“No one today can match the limpid elegance and intellectual precision of his style, which recalls the heyday of Virgil Thomson.”   – The New Yorker 

“Holland has a remarkable ability to conjure up the essence of a composer or a piece of music in a few deftly chosen words. He is, I think, an aphorist of unparalleled virtuosity.”                                                – San Francisco Chronicle

“Perhaps the most important of this town’s arbiters.” – The Independent

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AMAZON REVIEWS: On the Haters Trail

/Beth Wareham

I own a publishing company (with the magnificent Lisa Hagan, write books, edit books, work on film treatments and develop  television shows. It’s a living, sort of.

I find myself in my first role – that of publisher – checking Amazon reviews and rankings frequently. I build author pages for them. When it comes to amazon, I’m around.

So, imagine my delight when I bumped into the one-star review of the above book by one Barry Burek on amazon. One star?  Almost thirty years of criticism, interviews and reporting in the greatest newspaper on Earth gets one star? What is Mr Burek sniffing?

Unfortunately for him, he was like a cat hiding behind the curtain with his tail sticking out. A quick click on his name showed a trail of meticulous, often mentally-disturbed, reviews of an hilarious range of products.


He gives one star to Bernard Holland’s thirty years at The New York Times because Holland was a “professional leech”. This would be news to his employers who received 4600 reviews from him, including several Pulitzer Prize nominations. Sorry, Barry. No go on that one. He calls Mr Holland a bunch more names, which made Mr Holland laugh. As he  said, “haters mean I’m doing my job right.” So, according to Barry, don’t buy that book. According to Mr Holland, get a Barry Burek and feel like you’ve arrived.

Did I tell you Barry Burek creates an alter ego named “Lola” to answer himself? When he dolls out a single star, Lola backs him up. Barry is picky, and kind of a coward, it seems.

An organic sea salt got a whopping 5 stars from Barry because it tasted good and was EASY TO USE. I worry now that Barry has flippers instead of hands.

Intimately aware of his shoe size after reading his shopping history, the Santa Cruz slip-on-loafers were pretty good – 4 stars – but lost that star because, after arriving on May 20, Barry pushed his big toe through one on July 18. His perforated garden clogs lost one of their stars because they were not the originals, they were way cheaper. (And this is the clogs fault because….?) Barry’s Pali Hawaii Classic Jesus Sandals (brown, 12) take a direct hit of a few stars because Barry is really a 10 1/2 D and the 11 he ordered was TOO SMALL. He then ordered the 12 and it was TOO NARROW. What a world, Barry!

On a book about dementia, Barry let loose in the vein of his diatribe against Holland. (Classical music and deteriorating neural pathways are Barry’s hot spot?) His one star was followed with a cascade of name-calling and vitriol. The sane came out of the bushes and said “You need help, Barry. Please get it now. There is no shame in mental illness.” Predictably, Lola showed up to defend Barry.

Remember the next time you read those heaps and piles of unchecked reviews on amazon, most of them are silly. They are about the emotions and prejudices of the writer and not productive criticism. That is a skill and an art in itself that people like Barry Burek can’t imagine.

But he did like the wine stoppers and cat litter he ordered. Take note.

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Forging Sound into Words

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An Interview with Bernard Holland

After almost 30 years as music critic of The New York Times, Bernard Holland weighs in on everything from Cosima Wagner’s diaries to Springsteen and the overuse of the meaningless word “great.”



Q. You rarely go to concerts or operas. Does this mean you are tired of music?

A: I’m not tired of music. I’m tired of the music world. In retirement I see classical music from the outside and not as a practitioner. It looks pretty artificial from out here. I’m tired of audiences bullied into ritual obedience  – sit in the dark and shut up; don’t make noise unless I say so; Music up on a stage. Listeners sitting in the dark terrified of coughing, foot shuffling or program rattling; musicians dressed up like waiters.

