A Good Ear, and Heart

As The Post's longtime music critic, Joe McLellan reviewed thousands of concerts. (The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Joseph McLellan, who died Monday at 76, covered thousands of musical events for The Washington Post over the course of his three decades at the paper, yet he never lost his hunger for music. Even toward the end, when he was desperately sick with diabetes and needed both a companion and a wheelchair to attend concerts, he still found his way to everything he could. His final review, of the pianist Gleb Ivanov at the Terrace Theater, appeared Oct. 13.

Joe was a gentle, inquisitive and compassionate man, and those qualities were reflected in his criticism. "I've never attended a concert without reminding myself that at least one person in the room knows more about that music than I do," he explained. Sharply negative reviews were rare, and Joe was aware that he was sometimes viewed as a cheerleader. (He dismissed that charge with a laugh: "I don't know how to twirl a baton and would look dreadful in a skirt.")

Instead, he likened his role to that of a gardener. "The critic notices what needs to be watered, pruned and fertilized," he said in an extensive interview published by Washingtonian magazine in 2001. "At the end of his time, the garden should reflect the values he embodied."

He named National Symphony Orchestra performances of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich, as the most moving concert experiences of his tenure in Washington. He was also a passionate admirer of Gian Carlo Menotti, both as composer and stage director. "Under Menotti's direction, even minor characters become warm-blooded, three-dimensional, real," he wrote in 2000 for Washingtonian. "Like his stage direction and his libretti, Menotti's music has a simple directness, a focus and clarity that go right to the heart. But there is depth and complexity underlying the surface simplicity."

His outrage was generally reserved for what he considered cavalier treatment of the public, as when Luciano Pavarotti came to the Capital Centre in 1992 and sang for only 37 minutes: "Those who paid top price [$175 per ticket] spent about $ 4.75 per minute to hear mediocre sound and see Pavarotti from a distance on a giant video screen. Yes, they were in the same room with the great singer, but it was an awfully big room."

McLellan was born in Quincy, Mass., the oldest of 12 children. He attended Boston College and came to The Post in 1972 as an assistant editor of Book World. He wrote on many subjects for The Post -- film, drama, philosophy, chess. When Paul Hume stepped down as music critic in 1982, Joe was named as his successor, a position he held until 1995.

I met Joe in 1982, at a music critics conference in Santa Fe, N.M. I was part of a contingent of junior writers and there we all were, impatient and omniscient and convinced that we would be in our twenties forever. I remember tearing apart what seemed to me a less-than-meticulously played chamber music recital, much taken with my own cleverness, until I saw Joe shaking his head mournfully. "All of that may be true," he said, "but you never convey any sense that the Brahms clarinet quintet is something pretty special." It was a pivotal moment in my professional education, and I began to grow up.

When I came to Washington 10 years ago, to succeed Joe as The Post's chief music critic, Joe proved not only a generous guide but also a welcoming friend. Like most music critics, he was resolutely informal, cheerfully oblivious to fashion, an eager (if unusually kindly) raconteur, and devoted to the pleasures of good food and wine. I always looked forward to our dinners.

After illness had forced a radical amendment of his diet, water replacing chardonnay, Joe remained as cheerful a companion as ever, and I defy the reader to find any passage in his recent writing that would identify it as the work of an unwell or challenged man, although he was both. His passion for life, for his friends and family, and for his chosen art never flagged. A lover of poetry who could recite it by the yard, Joe might have agreed with the brilliantly mixed metaphor of Dylan Thomas, who observed that the closer he moved to death, "the louder the sun blooms."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company