Saturday, April 04, 2015

Andrew Porter

I'm a day late in getting to this - hectic day yesterday - but I am grieved to read of the death of Andrew Porter, music critic extraordinaire, musicologist, translator, at 86.

He has a reasonable claim to be the greatest of postwar music critics (at least of those writing in English) No, let me just say it: he was the great postwar music critic, at least, the greatest I know.

He was widely read, especially during his long tenure as classical music critic of The New Yorker, and before that at the Manchester Guardian and Financial Times. Following his time at The New Yorker, he continued to review and write long-form criticism for other publications.

His achievements include the discovery, in the Paris Opera library, of the original parts to Verdi's Don Carlos, which, when examined, revealed music cut during the rehearsals for the premiere, and his beautiful and graceful English singing translation, for Sadler's Wells, of Wagner's Ring. The latter may be - and should be - heard on the live recording made of those performances, under Reginald Goodall and with a superb cast. That wasn't his only singing translation, but it is likely his most famous, and has been published by Norton in book form, along with a wry and erudite essay on the hazards of translating such a work into English. Anyone contemplating a translation or adaptation should read that essay; in fact, anyone who loves opera should read that essay.

More personally - I read Porter's reviews in The New Yorker and in his books, and they had a good deal of influence on me. First, there was the desire to grow up to be Porter, an unreasonable goal considering his sheer erudition and broad knowledge. Next, he got me interested in Elliott Carter. Next, I learned from his reviews that publishers would send you a study score of a new work if you asked them in advance of a concert; that's why I had the score of John Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music with me when I reviewed its first performance at SFS.

Porter also reviewed a concert that I sang in, sort of: I was in the chorus for the NY premiere, at Town Hall, of Verdi's Il Corsaro. The stars were the opera and the great Carlo Bergonzi as the tenor lead. Porter quite rightly characterized the Stony Brook chorus as vocally undernourished and unschooled in the proper style, but he loved Bergonzi.

Andrew Porter, RIP. You were the greatest of us.

  • Margalit Fox in the Times, whose lede says it all (but note the correction at the end!): "Andrew Porter, a music critic celebrated for his stylistic elegance, immense erudition and polymathic command not only of the work under review but also of everything else in creation conceivably connected with it, died either Thursday night or early Friday in London."
  • Tom Huizenga, NPR
  • William Braun, Opera News
  • Alex Ross, The New Yorker
(More links to come, as the British papers must have obits for him.)


Aleksei said...

Porter was a very learned man of course but this does not change the fact that the best critical writing is superfluous to its subject, and musical criticism is the most superfluous of all.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Well, that's just nonsense, and a big tipoff that perhaps you're yet another sock puppet for Eric/Genevieve Castle Room/Pelleastrian/Harpist.

Civic Center said...

Oh, shut up, "Aleksei."

Andrew Porter was the best musical pedagogue ever, and when he occasionally offered fulsome praise for a performer, you knew they had to be somebody extremely special. Loved it when he discovered Carol Vaness when she first arrived in New York at City Opera.

With him writing about classical music and Pauline Kael covering movies, the Golden Age of Cultural Criticism at the New Yorker came and went in our lifetimes. Glad I got to experience it when it was fresh and exciting.

eb said...

Andrew Porter was the finest music critic, bar none. Aleksei has no idea what he's talking about.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Haha, yes, indeed, he was.