I have no idea how to fix this.I just went to a friend’s recital and heard five Schubert songs. They were so beautiful I nearly cried..

Q: Do you read about music? Do you keep up with what’s going on?

A: To a degree. Writing coherently about music is rare; I like to see how others do it these days. The doings of the Geffens, or music directors on the move or backstage backstabbing at the Met doesn’t get me going anymore. I pick up Cosima Wagner’s diaries every few years. Fascinating. I may actually finish this winter.

Q: What are you listening to?.

A: Not a lot. Having music going on in the background all day would drive me nuts. You listen or you don’t. I do more at our summer house in Canada . I like CBC2 radio in the car. At night I shuffle through odd piles of cds. Lots of Linda Ronstadt (purest voice I ever heard), Frank Sinatra (I am in awe), Little Richard (amazing for about 10 minutes), and then Haydn string quartets, Schubert piano sonatas. I always go back to Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. I like Shirley Horn depending on how much scotch I’ve had. There’s nothing quite as beautiful as the mourning doves in our East Village garden.

Q: What are you reading?

A: Just finished, the new George W. Bush bio, some Balzac and Teffi negotiating the new Soviet order. Next Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell”, Joe Lelyveld’s Roosevelt book, Robert Gottlieb on editing, and especially the new Bruce Springsteen. I don’t expect it to be like Keith Richards’ “Life” (the first chapter of which is among the funniest things I have ever read.) Richards is the sardonic observer. Springsteen is the guts and the nerve endings of a culture. Much to do.

Q: Who are the greatest composers?

A: Someone told me recently about a colleague who is writing a book on what makes great music great. Posited, I assume, is a greatness gene, some rare chemical compound that separates the Fortnum and Masons of music from all the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery Stores of Garrison Keillor fame.

It’s a fool’s errand. “Great” is another one of those aerated buzzwords that float beloved into the stratosphere and mean nothing.“Great” seems to invoke size (lots off people like It) and durability (they like it for a long time).

I remember sitting in the Beverly Hills kitchen of a friend and denigrating Arnold Schoenberg’s limited appeal for later generations to Leonard Stein, who was Schoenberg’s longtime assistant and advocate. My argument: history says Schoenberg is great but very few people listen to him. Stein: that Schoenberg deeply moves only a small number of people in no way minimizes his worth or status.

Leonard Stein is right. I am wrong. Technology makes me even wronger. The number of seats filled at Carnegie Hall is not the measure it used to be. The hierarchies of “greatness” are now many and hand-held. We are not one audience agreeing on what is great. We are millions of play lists, each with its own decider.

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Is Classical Music Funny? 25 Ideas from SOMETHING I HEARD by Bernard Holland


Something I Heard, Bernard Holland, music critic for New York Times, classical music criticism

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“Holland has a remarkable ability to conjure up the essence of a composer or a piece of music in a few deftly chosen words. He is, I think, an aphorist of unparalleled virtuosity.”
— San Francisco Chronicle

“No one today can match the limpid elegance and intellectual precision of his style…”
— The New Yorker

/Bernard Holland

The day I put “music critic” after my name people started asking me about music. Before that no one asked my opinion about anything.

He is the most interesting Bach player in memory, but when taken as a model of how Bach should sound, he is a catastrophe. People who blow up buildings get our attention, and sometimes their messages clean out our heads, but we don’t let them be architects.

They will no more grow than Mother Nature will take the liver spots off my hands. We have grown old together.

There’s a more relevant question behind the one that asks why so few black musicians go into classical music, and that is: Why should they want to?

If the early music movement taught us anything it is that all music is contemporary.

The tango is sublimated warfare. It rarely smiles. Elegance, ritual and a deep dignity win out over darker impulses. In a single Argentine dance form the universal paradoxes of romance between two human beings seem to gather.

I would trade some Strauss, most of Hindemith and even a little Brahms for the first eight bars of “April in Paris.”

One wonders what kind of music Carter would have written had he, like Haydn, lived his teenage years in frightening poverty.

