A year ago, moving to Portland would have seemed inconceivable to me. I was born in New York City and apart from four years at Syracuse University, where I earned degrees in music and journalism, I had never lived anywhere else. Why would I? By the time I left Syracuse, I was writing about music and musicians, and reviewing concerts and recordings, and I believed that for those things, New York was the place to be. The local ensembles were plentiful and renowned, and the world’s greatest orchestras, chamber groups and soloists paraded through Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center week after week.

I also had the best job you can have, if pontificating about music is what you want to do. I began writing for The New York Times as a freelancer when I was just out of college, and I eventually became a staff critic. According to the paper’s database, between 1977 and my departure in 2014, I wrote more than 7,000 articles, including interviews, reviews and critic’s notebooks, covering every corner of the classical music world – and on the Beatles, a non-classical specialty that the paper’s pop critics ceded to me. (Jon Pareles, the Times’ chief pop critic, speaking to a class at the Juilliard School, once said that “The New York Times is the only newspaper in the country with a dedicated Beatles desk, and it’s in the classical music department.”)

Leaving the Times was not easy, but I began considering the prospect in 2012, when the paper’s culture editor thought it would be interesting to redefine my job, transforming me into a general culture reporter. But instead of leaving, I decided to give it a try, and it proved an interesting challenge. Just after I began my new job, Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and among its casualties was the Chelsea art gallery district. When the rain and flooding stopped, I wandered from gallery to gallery, surveying the ruined artworks and interviewing distraught gallery owners for a report on the scope of the devastation and what the gallery owners saw as their short- and long-term prospects. In the weeks that followed, I covered conferences on art restoration and explored the remedies (insurance and otherwise) available to artists and galleries.

Usually, the job was more cheerful. No longer bound to cover a single musical style, I was able to interview several pop musicians I had long admired, mostly from the artier side of rock – among them, John Cale, Bryan Ferry, Van Dyke Parks and Donovan. When I began writing the daily ArtsBeat news column, I was able to explore corners of the visual arts, theater, television and film worlds that I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to during my years as a music critic. I was also free to devote space in the column to composers and performers – especially new-music performers – who would not have gotten coverage otherwise.

But between the items that fascinated me, I was bound to cover stories I had no real interest in, and that I didn’t even consider to be arts coverage. Justin Bieber’s misbehavior, the lawsuits swirling around Chris Brown, the arrest of a minor heavy-metal singer charged with trying to have his ex-wife murdered, and anything at all about Andrew Lloyd Webber fell into that category. So when the Times decided to pare down its staff by offering a generous buyout package, at the end of 2014, I weighed the prospect of several more years of Bieber coverage against never having to think about that miscreant again. I took the severance pay, and my wife and I began looking at houses outside Manhattan.

I hadn’t figured on finding one five hours from Manhattan and in what is apparently Red Sox country. But my wife, Paula, grew up in Maine and has family here, and she included Portland in her search radius. On New Year’s Day, when we were up for a family visit, we walked through a house that we both found irresistible. We moved at the end of April, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment.


I wasn’t entirely sure what I would do in Portland, although I brought some work with me. Days after I left the Times, the Wall Street Journal came calling, and that paper seemed happy to send me wherever I found something worth writing about: My first piece for the Journal was about a new-music festival in San Francisco. Clearly, I didn’t need to be in New York to resume my career as a critic. Other freelance jobs – liner notes for recordings, program book articles, interviews – were stacking up as well.

Paula and I batted around the idea of starting a culture magazine once we settled in, and having taught at New York University for 11 years, I figured I could probably give a course or two somewhere. I had some book ideas as well, to add to my current publication list, which includes two books about the Beatles (“The Beatles – From the Cavern to the Rooftop” and “Got That Something: How The Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ Changed Everything”), the classical section of “The Guitar: The History, The Players, The Music,” a biography, “Mischa Elman and the Romantic Style” and a CD guide, “The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music.”

And since our house has enough room for me to put together a modest recording studio, I planned to get back to composing and recording, something I’d done in my younger years, before working for the Times gradually consumed most of my waking hours. I could, perhaps, just retire into a life as a gentleman composer.

Then the Press Herald called with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Since I’d be in Portland, and would undoubtedly be exploring Maine’s musical life anyway, why not review concerts for the paper? It made sense. If you’ve written about music all your life, you have an inherent need to be part of the cultural conversation, wherever you live.

