There is a passage in James Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson” in which Johnson expresses satisfaction in his company the previous night. “We had good talk,” says Johnson. “Yes, sir,” Boswell replies, “you tossed and gored several persons.”
Nobody writing music criticism in the late 20th century could “toss and gore” better than Mr. Bernheimer.
In part because he was so pointed and hilarious in some of his put-downs, he was read by many people who had no special interest in classical music, and his “Beckmesser Awards” (named for an evil critic in Wagner’s opera “Die Meistersinger”) were eagerly anticipated at the end of each year.
“I have a reputation for being tough,” Mr. Bernheimer admitted in 2012. “I’m not a patsy. I’m not an extension of the PR department.” He added: “I never partake in the wine or cookies during an intermission. I don’t like to socialize.”
His tastes were mostly conservative and, when he was displeased, he came down hard. He called Philip Glass “our favorite pioneering Xeroxed-arpeggio composer ... the supreme master of the profound doodledy-doodledy.”
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He described the 1985 American premiere of choreographer Pina Bausch’s “Arien” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music “a 6-year-old, intermissionless, 2-hour-and-15-minute endurance contest for performers and audience alike.
“In this historic concoction,” he continued, “the Bauschians splash, sprawl, strut, stride, muse, roll, kick, languish and stroke their not-so-merry way through an increasingly chaotic nightmare that happens to take place on a stage full of water.”
Reviewing a televised broadcast of the Three Tenors’ inaugural concert, at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in 1990, Mr. Bernheimer wrote: “Luciano Pavarotti, waving his trademark white tablecloth, had agreed to a little public celebration of the World Cup in company with a few friends: fellow tenorissimos Plácido Domingo and José Carreras; a flashy and shameless, ever-accommodating maestro, Zubin Mehta; plus two — count ’em, two — orchestras, one local and one from Florence.”
“The three pirates of the High Cs seemed to be in a jovial mood for their multizillion dollar reunion,” he added. “They did a lot of mutual hugging, along with a lot of mutual mugging. Occasionally they pretended to be self-effacing. Mehta and his unwieldy bands followed the varied vocal whims with reasonable respect.”
Mr. Bernheimer had a long history with Mehta, who had been named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1962, three years before Mr. Bernheimer became the musiccritic at the Times. Looking back on Mr. Bernheimer’s coverage in 2017, Mehta was blunt: “Every Saturday morning I was crucified.”
It was a complicated situation. Dorothy Chandler, wife of former Times publisher Norman Chandler, had worked tirelessly to build the Music Center as an appropriate home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Its main building was named the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.) Her son Otis had recently been named the publisher of the Times, and Mr. Bernheimer could find little to praise in Mehta, the young maestro.
“Mrs. Chandler was depressed beyond reason but for her son, this was all freedom of the press,” Mehta recalled. “She would talk to the son about it all because you know, her great love was the orchestra.” Otis Chandler stood by his critic and Mr. Bernheimer remained the Times’s music critic until 1996.
It would be unfair to suggest that Mr. Bernheimer was always negative. At his best, he could combine widely differing opinions in complicated and delicious prose. Even something so cut and dried as a season announcement from an opera company could come to life.
“Virtually unpredictable . . . — and all the more beguiling for it — are the prospects for ‘Die Ägyptische Helena,’ which is opening on March 15,” he once wrote in the Financial Times. “Richard Strauss wrote this sprawling, convoluted, gloriously glittery, quasi-kitschy and shamelessly rapturous ode to an imaginary Helen of Troy back in 1928. . . . This ‘Ägyptische Helena’ may be wonderful. It may be awful. Either way, I can’t wait.”
He had a particular fondness for the music of Richard Strauss. Of the conclusion of the composer’s “Four Last Songs,” created in Strauss’s final years, he wrote: “The last tone hangs in the air. A horn rises from the depths, quoting the ‘Death and Transfiguration’ motive he had written nearly 60 years earlier. Flutes imitate the trill of larks flying in the misty light.”
To those who knew only Mr. Bernheimer’s prose, it came as a surprise to learn that he was a gentle, gracious and tender man to his colleagues. He supported the early careers of many young critics who disagreed entirely with him, simply because he believed in their talents. “One (major) reason for the love from colleagues was exactly what made him feared: his fearlessness and integrity,” one such critic, Janos Gereben of San Francisco Classical Voice, said in a Facebook post Sunday.
Mr. Bernheimer was born in Munich on Sept. 28, 1936. His father was a member of an esteemed family of antique dealers, and his mother was a noted artist in Weimar Germany. “Bernheimer’s mother read ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1933 and urged his father to leave Hitler’s Germany,” Winer recalled by email. “But his father said, ‘Oh, no, this is our Germany, the country of great philosophers and artists.’ ”
Most of the Bernheimer family was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in the aftermath of Kristallnacht. An uncle traded a family estate in Venezuela to Germany to win the family’s freedom after several months.
Martin and his parents moved to Massachusetts in 1939, where according to Winer the young man was raised on a chicken farm. “He was probably the only boy . . . listening to the Met Opera broadcasts while plucking chickens.”
Mr. Bernheimer returned to Germany in 1950 and wrote his first article, a study of the postwar Munich opera scene that he tried to sell to the New York Times. The Times accepted the piece but scrapped it at the last minute, he recalled: “I was just a smart-ass kid, but I started writing these fluke things.”
He studied music history and musicology at Brown University, graduating in 1958, and then returned to Germany to study at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, on a grant from the state of Bavaria. Much of his early writing was published in the Saturday Review, where he was a protege of Irving Kolodin.
Mr. Bernheimer moved to New York in the late 1980s after meeting and falling in love with Winer, who was then the chief theater critic and an arts columnist for New York Newsday. They married in 1992. “We used to think we’d make a good sitcom,” Winer said Sunday. “ ‘Critics in Love.’ ”
His first marriage, to Lucinda Pearson, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage, Mark Bernheimer, Nora Caruso, Erika Bernheimer and Marina Bernheimer; and four grandchildren.
He was a regular guest on the Metropolitan Opera radio quiz for many years and continued writing criticism, mostly for the Financial Times. But he was not happy with what he saw happening to the world he had adorned for so long.
“Essentially, our civilization is tilting towards anti-authoritarian contests,” he wrote in 2008. “Audiences, not judges, select winners. Call it the American Idolization of culture. On TV, contestants get voted off without explanation. Quality is measured by thumbs, up or down. Scholarly analyses have turned into irrelevant extravagances for snobs.
“Many U.S. papers have abandoned thoughtful, detailed reviews altogether. Publishers, editors and, presumably, readers want instant evaluations and newsbites, preferably with flashy pictures. It is Zagat-think, simplicity for the simple-minded.”
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