Saying Farewell to Robert P. Commanday

Janos Gereben on September 4, 2015
Robert Commanday (right) with Gordon Getty and soprano Lisa Delan (Photo by Viva Vivanista)

There is a death in the family.

Robert Paul Commanday, who died September 3 in his Oakland home at age 93, was a prominent presence and inspiring gadfly to generations of musicians, audiences, and journalists.

Initial responses to his passing are coming in from all over the world, but within this publication, the man who established and ran San Francisco Classical Voice 17 years ago is mourned with a sense of personal immediacy and sorrow.

Bob was 75 years old when he concluded a half-century-long career as a music critic, educator, and choral conductor almost all in the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead of retiring, he embarked on a grand adventure: he and his wife, Mary Stevens Commanday, used the nascent web to start an online publication about classical music.

The Commandays secured financial support from Gordon Getty and a few other friends, and they did all the work without salary. Eventually, they recruited writers — guaranteeing them independence, fees and copyright at a time when music coverage in the print media was slowly disappearing — and went on to sustain through thick and frequent instances of thin.

Connecting Bob's past career and his ongoing impact, S.F. Opera General Director David Gockley said today:

Bob Commanday had pretty much retired by the time I arrived in San Francisco in 2006, but I had been aware of him from afar by reading reviews and "think pieces" he wrote about the musical organizations here in the Bay Area.

He was known as a tough, yet ultimately constructive critical presence. He never shied away from confronting an organization with what he thought was its shortcomings, organizationally as well as artistically, and he did not pull punches.

When he retired as chief music critic of the Chronicle I can imagine there was a collective sigh of relief among the organizations on his beat. The apostrophe on his distinguished career was the conceiving and founding of SF Classical Voice, among the first online music journalistic presences. A thriving Classical Voice would be the best way our community can celebrate the life of this journalistic giant. and S.F. Symphony board member John Gambs says:

The presence of Bob's clear, independent and thoughtful voice has informed and shaped musical life in San Francisco for so long it's hard to imagine what it will be like without him.

The Critic facing the Director: a scene from the 1970s, as Robert Commanday once again stood up to the imperious general director of San Francisco Opera, Kurt Herbert Adler (Photo from S.F. Opera archives)

Born in Yonkers, NY, on June 18, 1922, in a Russian-Jewish family, Bob was educated at the Juilliard School of Music, Harvard University, and the University of California; he conducted and taught at Ithaca (NY) College, the University of Illinois, and at UC Berkeley.

During his 30-year career as music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, he served as president of the Music Critics Association of North America twice; received the Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism, the John Swett Award, and was honored as citizen of the year by the Il Cenacolo society and the Harvard Club of San Francisco.

Bob's sense of humor was cherished by all (but aggrieved performers) who knew him , and when it comes to his origins, here's a prime example of that, in response to an article I once sent him, seemingly connecting him with the family of Count Camondo:

My putative ancestor Abraham Camondo, had gone from France to Constantinople to serve as financial adviser to the Sultan who became the last Ottoman emperor. Already wealthy, he made a fortune for the Sultan and for himself. Traveling back, he stopped in Italy and helped finance the Risorgimento for which King Victor Emmanuel made him a count.

As the senior living Camondo, I claim the counthood but, lacking the funds to have a Camondo exhumed and a DNA test made, I cannot prove the connection which is otherwise supported by circumstantial evidence.

Bob enlisted in the Army early in 1943, trained as a cryptanalytic translator of encoded Japanese, and served in that capacity. After the war, in Berkeley, among his many activities, he led the UC Glee Club, "instilling the joys of choral singing in all of us to carry on forward... and that certainly was not limited to singing," says Erich Wolf Stratmann.

Some 100 Glee Clubbers attended a luncheon this Monday (Aug. 31), marking Commanday's leadership that began in 1950. True to form, Bob - who had been using an oxygen tank for some time - spoke at the meeting and participated in conversations about "the good old times," but very much rooted in the present. Says Stratmann:

Bob spoke strongly about why he remained at Cal to our benefit. I don't think Bob did anything more important than to lead the Glee Club. He certainly was the most important male influence in my life, even though I had but one year in the Glee Club. He made it possible in my mind to sing in the Opera Chorus and to form our SingforAmerica chorus.

Robert and Mary Commanday at the Glee Club meeting on Monday - his last public appearance (Photos by Vivien Kane)

Joanne Lafler says of that Monday event, Bob's last public appearance, just three days before his passing:

He rose to lead us in some Cal songs and also "Mon coeur se recommande a vous." You're not going to be in Bob Commanday's presence without singing! He left a great legacy as a musician, music critic, and above all as a teacher. The UC Alumni chorus, created in 1985 by his former undergraduates, is an important part of that legacy.

Music critic Cheryl Bonham Greger North recalls:

Many of my happiest experiences as a student at UC Berkeley during the early 1960s resulted from Bob accepting me as a member of the Treble Clef Singing Group. As music director for both the Men's Glee Club and the Women's Treble Clef Society, he was responsible for introducing our combined choruses to the glories of the great opera choruses, and arranged occasions for us to perform them.