“My music isn’t modern. It’s just played badly.”

In the green hills of North Carolina on Saturday night, the lion lay down with the lamb. A reputed sower of discord communed with a maker of harmony. Louis Farrakhan, meet Felix Mendelssohn.

Gabriele Schnaut’s Brünnhilde bore down on the helpless listener like a sopranic freight train threatening derailment at any moment. Her Siegfried (Wolfgang Schmidt) could offer only strangled desperation. When we were lucky, Mr. Schmidt landed on no pitch at all, creating a kind of 19th-century German Romantic rap.

The Brant aesthetic, when brought under a roof, shrinks to a form of encirclement. Here the audience, Custer-like, receives incoming fire from every direction.

Wagner lovers are besotted people, like the sharers of some extraterrestrial visitation who are compelled to gather in cities like Seattle, Vienna, New York, San Francisco and, of course, Bayreuth to trade sightings.

When doom is announced on Monday but does not arrive until Saturday, the “Ring” and its audiences are captives in time, forming a kind of space capsule in which listeners are as much crew members as the performers.

Mr. Sellars takes his usual role as honorary member and emotional spokesman for the oppressed and the slighted. It must gall him at times to be so showered with attention and success.

The brothel scene steams with bare skin, gyrating pudenda and simulated (I think) copulation.

The sorrows of this story’s title lie in togetherness and loneliness made to stand side by side.

A Beethoven sonata begins at the front door, takes a trip, meets new friends, goes home. A Scelsi piece closes the front door and digs in the basement.

Gorgeous to look at but virtually uninhabited, the Metropolitan Opera’s new ”Traviata” seems to have been the victim of a neutron bomb.

This building is cursed and should be leveled. It doesn’t need an architect. It .needs an exorcist.

Perhaps a more apt title for these events would be “Three Tenors, One Conductor and Four Accountants.”

Bruckner is a Mozart sonata that ate too much.

All of us should go home, find a dark room, sit down and be silent.

That leap from ”understand” to ”appreciate” is long and blind.

You do not keep “Das Liêd von der Erde” together by snapping your fingers like Harry James.

Good acoustics, like a good haircut, go unnoticed.
Acoustics are to music what bookbinding and typeface are to Faulkner. If our minds are doing their work, Faulkner’s voice will sound the same in the roughest, smallest and most unwelcoming old paperback as it does in the most luxurious special edition.

Look no farther than Leopold Stokowski who managed to pack his dessert-like sound into a suitcase and carry it from city to city.

The critic’s duty is to report that Mr. Bocelli is not a very good singer.

Just as we put up our umbrellas, the sun comes out. We don’t know whether to be happy or sad, and so we are both.

Critics may speak German or English but they can’t speak music. Music is sublimely illiterate

Messiaen invented a Christianity with no missionaries and a congregation of one.

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To order book or ebook, click on title: Something I Heard

/Beth Wareham

Being married to a legend has it’s downside. When our wedding announcement ran in the New York Times, a publishing colleague remarked “I didn’t know you knew Bernard Holland.” Yeah, lady, I knew him. Every inch. But I wasn’t pitching him books. I had bigger fish to fry.

When I traveled with him, people would elbow me out of the way to get at him. Young music students would trail him at events and I would whisper in his ear “you make me famous, I suck your dickee.” No one thought I was funny but me and I kept myself amused at the edges of these “high culture” events.

As his wife, the legend took me everywhere and taught me how to be a woman of the world. I stood at the Bebelplatz in Berlin where Hitler’s brown shirts burned thousands of books just before I walked into the Staatsoper to hear Wagner. I sat on the water at Puccini’s house on a tiny lake in Italy where he lived, composed, and hunted ducks. He took me to Havana for a string of concerts with the visiting Milwaukee Symphony; I met Royalty on the manicured gardens at Glyndebourne and then watched the bloody despair of Berg’s Lulu inside.

