Tuesday, February 10, 2015

For Andrew Patner and the city of Chicago

Andrew Patner was The Man.

When I first started blogging in late 2009, he seemed to represent exactly what I stood against: a music critic cozy with the establishment, extolling the Chicago Symphony week after week in the Sun-Times, seemingly oblivious to its doldrum programming and lack of vision. Or—as a self-styled firebrand hoping to stir something up in the classical blogosphere—I so naively believed.

And thus my first outreach to Chicago's greatest cultural critic was a volley, aimed squarely at his review of a Civic Orchestra performance we both attended. I reviewed the review. Please don't read what I wrote; it is embarrassing. But do read Andrew's comments, which are at once cutting and gracious. "I'm afraid that I have to respond to a number of your points": the perfect sentiment. It was my first introduction to the Andrew that so many have mourned over the past week, someone who knew how to cultivate and correct, always guiding youthful passions in the right directions.

And despite the fact that I opened our dialogue with a clear sign of disrespect, from there Andrew shepherded me into a world that I had only hoped I would one day make my way into.

Over the past week, I have pored over dozens (hundreds?) of Facebook group messages exchanged between Andrew, Alex Ross, Marc Geelhoed, Bryant Manning, and myself in 2010 alone. Andrew graciously launched this group-message initiative not long after I had publicly excoriated him on my blog, and it immediately made me feel part of a critical community that I had no idea actually existed. I remember my palpable excitement, checking Facebook every half-hour or so to see a new message from three of my music-critic idols (and yes, Andrew quickly became an idol). Marc and Bryant were models as bloggers (and Andrew nurtured both of them), Alex was of course on a pedestal, but Andrew was the senior figure by age and, seemingly, endless worldly knowledge. It felt amazing to join in-depth conversations about orchestral performances of the Second Viennese School and drink in Andrew's preposterously well-informed insider knowledge. I typed ridiculously lengthy responses, and was giddy to see them validated in that companyThere was a cool-kids'-club appeal, but it also felt deeply communal; Andrew's wise generosity with us, even if he was catty about others, steered the conversation. He immediately granted me a voice and sense of authority despite my having demonstrated ignorance from the outset of our relationship.

And he took me to events—most memorably, an all-day, experimental reading of Wagner's Ring librettos, where we ate sandwiches together on-stage during intermission—and introduced me to members of the Chicago cultural elite. He never failed to point people to my blog and always asked my opinion during conversations with those who were far, far more qualified than me to offer one.  It was an extroverted kind of generosity that I have never seen matched. He took me to the CSO's press conference announcing Muti's first season, and was bemused by my silly attempt to live-blog the entire thing. He continued to comment on my blog, his responses always kind, always thoughtful, always nudging me in the direction of truth. 

That was what Andrew first meant to me; but I left the Chicago area only six months after that introduction. Thank god that Andrew was among the most prolific corresponders the Internet has seen. My inbox lists 184 email threads with his AOL address since 2010, and I'm sure I deleted many more (an obvious mistake). And I was by no means a close friend; others have thousands of his emails lining their inboxes.

Much of what I learned from Andrew, in fact, came from observing how he wrote about the world on Facebook. I cannot think of another music critic, of any genre, so singularly concerned with the health and future of his city. Reading his relentless stream of Facebook updates made me constantly energized by the idea of Chicago. My relationship to the city since I left has been entirely mediated by what I learned of it through Andrew's Facebook posts on politics, architecture, dining, music, art—everything imaginable that was interesting to discuss—and which probably accounted for at least 5% of my Internet reading as a whole. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how I would look at the city of Chicago if not through Andrew's eyes. The endless debates that erupted on his Facebook were like town hall meetings, gracefully shepherded by Andrew in the role of both moderator and firebrand.

Andrew made me powerfully conscious of the critic's role to act as a local advocate, as a pillar of the city as central as the fire department or burger joint. He seemed to almost physically embody the idea that classical music was a central part of Chicago's identity. In that foolish blog critique, I had misunderstood as cozy what was in fact essential: Andrew's dedication to keeping the flames of Chicago's important cultural institutions burning. He certainly knew exactly how dull the CSO's programming was, but he also knew that snark is not the critic's primary duty. In remaining a part of the community, in reporting on its activities thoughtfully and fairly, he could push the institutions in a better direction in a manner that was natural and effective. (Yes, I'm sure that the New York Philharmonic pays close attention to what Times critics say about them; but I get the feeling that the Chicago Symphony would act directly on what Andrew Patner recommended.) I think of his deeply sympathetic response to Dale Clevenger's fading horn playing as an emblematic example of a critic who could criticize while supporting the ecosystem that created his job–to push the exact right amount.

Andrew's generosity spilled far beyond his criticism and enthusiastic correspondence; he had an inexhaustible appetite for helping a friend, no matter how trivial the need. He was connected to everyone in the world. I planned to spend a weekend in Dresden: Andrew knew a curator who gave me an incredible one-on-one tour of a state museum. My girlfriend and I needed a place to crash in London: Andrew set us up with a wonderful family whose patriarch spent the weekend on the phone solving the Euro crisis. These far-flung VIPs, one imagined, would certainly help out any acquaintance of Andrew, because Andrew likely did the same for them.

Last May, I saw Andrew for the first time since 2010. I was giving a paper at a new-music conference at Northwestern and, for a number of reasons, it was a fairly crappy return to my alma mater. Seeing Andrew was the highlight. In a conference primarily devoted to severe modernist music, I was the odd duck in presenting a paper on what might be called pop-classical collaborations. Anticipating antagonistic responses, I had prepared a slew of potential defenses of the music and my scholarship. Andrew snuck into the back of the room during my talk, and of course the only pointed critiques came from him. He raised his hand and questioned the broader premise of this music, expressed sharp skepticism about the role of gender in the repertoire I discussed, and referenced vocalist Jan DeGaetani as a precedent I should further investigate. Andrew's inquiries provided an opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge—in response, I unleashed my salvo of defenses for the music—and an opportunity to learn. I'm sure that's why he did it: to provoke a conversation, to target and unleash a passionate rejoinder, to teach. Afterwards, a couple of musicians grumbled about that one random guy who asked such curmudgeonly questions, but I smiled and told them that it was my friend Andrew, and that I was happy that he came, and that it was fun sparring with him. 

As I write this tribute, I imagine the numerous Alan Gilbert-related emails from Andrew that would have arrived in my inbox by now, and probably the inboxes of a dozen others. It is wrenching to think how fun it would be to spar with him today.