He also introduced us to the the great cellist, composer, and conductor Pablo Casals, who promptly responded by composing a very special piece for us to perform. Bob Commanday, up to the final days of his life, never seemed to forget any of us - even though many of his female students changed last names, hair colors, and sizes.

Commanday speaking at the meeting

San Francisco ex-pat singer-teacher-writer Alexandra Ivanoff writes from Istanbul:

I'm deeply sad to hear this news. My favorite memory of Bob Commanday wasn't so much as a the longtime music reviewer as the moments he spent as a personal donor - giving the gift of his prestigious presence - at my former downtown music series, Noontime Concerts.

He agreed to be a guest speaker at our annual fundraiser at our venue at the time, St. Patrick's Church in Yerba Buena Gardens. Towards the end of the concert, in which I also participated as a singer, he leaped on the stage, grabbed me by the waist, bent me over and kissed me in front of the audience. What better review could I have had than that?

That was a rare episode in the life of a stern, fearless critic. Three years ago, when Bob was honored at an American Bach Soloists event in the S.F Conservatory, S.F. Opera Director of Communications Jon Finck shed light on Bob's role and image on the local scene:

He has been one of the most important music journalists and cultural advocates of the Bay Area. I’ve known Robert and Mary Commanday for 25 years, and have the highest regard for this "First Couple of Classical Music."

I’ve always thought of Robert Commanday as our West Coast version of Addison DeWitt, that wonderful and omnipotent, sardonic and very smart New York theater critic portrayed by George Sanders in the 1950 film classic, All About Eve. It had a brilliant cast that got to perform a bold, bitchy script with some of the most famous lines ever to come out of Hollywood.

Early on in the film, Addison DeWitt opined: "Critics are to an opening night performance what ants are at a picnic. A necessary evil." Shortly after his appointment as general director of San Francisco Opera, Lotfi Mansouri invited me to be the company’s director of press and publicity, and I first met Commanday, the Chronicle’s lead music writer, the dean of the Bay Area press corps, a “king-maker,” the flesh and blood version of Addison DeWitt.

We were introduced, shook hands, exchanged pleasantries of welcome, etc., but that all changed within a few minutes. Bob’s smiley face fell to the floor and on came his serious detective, crime-solving face: “So what about this upcoming production of Handel’s “Giustino? Which edition are you using and why haven’t you announced the casting?”

The rest of the reception is a blur, but I do recall talking to Bob the next day and arranged to have lunch with him at, where else, the Hayes Street Grill. It was the first of many meetings and our relationship bloomed as I gained Robert’s trust to always be responsive and honest to his questions. (Robert always suspected that everyone at the Opera was withholding the truth on most matters regarding casting, production, expenses and the like.)

In his round-up of the Opera’s 1991 fall season, Robert wrote in the Chronicle: "Two-thirds of the season’s productions were not good enough. Mansouri has had the chance to make ours the country’s leading opera company, and it’s not happening. Enough money’s being spent. Enough tickets are being sold. The problem is a limited vision combined with a tolerance for less than the artistic best in musical and production aspects.”

Bob’s opinion/feature stories were always something to behold... and fear. Without advance warning, there was a two page story in the Sunday PINK section with Bob taking on the global forces who would thwart his dream of a greater and more fulfilling Bay Area artistic world. No one was spared. Holding a board’s feet to the fire for allowing certain programming to go forward was always mentioned, or that the big three were not doing enough to incorporate local Bay Area composers, or reminding them of their basic leadership role as the stewards of the arts organization they served. It was tough medicine.

Bob himself spoke of the role of the critic in his farewell commentary of 1993 in the Chronicle:

Commanday with his daughter, Michal

I don’t regret or withdraw a single carping article or castigating review. The standards I had held to were not set by me but by the works and the art form first and then by the artists and performing institution themselves. They also are measured by what we have come to expect of them and what they claim and aim to be.

In that sense, evaluating is an act of respect. A symphony, opera or ballet company can’t aspire to be "world class" (a ridiculous term in any event) and profess it in the publicity and then feel it should not be judged on those terms.

If we’re tough, it’s because we care, which serves as the same basis for our enthusiasm and praise. It’s the caring we share, not any particular opinions. Agreeing isn’t what matters.

The best reward has been the sense I’ve gotten that you readers get that point. That’s why ours is such a great audience and why it must inspire the performers.

Besides Mary Commanday, Bob is survived by a son, David, a symphony conductor in Illinois and his children, Beau, Lark, and Star; daughter Michal, a garden designer, and her daughter, Elisabeth Commanday Swim, singer, music and movement coach in Houston, TX; stepson Tom Stevens and stepdaughter Anne Stevens. Bob's stepson and Mary Commanday's son, John Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, was killed in Benghazi in 2012.