Fast forward twenty years. I own a publishing company and it was time to put out some of this huge body of work. BUT WAIT! The New York Times owns 4600 of my legend’s bylines. That’s about a 2000 page book right there, I thought. I rolled my eyes. I would have to penetrate the Times wall to get permissions, a task that even Pinch Sulzberger would find hard. But luckily, we found the great Sam Sifton and he, well, sorted it out.

Next came assessing all those critiques into a larger whole that would paint an incomplete picture of classical music albeit a tantalizing one. Working with my legend, we chose reviews whose music led to discussions of real life: love triangles, serial killers, power grabs, lying, cheating, love, and loyalty.

I learned that music lives above words; it is impossible to capture again once released. No two performances will ever be the same and the best music is that which lives in your head, in memory. It can not be pulled out of the rest of you any more than your soul can.

And there it is. There was no divorce, no fighting, only a deeper understanding of what my marital legend had been blathering on about for the last twenty years. The writing is beautiful with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (the writer he most reminds me of, stylistically) elegant, lilting language.

And now I’m going to turn off the Stone’s “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” and change the pace. Today, I’m going to listen to Tristan und Isolde and see what it does to my soul. I could use it.

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Book Promotions and War


/Beth Wareham

I have nothing against The New York Times. I have nothing against the former New York Times reporter Judy Miller either, except both helped drive the United States into the stupidest war we have ever known. (Not that any have been that great, save the Hitler one.)

During that glorious period of American history known as “Shock and Awe,” Judy Miller wrote a book called “Germs,” pinning the recent mailings of ricin to Middle Eastern terrorists. The book’s editor was the famous Alice Mayhew at Simon and Schuster. There was little to question in the bonafides of these two women.

The New York Times and Simon & Schuster did their work as good capitalists and sold the HELL out of that book. Internal Times emails promoted the book to staffers and announced Judy’s latest television appearances. In retrospect, the two companies were working together in a symphony of misinformation worthy of Goebbels.

This was a kind of a “shock and awe” publishing and there was only one problem: the entire ricin premise was false. The New York Times embraced Judy Miller’s assumptions about the poison and helped pave the way to that sad moment when Colin Powell faced the U.N. What a shit show it was.

Later, The New York Times would excoriate Judy in print, turning their back on her the day she was released from prison for not revealing her sources. The New York Times had given Judy full reign and support to promote her germ theory: Now Maureen Dowd was allowed to guillotine her in a column unlike any ever seen in the paper’s history.

Now, Judy has joined forces with the formidable Alice Mayhew again. Judy wants “corrections” to the “narrative.” I say the only thing anyone should be looking for here is redemption, redemption for the piles of dead that litter the Middle East.

Come on, journalism, stop failing us. Stop your narcissism and do what is best for your country. You are also in a kind of sacred service and from where I sit, Judy and The New York Times broke their vows.

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The New York Times Will Never Cover Publishing without their Dreams of Bestsellers

The New York Times is simply not the place to look for publishing insights. First, everyone that writes for the paper has a dream that looks like the one above. That’s right, that old white guy is receiving his Nobel Prize. Folks at the Times also get riled up over such words as Pulitzer, National Book Critics Association, huge advance, Andrew Wiley, multiple book deal and of course, lunch with my agent.

The New York Times is also full of reporter/writers who do not necessarily make a huge amount of money. Their platform – The New York Times – gave many a chance to add  $50,000, $100,000, $500,000 – to their annual income, if they could sell a book proposal to a large publishing company. Many could. Publishers scooped them up like chocolate almond ice cream: They bought houses and sent kids to college on publishing advances.

Alternatively, The New York Times was hugely disrupted by the digital revolution. The New York Times has done a magnificent job of wrapping their heads around what must be done. But that doesn’t mean their hearts are there yet.

So, get your publishing information from somewhere else for awhile. Or, better yet, go write a great book while the whole thing blows over.

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