“Thirty-Onederfuls,” Number One: How It All Began

The tale of how I was “discovered in Hollywood” by a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic


November 1, 2019 marks 31 years since my first published review, and it is only fitting that my first (long-delayed!) entry in my memoir-ish series of “Thirty-Onederfuls” should tell the story of how it all began.

Besides, my beloved and ever-patient wife has grown so tired of hearing me tell it again and again that from now on I can just refer new acquaintances and colleagues to this link (assuming she’s not with me of course!).

By 1988, I was living in Canoga Park, CA, having moved there in June, 1981 from Boston. Two years of graduate work in clarinet performance and two more years of failing to launch the performing career eventually led to the move out West, to marry my first wife. Performance work was still elusive in Los Angeles, and teaching was problematic, but I did end up with a true cottage industry that took on a life of its own: music appreciation for adults.

Beginning in 1984, my little classes grew to near-capacity—which meant 18 adults in our living room, which opened up into the dining room, where resided our baby grand 1905 Chickering piano. Eventually I had as many as three weeknight classes that each ran for six or seven weeks, and one-time Saturday events that really packed them in. Since I was paying the bills by working for an electrical wholesaler, I could try whatever I wanted: “Music to Die For—the Great Requiems,” or “Amadeus, the Film: Musical Fact or Fiction?” I had been blessed by some great and unexpected articles in the Los Angeles Times and the LA Daily News.

It was around the beginning of 1988 that a new couple began attending, Joe and Davia. And I mean they started to come to everything, at least one, sometimes two series and most Saturdays. It wasn’t until about six months had gone by that Joe told me the rest of the story: he was one of the newer board members of the Los Angeles Music Center, and while he had always loved classical music, he had no background in it at all. When he found me, he figured he could play a little catch up.

The pivotal moment came in September: Joe told one night after class that the next Sunday he was going to attend a thank-you to fundraisers event sponsored by the Los Angeles Music Chorale. Would I like to attend as his guest? The hook: the guest speaker would be Martin Bernheimer, music critic of the Los Angeles Times. Would I??!! I had been reading Bernheimer since I moved to LA, and was well aware of the fact that not long after I got to town, Bernheimer became the second music critic to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Although he was only 52 years old back in 1988, Bernheimer (pictured above) already was labeled by some as a curmudgeon. After seven years of reading his reviews, I just knew that he was a tough critic with high standards—with an amazing gift for using words to communicate insightfully about art forms that (save for opera) were wordless.

At the Sunday afternoon event, Bernheimer in person was disarmingly charming. I was hoping for just a few minutes afterward, with two things on my mind. The first was: What did he really think of supertitles (as they were called then; now they are surtitles) for opera? From what he had said in print recently, he seemed to almost take an ivory tower approach—opera goers should do their homework before they attend, and for those who had, supertitles proved distracting. In person, he admitted they were a necessary evil; whatever the downsides may be, they could only help build audiences in the long run.

The second thing was to give him copies of the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News articles about my classes. I was quick to inform him that I had not written these articles, but they were about the classes I had been teaching. “I’d just like you to know that the San Fernando Valley is not the complete cultural desert it’s assumed to be!” He graciously accepted the clippings, and I went home thinking how much fun it would be to share with my students what the great critic was like in person.

The next day was just another Monday selling circuit breakers and wire, until I got home and the phone rang around 6. It was Martin. There wasn’t any contact info for me in the articles I had given him, but then again, I’m pretty sure I was the only “Hettmansberger” in the Los Angeles White Pages.

He came right to the point: “I read the articles you gave me, and recalled our little chat, and wondered if you might be interested in the possibility of becoming a freelance critic for the Times.”

I was stunned, and said the first thing that popped in my head: “You know, I’ve always loved to write, but I’ve never written professionally.”

His response was a long, hearty laugh. “That has nothing to do with it!”

His “audition assignment” was pretty open-ended: “Choose two different concerts, pretend that I sent you to write about them, and send it to me. Take as much time as you need, there’s no deadline.”

