June 15, 2010

In Memoriam: Heuwell Tircuit

By Michael Zwiebach

San Francisco Classical Voice lost one of its finest writers and an even dearer friend when Heuwell Tircuit died last Monday. His body was discovered in his apartment by his longtime friend Hal Cruthirds on Wednesday. He was 78 years old.

Tircuit was born in Depression-era Louisiana, in Plaquemine, a small town five blocks from the Mississippi River levee, on October 18, 1931. “I asked him once, ‘What is your name?’” his friend and physician Bob Owen recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, it’s Heuwell Andrew Beauregard Deschampsverre Tircuit. But you can call me Turk.’” Turk grew up taking care of several siblings and learning the cooking of which he was justly proud, and which his friends remember so fondly. He recalled some of the stories of his discovery of music in an article he wrote for SFCV, “Of Banana Splits and the Classics.”

In Tircuit, the manners and style of Louisiana invariably came to the fore. “He would always compare our behavior to Southern behavior,” said his friend of 40 years, Rick Otto. “‘That is very inappropriate,’ he would tell me. ‘We would not do that in the South.’” All his friends I spoke to remember gentleness and generosity as the chief traits of his character.

In 1949, Tircuit entered Louisiana State University, played percussion (bells) in the marching band, and became a lifelong fan of college football (LSU in particular). He also met Hal Cruthirds, a cellist who played tuba in the marching band, who recalled:

I met him when I was a freshman there, and I was trying to find a practice room. And I heard these strange sounds coming from a recording in one room. And I looked in there, and there was Heuwell sitting on the floor and the Bartók Fourth String Quartet was playing. And I said, ‘What in the world is that?’ And we were lifelong friends from that moment on.

After Tircuit had graduated and done a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he and Cruthirds met up again in 1955 in Japan. “I went there in the Army — I was a general’s aide,” recalls Cruthird.

I immediately went over to the Asahi Broadcasting Company Orchestra — they [Japan] had 13 of them there, right after the war. And so the conductor, Prince Hinomaru Konoye, said, ‘Do you know anybody who plays timpani?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ So he says, ‘Can he bring kettledrums?’ and I say, ‘Yes, he can.’ So that’s how it was arranged. They purchased the drums, and he brought them on the boat. At that time, we had five foreigners in the orchestra.

While there, Tircuit donned a critic’s hat for the first time, writing for the Asahi Evening News and the Japan Times and becoming chief critic for Gramophone Japan. Adept at making friends and cultivating relationships, Tircuit became familiar with a wide circle of the arts community there, such as the film critic for the Japan Times, Donald Richie, and the composer Toru Takemitsu. Tircuit loved to tell the story of their first meeting: “I don’t know what you look like; how will I know you?” “Buy a watermelon and stand outside the market,” replied Takemitsu over the phone. And that’s how, a few hours later, Heuwell found himself, watermelon in hand, meeting another good friend (and a great composer, then at the beginning of his career).

Also in Japan at the time was Frank Korn, the president of Hugo New Corporation, which sold scrap metal to the Japanese. According to Cruthirds:

He and his wife, Marian, would give these musicales, just as they did in Europe, in their beautiful home in Tokyo. We had people like Bernstein and Serkin, and Heuwell was doing the planning of those things. And I and the orchestra played many of them. But the most amazing thing he ever did for them was to have Handel’s Water Music played on two barges down on the Sumida River [in imitation of the original performance] — one for the musicians and one for the guests.

Returning to America in 1963, Tircuit went to Northwestern University for a degree in music history, simultaneously writing criticism for the Chicago American. He also took advantage of a special grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study music criticism with Virgil Thomson at the University of Southern California. Yet he still considered himself chiefly a composer, writing a great deal of music, including two cello concertos and other music for Cruthird, and a percussion concerto for the 22-year-old virtuoso Stomu Yamash’ta, who played 47 different instruments in the piece. The premiere at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival was written up in Time magazine. A portion of the Tircuit worklist is online at G. Schirmer, music publishers.

In 1971, Tircuit came to San Francisco and spent 21 years as a music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he served with distinction. His reputation for probity and discernment was temporarily shattered when he was accused of dishonestly reviewing a dance performance that he purportedly had not attended. The chief critic for the Chronicle at that time was Robert Commanday, founder of SFCV, who writes:

His career at the Chronicle came to an unjust end that was, unfortunately, widely publicized. While covering a performance of the San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove, the printed program he received lacked the insert that reported the replacement of a ballerina, and he described critically the performance of the dancer who had been replaced. It was assumed that he hadn’t been there or had left early when, in fact, two journalists from other newspapers reported seeing him there. That evidence was never explored, his explanation not accepted, and he was dismissed. The news of ‘the music critic who wasn’t there’ was published widely, in Europe and Canada.

