When you combine a superb critical mind with an equal ability to write, you get Martin Bernheimer. For nearly sixty years, he has been a music critic, and an example to all. In recent years, he has written for the Financial Times. He has now retired from reviewing. He will do the occasional feature piece, but he is done with the daily grind.
He has ground ’em up, that’s for sure—when they deserved it. And he has lifted them up when they deserved that.
A little bio: Bernheimer was born in Munich in 1936. He studied at Brown University, the Hochschule für Musik in his native city, and New York University (in the city he would adopt). He worked for the New York Herald Tribune and was an assistant to Irving Kolodin at the Saturday Review. (Kolodin was one of the leading critics in America.) Bernheimer was at the New York Post during the first half of the 1960s. And at the Los Angeles Times from 1965 to 1996. In L.A., he wrote about dance as well as music.
He has contributed to a slew of publications and has lectured and taught at a slew of universities. There have been prizes too, of course—including the Pulitzer in 1982.
Rob Kapilow, the musician and broadcaster, does a program called What Makes It Great? In that spirit, I ask, What makes Martin Bernheimer great? First, there is a rare intelligence. Second, there is deep and wide knowledge. Third, there is an understanding of what criticism is. Fourth, there is taste. Judgment. Fifth, there is the aforementioned ability to write.
Bernheimer has a love of the English language, and he takes it very seriously (though few are as funny, and he loves a pun). He takes great care with words and with syntax. On the subject of words: he once insisted to me on a distinction between “debut” and “premiere.” A person debuts, a piece or production premieres. This is an old-fashioned distinction, he said—but, thanks to Martin, I am now mindful of this distinction.
Kern and Mercer wrote a song: “I’m Old-Fashioned.” True.
A Bernheimer sentence or paragraph is often jewel-like. His reviews are lapidary, to borrow a word from Bill Buckley. For the FT, those reviews were very short, but Bernheimer did a lot in them, and they were never slight. This is craftsmanship.
So, I have said what makes Bernheimer great, right? In part, I have. But I have saved the most important for last. He is bold and honest. Uncompromising. He does not pull punches. He says what he thinks. Well, don’t we all? Not necessarily. There is a lot of punch-pulling in my business, and I am guilty at times, too. Bernheimer says what he thinks, without fear or favor, come hell or high water.
He does not pal around with people he reviews. And he has no agenda. Beware the critic with an agenda (or at least expect transparency from him). A lot of people, I think, are loath to say a bad word about new music. New music is to be protected, defended, nurtured, promoted—but that is not the Bernheimer way. He does not do PR. He does criticism. He is a real critic. Such a person is worth his weight in gold.
If Bernheimer judges it good, he’ll say so. If he judges it bad, he’ll say so. His only agenda is right criticism. And his only constituency, so to speak, is his readers. If performers and presenters don’t like it, tough. He is allergic to trends, allergic to fads. Allergic to hype, allergic to spin.
There is a purity about Bernheimer. I can tell you that he would laugh at being called pure (and make a funny, not necessarily pure joke). But he is.
Many years ago, I ran into Martin when we were leaving the auditorium after a performance of Tristan und Isolde. The production was modern and screwy. I said to him, “Martin, I can’t keep saying, ‘It stinks,’ ‘It stinks,’ ‘It stinks.’ I mean, I’m always slamming things, especially when they’re modern. I don’t want to be a fuddy-duddy. I feel repetitive.” He said, “You must keep saying it stinks, when it does. Then, when it doesn’t, you’re all the more credible.”
Please note that Bernheimer and I do not always agree. Far from it. Some of the music I love, he damns as perfumed sentimentality. Some of the music I love, he mocks as “hum-along.” I just keep humming along, smiling. Some of my views, he regards as antediluvian. Well, everyone needs his era. And never was there a more agreeable person to disagree with than Martin Bernheimer. Never.
Let’s return to the issue of language. Bernheimer likes wordplay, and is a master of it. When writing about a static opera production, he’ll say, “The inaction takes place in . . .” People say he is a tough critic, an acerbic one, and they are not wrong. In some quarters, he’s known as “Martin Slash-and-burn-heimer.” But he is also a cheerful critic, loading his reviews with fun. He sometimes plays the curmudgeon, but he is a curmudgeon with a twinkle in his eye.
Here is the opening sentence of a Bernheimer review: “It was an odd, though, at 95 minutes, a blessedly brief night at Carnegie Hall.” Here is another opening sentence: “Remember A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare’s convoluted comedy of errors and eros, first performed around 1597? Forget it.” Okay, that was two sentences.
Have an opening paragraph: “Say this for Louis Andriessen’s De Materie, which was staged for the first time in America on Tuesday. It is big, big, big, also loud, loud, loud. The piece opens, famously, with 144 deafening iterations of the same abrasive chord, and the orchestral onslaught continues virtually nonstop for two hours.” Having fun yet?
Here is another opening paragraph: “Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St. Matthew has enjoyed conspicuous success since its completion in 2000. The piece is tough yet undeniably fashionable in its chirpy-gurgly-punchy way.” I will spend a little more time on this review. Bernheimer writes that the composer “has created an ode to the symbolic, possibly spiritual sounds created when water is manipulated in big, transparent, illuminated bowls.” Those words “possibly spiritual” are classic Bernheimer. Bernheimer further writes, “The solo duties and patterns are predicated, we are told, on Mongolian overtone expression.” The words “we are told” are also classic Bernheimer.
He has a healthy skepticism—a critic’s skepticism. He does not want to be snowed, and he does not want his readers to be snowed either. He looks out for them.
In the review I’ve been quoting, he does not spare the venue:
For all its historic beauty, the Temple of Dendur is an awful concert hall. Repeat: awful.
With the stage surrounded by a pool and one wall sheathed in glass, the place serves as a monstrous echo-chamber. Microphones, spread around the platform and specifically on the watery instruments, manage only to magnify the sonic blur.
For at least one pair of ears, the results were—first, last and foremost—fatiguing, not to say disorienting. Also annoying.
Did you notice the phrase “For at least one pair of ears”? Bernheimer does not lack confidence, heaven knows, but he allows for individual opinion. He has a way of mocking reliance on reviews, or overreliance on them: if someone at intermission asks him, “What do you think?” he’ll say, “I don’t know, I haven’t read the review yet.”
It seems impossible that we will not read another Bernheimer review. We may have to go into the archives, to get our fix. I have adopted some of Bernheimer’s lines and phrases (always footnoting him). For example, he’ll say, “It was one of those nights at the opera”—one of those really good nights, when everything clicks. It is satisfying to have one of those nights at the opera. Would that they were more frequent.
In kindergarten, we’re told that we are all unique, and we are. But some, let us admit, are uniquer than others. Bernheimer is one of those. He is genuinely one of a kind. Irreplaceable, or certainly unduplicatable. I love him. I admire him. I get a huge kick out of him. (If his private letters were ever published, they would sell millions, and face censorship in some countries.) And I thank him for the example he has set, for all of us.