That raised the question of how to cover music in Portland. Do I hold the Portland Symphony Orchestra, for example, to the same standard I would bring to performances by the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? I won’t know for sure until I hear Robert Moody conduct the PSO’s season opener, a hefty program that includes Dvorak’s “Carnival” Overture, Beethoven’s First Symphony and, with the Choral Art Society, Berlioz’s Te Deum (Oct. 11 and 13 at Merrill Auditorium).

But my theoretical answer is “yes and no.” Helpful, right? Actually, the “no” is purely technical, and the “yes” is interpretive. If the sound I hear is not the finely burnished sound that the world’s great orchestras produce, perhaps that’s to be expected, given that those ensembles play four concerts and several rehearsals every week, with both their music directors and an often starry roster of guest conductors. That said, the standard of musical education is extraordinarily high in the United States these days, and young players with polished techniques are pouring out of conservatories and finding jobs in orchestras everywhere. So it should not be surprising to find (or, for that matter, to expect) that the performance level of a regional orchestra is quite high.


The “yes” part of the answer gets closer to the essence of music reviewing, as I see it. Reviewing musical performances is not really about comparing them to other performances you’ve heard. It’s about whether the ensemble or soloist gets to the heart of the composer’s score, and ideally, tells you something fresh or surprising about a piece that you may have heard a gazillion times and thought you knew well.

It isn’t a matter of getting all the notes and markings right. It’s about the level of thought and originality the musicians bring to the score as a whole. After all, Gustav Mahler singled out the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg as the best interpreter of his music, yet if you listen to Mengelberg’s recording of the Mahler Fourth Symphony, you can’t help but notice that he deviates from Mahler’s expression markings dozens of times within the first few pages. But it’s a great recording, and it illuminates the real question critics deal with: Whether the performers are absolutely faithful to the score, or take liberties with it, is the resulting performance spiritually, intellectually or emotionally satisfying? Is it a moving experience, or simply perverse – or worse, is it bland and inert?

But enough theory. I’ve spent the last few weeks looking over concert schedules, and there are a number of concerts I’m looking forward to hearing this fall.

One is a recital by Rafal Blechacz, a 30-year old Polish pianist who has made some fine recordings (on the Deutsche Grammophon label) in the 10 years since he won the International Chopin Competition, in Warsaw. Last year, Blechacz won the Gilmore Artist Prize, a prestigious award given by an anonymous jury of music professionals who judge a pianist’s work over several months, rather than at a competition, and who tend to prize musicality over flashiness. His program includes works by Bach, Beethoven and, not surprisingly, Chopin (Oct. 4, Merrill Auditorium, presented by Portland Ovations).

The Friends of the Kotzshmar Organ will be keeping up their tradition of offering Halloween concerts at which the master improviser Tom Trenney accompanies a classic silent horror film with his own organ score. Following on last year’s accompaniment to “The Phantom of the Opera,” Trenney will bring his imagination and dexterity to “Nosferatu,” F. W. Murnau’s 1922 adaptation of the Dracula story, starring Max Schreck (Oct. 30, Merrill Auditorium).

The Da Ponte String Quartet, which presents an annual series in Portland, is performing the greatest of Dmirtri Shostakovich’s 15 quartets – the Eighth in C minor (Op. 110) – as the centerpiece of its opening program. The program also includes a late Mozart quartet, and the Quartet No. 1 by Erwin Schulhoff, a Jewish-Czech composer whose promising career was cut short when the Nazis came to power, labeled his works as “degenerate,” and shipped him off to the Wülzburg concentration camp, where he died of tuberculosis in 1942 (Nov. 5, the Jewish Museum).


Along with its opening concert (noted above), the Portland Symphony Orchestra has a couple of inviting programs scheduled for the fall, both conducted by Moody. The first includes Haydn’s Symphony No. 69, a suite from Prokofiev’s “Cinderella,” with choreography by Roberto Forleo, and “An Alice Symphony,” one of David Del Tredici’s series of works inspired by Lewis Carroll (Nov. 10, Merrill Auditorium; there are also two performances of the Del Tredici at children’s concerts earlier the same day). The second opens with “Carnival Fever” by the young composer Cynthia Lee Wong, and also includes Stravinsky’s “Petroushka” and the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, with William Wolfram as the soloist (Nov. 22, Merrill Auditorium).

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:


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