SFCV’s Music News columnist, Janos Gereben, was there and reports: “I was sitting next to him at that disputed Stern Grove incident, and when the controversy raged (and before he was fired), I wrote a letter to the editor at the Chronicle about it. The point is he made a mistake because of the erroneous printed program (he also appeared not well), but he was wrongly accused of not being there, and suffered a virtually career-ending punishment for it.”

Anyone who knew Tircuit knew that it was not his habit to lie. He took criticism far too seriously for that. As his friend Bob Adams recalled:

I had always assumed that if there were two versions of the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto available, then I should buy the cheaper one. And Turk says, ‘You just don’t understand.’ So he took me over to his place and played me 17 different versions of one piano piece and described the differences in timing, phrasing, and general coloration in each one. And I could never hear all the differences he heard, but it did give me the idea that it was real — I used to think that what critics wrote was just their own personal prejudices, or that it was all a charade. But after that day, I realized that, for him, these differences were enormously important. He listened in a way that I was not — and still am not — capable of.

When Commanday founded San Francisco Classical Voice, Tircuit was one of the first writers hired, a decision that has been all to SFCV’s benefit. In Commanday’s opinion:

His reviews were informed by his deep musical knowledge and memory, enabling him to trace the influences on composers’ music keenly and to give trenchant, telling analyses of new music. Because he was a forthright writer whose lively personality came through in his prose, his reviews were received by the reading public warmly, both pro and con. As a colleague, he was a staunch and loyal associate, always ready to take on an assignment, to cover news stories as they arose, and to bring his wide knowledge of the current musical scene to bear in exploring them. Above all, his humor and imagination were always in play, qualities that were evident in his music, in his writings, and in his supportive relationship with colleagues.

He wrote for SFCV until the day he died, and his later articles, such as the wonderful appreciation of Samuel Barber that appeared in March, retained all the sharpness of his earlier work. He was a great storyteller and raconteur, belying the stuffiness that is usually associated with critics. If there were ever a person to emulate in the profession, it would be Heuwell, and we at SFCV can do no better than to continue his work in the same spirit of passion and delight.

Tircuit is survived by his sister, Virginia Tircuit Vernon, and will be buried in Louisiana next to his family, in a private ceremony.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.


June 16, 2010
Memories of a long time ago....

I was a student in the theatre department when Turk was at Northwestern, and oh, the stories I can remember, of both people and places. I am a Southerner, too, and sometimes competed with Huewell in setting the "appropriate" standards on some of our forays into Chicago nightlife. I was also working at Ravinia when the percussion concerto had its premiere, one of the Sunday afternoon concerts of "contemporary" music that had small, but enthusiastic audiences. We rec-connected just a few years ago when I asked him to write an article for the program book for SummerFest in La Jolla. And we had just as much fun (telephonically, anyway) as we had had many years ago. He will be missed.

June 16, 2010
Heuwell Tircuit

Thank you for the wonderful tribute to a fine critic and a wonderful human being. We so often forget that there is greatness on both sides of the footlights, and your critique is a most welcome reminder.

June 16, 2010
Agreed. What a wonderful tribute!

All these years, I did not know the true story of Heuwell's dismissal. This obit performs a great service, even if it sadly comes after the fact.

Many, many moons ago, under another name, Heuwell penned a feature on me that ran in the Chron's Sunday magazine. I never knew why the pen name; perhaps he was fearful of sullying his credentials by writing about a whistler. Nonetheless, despite the inevitable tongue-in-cheek comments, I have always been grateful for his support. I hope his soul is smiling when I dedicate my performances on June 21 at the Chapel of the Chimes marathon to his memory.


June 17, 2010
Heuwell R.I.P.

A wonderful friend over very many years - an enormous supporter of the arts and for me my work in Mexico with the major orchestras recording for EMI and other labels.

My many memories of Heuwell serenading my 88yr old aunt and waltzing with her from one end of a SF Vietnamese restaurant to the other and onto the street - having him as a dinner guest with the late Dr John Ardoin (Dallas Morning News) at our family table at Christ's Hospital and listening to the two great critics bantering away through the early hours.....

