Longtime Post Music Critic Joseph D. McLellan Dies

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Joseph Duncan McLellan, 76, a music lover, chess master, book reviewer and The Washington Post's music critic for more than three decades, died Dec. 26 of kidney failure at the St. Thomas More House, a nursing home in Hyattsville.

He continued to attend concerts and write about them until the last few weeks of his life. His final review appeared in the paper Oct. 13.

"There is a stereotype of the young piano virtuoso, particularly the young Russian virtuoso, as someone who plays as loud and fast as he can," he wrote. "There is not much truth in that cliche, and none at all if it is applied to Gleb Ivanov, who played in the Terrace Theater on Tuesday night under the auspices of Young Concert Artists."

As a critic, Mr. McLellan was known for his generosity of spirit, so his praise for the young Russian's performance was not unusual. Strongly negative reviews were rare. To highlight negativity was a bit mean, he said, because "you can find weakness in any human effort."

He once told Washingtonian magazine: "To be the primary critic of a monopoly newspaper is an overwhelming role. You have to tread softly and be fully aware that your taste is not the only valid taste. All these years, I pasted in the front of my mind that there are many ways to be good."

When it came to music, he was an amateur in the literal sense of the word. He loved music; thus, he listened to it avidly and wrote about it enthusiastically. He also paid a great deal of attention to struggling, little-known local groups and aspiring young artists.

Kim Klein, a friend and former Post colleague who often accompanied him to musical performances, recalled him saying, "Isn't it wonderful that someone in the world this very moment is hearing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony for the very first time?"

Music was only one passion in a richly multifaceted life. A chess master and member of several local chess clubs, he wrote a column for The Post, covered world chess matches and edited a syndicated column by the Czechoslovakian American grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek. During his early days at The Post, he wrote for Book World and covered White House parties and other society events for the Style section.

"He was the kind of guy for whom the word 'polymath' was created," said longtime friend and former colleague Joel Garreau. His was a life of "relentless curiosity," Garreau said.

Joseph Duncan McLellan was born in Quincy, Mass., and raised in Somerville, Mass. A sister, Cecilia Chapdelaine, recalled that, as a youngster, he taught himself to write by buying a set of encyclopedias with his paper-route money and reading a "how to write" book that came as a bonus with the encyclopedias. He bought a used typewriter and practiced relentlessly.

He received his undergraduate degree in French from Boston College in 1951 and his master's degree in French literature, also from Boston College, in 1953.

He planned to be a professor of French literature but began doing freelance reviews for a Boston-based Catholic newspaper, the Pilot, and found that he had a talent for journalism. He worked as a columnist and reporter for the Pilot from 1953 to 1957.

He was a foreign news editor for Religion News Service in New York City from 1967 to 1970 and an editor for A.D. magazine, affiliated with Notre Dame University, in 1970.

The publication, an outgrowth of the 105-year-old devotional magazine Ave Maria, was becoming increasingly politicized as a result of the Vietnam War and tumultuous social change. Garreau, who also worked at the magazine before coming to The Post, recalled that it was "a roaring success journalistically and a total failure commercially."

Mr. McLellan, he recalled, "was writing terrific, erudite reviews on the Beatles' 'White Album,' for example. That wasn't all that common for a 40-year-old at the time."

Mr. McLellan joined The Post as an assistant editor of Book World in 1972. In 1982, after stints as an arts reporter and a columnist, he became music critic. He also taught literature at American University and journalism at George Washington University and was music critic for classical radio station WETA-FM. He retired from The Post in 1995.

He told Washingtonian in 2000 that his best experiences as a critic were the operatic performances of Gian Carlo Menotti, whose strength, he said "is based, above all, on a deep sense of humanity."

His worst, in addition to "the sunny banality of John Denver or the mindless violence of heavy-metal rock," was the audience disdain exhibited by Luciano Pavarotti in a 1992 appearance at Capital Centre.

He was a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the Association of U.S. Chess Journalists Clubs and Mensa. He was also an amateur classical guitar player.

Mr. McLellan's first wife, Estelle McLellan, died in 2002.

Survivors include his wife of three years, Patricia McLellan of the District; four children from his first marriage, Joseph McLellan Jr., Laura McLellan and Sandra Ciarlone, all of Arlington, Mass., and Andree McLellan of Woburn, Mass.; four stepchildren; one brother; seven sisters; and two grandchildren.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company