the paper’s music critic. He later added dance to his portfolio as well. In addition to his work for the paper, [he] contributed entries on many Bay Area institutions to the various editions of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and spent four years as president of the Music Critics’ Association of North America.” His many honors included the Deems Taylor Award, presented by ASCAP in 1976.

Mary Commanday with Robert at 2014 American Bach Soloists gala. (Gas Lamp Productions)
Mary Commanday (left) co-produced SFCV with Robert in early days.
(American Bach Soloists gala, 2014. Gas Lamp Productions)

Mary has told me that Joshua’s column is the most substantial recap of Robert’s life and work; she told me she had nothing significant to add to his account. But I did ask her if she had at least proof-read his copy. She replied: “No, I never edited R’s columns, didn’t need to, since he was such a good writer. But for SFCV, when we first started it, I did edit some of the reviews sent in by the other writers, and R and I wrote up the style guide. I also put the pictures on the site the first few months. All with a steep learning curve!”

I was pleased not too long ago to find, living in retirement in central North Carolina, Francis Whang, the pianist who had served as the last-minute accompanist for Robert’s glee club on its 1957 Asian tour. Among his reminiscences is an account of Robert helping him onto the stage – as he said – “even though I had a serious case of the flu. My first cousin, who was working with USIS in Japan at the time, got a Japanese doctor to come in and give me a big dose of something [via what] looked like a horse syringe, which helped me get on my feet for the concert of the day.” Fritz also recalled meeting Robert around 2010 at his house: “Don’t know why we got together, but what struck me was that he hadn’t changed much from 50-plus years ago. Still almost no gray, youthful voice, same energetic manner.”

And it was a treat to discuss Commanday with James Meredith, the pianist and conductor who is artistic director of the Sonos Handbell Ensemble. He offered these recollections:

James Meredith
Pianist, conductor James Meredith

“I knew Bob and his wife, Mary, pretty well. He preceded me by many years as director of the Oakland Symphony Chorus. A musician of great experience and wide-ranging knowledge, [he was] one of the old guard of critics like Virgil Thomson who could back up his opinions with that knowledge and experience. A performer and conductor himself, he knew the business from all sides. He could be a curmudgeon for sure but, knowing the shrinking field of musical criticism in the print media, he spent his retirement years setting up SFCV to give artists some critical coverage.

“He was a legend in the Bay Area when I came in 1980. I first met him at a ladies retirement home where his mother lived. I had played a few concerts there over the years, and they called me one day as a last minute fill-in for Birthday Day. I pulled together a few things but was not particularly well-prepared. It turns out Bob’s mom’s birthday was one of those being celebrated. There he was, the legendary SF Chronicle critic sitting with her in the front row. I got through the pieces, barely, on the poor excuse for a baby grand piano they had. He had just that week reviewed the Davies Hall SF debut of Evgeny Kissin. I introduced myself to Bob and apologized for the piano and my performance. He was a good sport and we talked about Kissin at some length – he was very impressed with his playing. I wanted to fade into the woodwork but alas, could not! That was my intro to Bob. Over the years he came to know my work as conductor, with Sonos, and accompanying various singers (including Flicka), and expressed admiration, so I eventually redeemed myself.”

The last years of Commanday’s life were clouded by a personal – and national – tragedy, the death in 2012 of Mary’s son Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya – and the subsequent partisan politicization thereof. But for this, I am certain he would have played a far more active role in CVNA. Instead, his twilight was in large measure spent in Mary’s company, attending memorials around the world.

Commanday was 93 when he passed away Sept. 3, 2015, in Oakland. Now, Mary is involved in another round of memorials, including several in June 2016. But he had enjoyed a very long and productive life, so these tributes to our dear colleague Robert are generally celebratory affairs. His many legacies will live on.

John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina, which exists in large measure because of Robert Commanday’s help at the outset.