His table and his cooking was as others have mentioned a wonderful experience and his affection and loyalty to his friends unwavering......

We just spoke just a few days before he departed this life..... still effervescing with enthusiasm and joy........

a beloved friend

Requiescat in pace

June 17, 2010
Heuwell Tircuit

I've known Heuwell since 1953, when we were students at Louisiana State University. Once, during a student performance of "Cosi Fan Tutti", I was called out of the audience in the middle of the first act to replace the Dorabella who had suddenly fallen ill (I had done the role professionally a few months before). Luckily the costume fit me. Heuwell was tympanist for the performance, and he rushed out at intermission and ordered flowers for me. Another anecdote: during a performance of "La Mer" by the Baton Rouge Symphony, Heuwell looked down on his tymps just before a rather exposed entrance to see the head of the lowest one slowly and inexorably splitting down the middle. Horror-struck and working at breakneck speed, he managed to tune the high tymp an octave above, and instead of D'-A"-D', A"-D'-A", the audience heard D'-A'-D', A'-D'-A'. (I think I have the marks right.) What was so incredible was that he did it in just over a minute.

June 18, 2010

So the sad news came to me by way of Hal.Brevard Festival with H.T. and Hal.sitting around a table with a tablecloth and candles humming,chanting and praying.
We all thought something was going on! Perhaps Heuwell would now be willing to fill us in with direct information.

June 19, 2010
Thank You

Not only is this a beautifully written tribute, it does a great service in correcting a misconception that many of us had about the Stern Grove incident. I too am sorry that the full details of what happened did not surface widely earlier.

June 24, 2010
Tircuit obituary

I have known "Turk" since I was a medical resident at UCSF. In those days in the early seventies, he would take me along, still wearing my hospital whites, when he was reviewing a concert and had an extra ticket. Once, after working all night at the hospital, I was fight to keep from dozing off, and he reassuringly said, "Bob, don't worry. There is more than one way to enjoy a concert - some people enjoy it more with their eyes closed! Remember, you don't have to write about it tomorrow morning."

He remained my friend and guide in matters musical, gastronomic and societal, until the end of his life. He also awakened in me an interest in and love for Japan, which he considered his second home.

At the time of the Stern Grove performance, noted above, he became ill and was subsequently hospitalized at Kaiser Medical Center, where he received medical care through his employment at the San Francisco Chronicle. Electrocardiograms revealed that he had suffered a myocardial infarction. Unfortunately by the time that information was forwarded to the Chronicle, he had already lost his position. I was not his physician at the time, but I do know that during the stress of a heart attack, people do not think clearly. Perhaps as a newspaper man rushing to complete an assignment even though he did not feel well, his mind erroneously filled in blanks, prompted by the program, for what was clouded in his recollection. When the circumstances of his medical state became clear, he was given a medical retirement from the Chronicle, but damage to his career and reputation had already been done.

Fortunately as he recovered, he was able to find ways to use his extensive personal and academic knowledge of music in ways that did not involve the stress of next-day deadlines, first as the major writer for "inTune", a Japanese magazine that comprehensively covered all new classical recordings from Europe, Asia and America and later as classical music critic for the Japanese edition of "Gramofone" magazine.

He was a major influence in supporting and encouraging the best in classical music creation, performance and informed listening, using his special Louisiana-grown wit and humor and his extensive knowledge, gathered in his years as performer, composer, colleague and friend of the major composers and musicians of the twentieth century. He leaves a void that can never quite be filled.

June 24, 2010
Turk was a wonderful man, and

Turk was a wonderful man, and a lot of fun!

June 26, 2010
Loss of a beloved friend

I met "Turkey", as many called him, in 1989; and lived in his apartment briefly the following year. We remained good friends through the time of his passing, and I will always remember him so fondly. He brought me as his guest to many of the performances he reviewed for SFCV, as recently as May of this year; and I would always take him to dinner afterwards. Lately, we had become regulars at NOPA, which he liked very much.

His brain was one of the most extraordinary I have ever encountered, and I tapped into it frequently for insight into all matters musical and gastronomical. He was a teacher for me in a few different areas, and never ceased to fascinate me with how vast the scope of his knowledge was. In the last couple years, I made regular visits with him to learn about "serious music", as he called it. He took me through a chronological retrospective of classical music from the early chants and choral rondos all the way through mid-twentieth century modern composers, and most significant music in between. The passion he had for music just can't be put into words. It was palpable when he was in a musical setting, and I daresay infectious as well.