The next phone call was to my friend Mark, who had been one of my first and most passionate students, for at least five years. Single, in his mid-30s and a bus driver for LA Metro, Mark spent most of his disposable income on classical music concerts and CDs; he was the first person I knew to own over 1,000 CDs. When I told him of my conversation with Bernheimer, he said “Perfect! The Kronos Quartet is playing at UCLA Friday night.”

The Kronos Quartet? That was pure Mark. Still rising on the crest of fame from their founding in 1973, the group was known for exclusively playing music by 20th century composers, and increasingly, music written just for them. Still, Mark talked me into it, partly because I hit upon the perfect antidote: an upcoming concert by the West Valley Symphony. A community orchestra I had come to know and had just started giving pre-concert lectures for, I knew the WVS repertoire would be familiar territory after Kronos. (Madison readers can get a gauge of this group by thinking of the Middleton Community Orchestra).

Buried somewhere in a file in a box I still have hard copy of the “reviews” I sent to Martin, but off the top of my head, I don’t recall too many details. Over the years I officially reviewed Kronos more than once for other publications, and a couple of their CDs. I don’t know for sure if they played George Crumb’s “Black Angels” that night in UCLA (although I know I heard them do it live at some point), but I do remember their amplified encore of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” and writing about the decidedly non-traditional audience that packed Royce Hall.

But I do remember one of the more salient points about both reviews: the Kronos piece was about 3 pages, typed and double-spaced, the WVS, two pages. I dropped them in the mail around October 15 before a week’s vacation in Seattle, and not long after I got home, Martin called again.

“You said a lot of good things in your reviews—they’re just way too long. But that’s ok. We can teach you how to do it ‘LA Times’ style. When can you come to my office to talk about it?”

Within a few days I was in downtown Los Angeles, entering the Los Angeles Times building for the first time. At once there was a distinctive smell that I assumed came from the printing presses; it was like an elixir to me. As I found my way to Martin’s office, I walked past and through dozens of cubicles, and couldn’t help but notice the area of sportswriters—I wouldn’t have minded talking to them too…

As always, Martin was succinct and gave me an overview of how things worked in LA Times land. One of the other classical staffers (usually Dan Cariaga or John Henken) would call with an assignment and see if I was available. If I was, I would get myself to the event on time, and when it was done, drive straight to the Times office and write the review at once. I’d save it and print out hard copy, and of course give it a headline (although Martin said don’t be upset by the fact that the editor usually changed the headline). He said that most of my reviews would be six inches, or six to eight inches. I looked at him blankly; how many words was that? He wasn’t sure, so he grabbed a section of paper and showed me. I gulped; the space looked incredibly small to describe a two-hour concert in any meaningful detail. Still, I was game and he said I was on board.

Within a day or two I got a call for my first assignment: a piano recital at Cal State Northridge. Ironically, it was only a few miles from where I lived; the drive to and from downtown LA to write the review was a good fifty miles round trip. The event was unusual, and I was glad to know that I was given the contact number of the event organizer at CSUN. It turned out to be a performance by a second replacement of the originally scheduled artist. Here’s some perspective for you: the Los Angeles Times was going to review an obscure Cuban pianist who was “third choice” so to speak; in fact, the Times had three full time music writers, and if memory serves, I was the sixth freelancer also contributing. Thus I refer to the late 1980s as the end of the last golden age of arts coverage in print.

When I spoke to the man at the college, my pre-concert nerves probably spiked higher than the performer’s: he rattle off a list of mostly short pieces by a wide range of Spanish, Mexican and Central and South American composers. Probably more than half of the names I knew, but few of the works. I was going to hear most of them for the first time, once, and then tell the world, via the Los Angeles Times, how good it was…

Somehow I survived. The pianist was Nohema Fernandez, her playing was quite good, clearly idiomatic and secure technically, and the drive to and from the Times building seemed a lot shorter than the time I sat at the computer terminal. Fortunately, the software told me how many “inches” I had used, and I think I brought it in just a touch over. My headline: “Pinch-hit Pianism by Nohema Fernandez.”

The next day Dan Cariaga called to go over the editing over the phone (this was standard procedure for the freelancers; only major events like opera, ballet and symphony openings—most of which were covered by Bernheimer—ran immediately in the next day’s paper). The only real quibble was in my last line; describing Fernandez’s encore I wrote “Joyous sparks flew everywhere.”

