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Remembering Michael Steinberg

Beethoven put too many fermatas in his music.

I remember thinking this as I listened to Michael Steinberg explain — in wondrously interesting detail — the controversy surrounding a fermata placed over an E flat for the first violins in the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3.

In musical notation, a fermata, or “hold,” is a sign indicating that a note should receive a prolongation of its time value at the performer’s (or conductor’s) discretion. How long to hold it? Ah, there’s the controversy — especially when it’s one of Beethoven’s fermatas. He wrote a lot of them, including ones placed on the fourth notes of the repeated motif that begins his Symphony No. 5.

Did this, coupled with a blank measure that followed, justify a pronounced slowing — a molto ritardando — in the second statement of the famous “victory” motif? Steinberg talked about that, too.

All this took place about 30 years ago when the Jerome Foundation brought Steinberg to the Twin Cities to conduct a symposium for local classical music critics. At the time, he had a stellar reputation based on his work as a critic for the Boston Globe and as a publishing official with the Boston Symphony.

His knowledge of the classical repertoire was encyclopedic, but his enthusiastic joy for music was the thing that carried you along. Discussing music was something he did without pretense, and listening to him was like hearing Bach: Everything seemed to fit together and make sense. There was a genuine affirmation to him.

Steinberg, who died of cancer on Sunday at the age of 80, went on to work for the San Francisco Symphony, where he met and married the band’s associate concertmaster, Jorja Fleezanis. They moved to Minneapolis 20 years ago when she became concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Those who attended Minnesota Orchestra concerts soon became familiar with Steinberg’s detailed, yet accessible program notes. Many were taken from the books he wrote during the last 15 years: “The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide,” “The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide” and “Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide.” His last book, “For the Love of Music,” came out in 2006.

Fleezanis left the orchestra last month to take a teaching job at Indiana University, and Steinberg briefly considered an offer to teach there as well. But it was not to be. He was living in a hospice in Edina when he died Sunday.

Steinberg’s family will be receiving friends at their riverfront condominium on Tuesday from 4 to 8 p.m. Memorial concerts to celebrate his life are being planned in San Francisco and Minneapolis.

His words survive him, of course. Millions have heard him speak on public radio and from the stages of symphony halls around the country. His books should remain in print as long as there are people who buy season tickets. And a fortunate few of us got the chance to spend hours listening and interacting with him at symposiums like the one I attended three decades ago.

The other memory of that occasion was the disappointment Steinberg expressed when he found out that I couldn’t go with the group he was taking to hear the Minnesota Orchestra perform Beethoven’s Third (which is why we had spent so much time on fermatas). At the time I covered both theater and classical music for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and there was a Guthrie opening that night, so I had to make a choice.

From the look on Steinberg’s face, it was clear he thought I’d made the wrong one. I had the chance to attend a later performance, but Steinberg knew it would be different. Every performance of Beethoven — or any composer, for that matter — is a new one. For people like Steinberg, every note was such a discovery.

You can read some of Michael Steinberg’s obituaries here (San Francisco Chronicle), here (Star Tribune), here (Boston Globe), and here (Los Angeles Times).

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