Turkey's cooking was legendary among those who were at all close to him, or lucky enough to be invited over for a meal. When I lived in his apartment, the Kasseri omelets he made for breakfast were something truly special and unique, as were so many of the southern, regional and international dishes he would prepare. One time, in the early nineties, Turkey and Hal jointly prepared a vegetarian Indian meal for my brother's birthday, which we still discuss to this day. And I will never forget him for introducing me to the beloved, and now sorely missed, Vivande Porta Via on Fillmore Street, near his home, where I became a regular for almost twenty years.

But what I want to share the most is how Turkey was living proof for me how sometimes the best people can have the worst luck. In his later years, he fell on extremely hard times and referred to himself as destitute. Here was an extremely well educated and accomplished man, who was scraping by and downright depressed about it. He suffered terribly from the firing at The Chronicle, especially since the incident was compounded by the above described heart condition (thank you Dr. Bob), and I suppose he never really got over it. He also endured an incredibly heinous crime when he was beaten for hours on end in his own home by intruders and left for dead, only to survive with broken jaws, loss of many teeth, and other severe medical consequences. Of all people who certainly deserved a break in life, he had a really hard time finding one, especially in later years. And I always found that so sad. It just seemed a waste of a brilliant mind, and a foregone resource for the musical world. When he started writing regularly for SFCV, it was a blessing for him to be connected with the world of music in some way. But the massively bad luck he encountered was certainly not deserved by anything he had done, making me really question the concept of karma. I simply can't fathom what this beautiful man could have done in this life, or any other, to deserve such pain and disappointment in life.

Turkey was such a wonderful spirit and a valuable influence on so many people with whom he interacted. His laugh was infectious, his stories riveting, his insight unmatched. You could always count on Turkey. His old fashioned values should be an influence and inspiration to us all. He was a true southern gentleman and a class act all the way. He will be sorely missed and certainly never forgotten. I wish I could tell him one last time how much I appreciated having him in my life. There will simply never be another Heuwell Andrew Beauregard Deschampsverre Tircuit. When he died, he was working on a memoir about his experiences in the musical world with all of the famous people he knew. He would talk about it a lot, and tell me all the juicy gossipy stuff that he would never put in the book. I told him I wanted to piggy back on that effort and tell the “real” story of the debauchery that went on behind the scenes, only to be published after his lifetime. Neither of those books will ever come to print now, and that alone will forever leave a small hole in my heart. But let’s just say that when he passed away, some really interesting secrets about some very famous people went along with him. And out of deference to him, my lips will now remain sealed.

I love you so much, Turkey. You were a damn good friend, the likes of which you just don’t find very often. And I know you knew that; you were just too modest to admit it. But you deserve for the world to know. Well, now at least a few SFCV readers will.

August 6, 2010
Turky's passing away

He was my best friend in California. We met thanks to one of his army buddies who lived in Munchen at the time, so when I got to San Francisco as a student I looked him up. For 6 years we saw each other several times per week.
Turky has had a mayor influence on my life; my deep appreciation of classical music, Japanese haikus and ghost stories, the culture of Japan … the culture of the US and of course we loved to talk about food as I had a hotelschool education and he was first class cook and connoisseur of gastronomy. So many more things I learned from him, and for which I have always felt a lot of gratitude towards him.
He had always been interested in Napoleon and said that his ancestors were sent to Louisiana for helping to prepare his second evasion. This time Napoleon would go to Louisiana first and then back to Europe. We went straight to Napoleon’s mausoleum on his first visit to Paris and Europe. Staying with me in Brussels we visited Waterloo and the Wellington museum where the whole battle is explained. Climbing the hill of the monument to the battle he was overwhelmed by the sacrifice of lives in this terrible battle. The hill supposedly contains the bodies of the dead soldiers.
Another memorable day he cooked rabbit with the Mexican mole sauce for my family as the Christmas dinner. They loved it and still remember it.
Indeed the Stern Grove incident was the big blow from which he never recovered. How he suffered and how he swallowed his pride doing the little jobs he was offered to do after this incidence was hard to bear for his friends.
I remember him in his glory days in the seventies and on our travels together in Europe and South America…and I am very grateful to have known him.
It is a lovely tribute Michael Zwiebach wrote, thank you; and all the other tributes other people wrote, it is heart warming to read them.

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