“Sparks can’t be joyous,” Dan informed me. But he did allow “Sparks joyously flew everywhere.”

The following day, November 1, 1988 I grabbed the paper off the doormat and flipped through the arts section…and there it was! “Pinch-hit Pianism by Nohema Fernandez.” They had even used my headline. I probably bought ten or more copies and clipped half of them to send to relatives and friends.

Martin called me in for one more meeting—literally. “If you see or hear from me much after this, it’s probably not good news.” He just wanted a follow-up chat about the experience of my first review, and talk about my next one, which was to cover the USC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Larry Livingston. “Now you understand,” Martin said, “that you can’t treat this group like they’re the LA Philharmonic. They are students, and not all of them will become professional musicians.” That was my thought exactly—although it was a bit disconcerting to hear Martin wearing kid gloves, if I may mix my metaphors.

The concert was most enjoyable, and with great self-satisfaction I typed the lede I had written in my head as I had driven to the Times offices. “Take a medium-sized batch of tender yet skilled musicians, mix in (etc).”

The next day Dan Cariaga called to edit with me over the phone. It went well, then he asked me to hold for a couple of minutes. When he came back he said, “Martin said to tell you that you’re allowed one cooking/food metaphor per year—and you just used yours.”

Dan ended up editing three-fourths or more of the review I wrote over the next two  years, and I learned more from him than from any other person. There was one more review that caught Martin’s eye early on. It was probably about the sixth I wrote, in the first part of January, 1989. I was assigned to cover the Empire Brass Quintet, performing on the Queen Mary, in those days docked at Long Beach, California. The experience itself would have been special enough, but the concert itself totally blew me away. The group—to my ears, the equal of the Canadian Brass musically, and with a less over-the-top stage dynamic than the so-called “Marx Brothers of music”—played every style imaginable, and with impeccable technique, precision and style. Renaissance, Dixieland and everything in between; even an arrangement of a Fritz Kreisler violin showpiece arranged for the French horn! I felt breathless as I drove the office to write…how was I going to describe this level of perfection in 6-8 inches??

This time Dan and I were on the phone a lot longer. “Listen,” he said, “classical music reviewing is not a ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ business. And you can’t make the reader feel like, ‘boy, you should have been there last night—you really missed it!’ Obviously you heard a great performance; I’ll help you write a rave review.”

And so he did, and then he went off to run it past Martin. This time when he came back he said, “Well, Martin read the review and said, ‘Sounds like Greg had an orgasm at the concert last night.’ ‘Actually, before I edited it, it was more like two.’”

Nevertheless, Martin didn’t call me back into his office, indeed I never saw him there again. I wrote for two years, and there was little or anything to cover in the summer. As Labor Day, 1990 came and went, I anxiously waited for my next assignment. It was until early October that John Henken called—the Times decided it was time to start cutting staff, and they weren’t going to need as many freelancers anymore. I may have been the first, but certainly wasn’t the last. As it turns out, being let go by the Times was a huge blessing in disguise, as I ended up in early 1991 writing for LA Weekly.

But that’s a whole other story…and there is a great punch line to my encounters with Martin. Sometime in the mid-1990s I was covering the Ojai Festival for one paper or another (I covered ten consecutive Ojai Festivals, but for at least four different papers, and I can’t place the years of this anecdote precisely).

At any rate, my good friend Mark was there (he had been going to Ojai long before I ever went), and we were walking out of the small natural outdoor area that seated about 1700 people, as I recall. We had heard something even more extraordinary than what was usual for that cherished event, but instead of recalling the performance, I just remember Mark spotting Bernheimer among the crowd. He rushed up to him, “Mr. Bernheimer, wasn’t that performance incredible?!” Martin gave Mark his stern critic’s stare and without missing a beat said, “I don’t know—I haven’t read the review yet!”

Thanks, Martin, for taking a chance on me and launching a lifelong avocation/vocation that neither of us imagined would end up here. Blessings upon you and your work, and may it live long as an example of passion delivered with precision.

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