Robert Commanday, Music Critic
Commanday Office: UC Berkeley Music Department, Morrison Hall
“I don’t regret or withdraw a single carping article or castigating review….If we’re tough, it’s because we care, which serves as the same basis for our enthusiasm and praise.” Robert Commanday
Robert Commanday, known unofficially as the Dean of the Bay Area’s music press corps, was a major figure in the music world here for over fifty years. He served as music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle between 1965 and 1993, and in response to the decline of newspaper circulation, he founded, with his wife Mary, the online music review SF Classical Voice.
Commanday came to Berkeley in 1950 at the invitation of composer Andrew Imbrie. They’d met during the mid-40s in the U.S. Army where Commanday, a Harvard graduate in music and history, formed a choir wherever he was stationed. At Berkeley, he directed the University Glee Club and the Treble Cleff Society, served as a lecturer in the UC Berkeley music department, and critiqued competing high school choirs from all over California. In 1963 he was recruited to conduct the Oakland Symphony and Cabrillo Festival choruses.
Commanday’s preparation for being an all-round musician and discerning critic began early in life. Both his parents were amateur musicians and music lovers. They traveled into Manhattan from their home in Yonkers to attend major recitals and performances of the classical repertoire as well as operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan and Sigmund Romberg. They attended the first performance of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” As a five-year-old he hadn’t taken well to the piano, but he became a proficient flutist and student of John Wummer, solo flutist with the New York Philharmonic. By the time he was 15 years old, Commanday had listened to his cousin’s vast collection of pop music and was also a jazz aficionado, spending many nights at the Village Vanguard, one of New York’s premier jazz clubs.
After his discharge from the army, Commanday applied to Juilliard as an orchestral conducting major. When he learned that piano and not flute proficiency was required for acceptance, he practiced the piano mercilessly. His efforts got him accepted as a piano rather than a flute performer.
Commanday began reviewing for the San Francisco Chronicle at a time when his writing experience had been limited to academic papers and program notes. His journalistic writing evolved into an epistolary style that, he says, emerged from being an inveterate letter writer. He was also inspired to develop the freedom and humor he admired in the reviews of his predecessor, Alfred Frankenstein, who he replaced in 1965. He also credits the generous help of the of the Chronicle’s Datebook editor during his first years on the job. “She was tough on me.” he says. “In my initial months she would have me rewrite a lot.” Jon Carroll, , also of the Chronicle, often edited the arts section and reflected that Commanday “always seemed to know more about his subject than he could fit into an article.”
Contributed by Diana Kehlmann, 2016