"I love to share enthusiasms," says Tim Page, former music critic for the New York Times and Washington Post; 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner for music criticism; biographer of novelist Dawn Powell (neglected novelist Dawn Powell, until Page brought critical light to her achievements); editor of Glenn Gould's writings; champion of the early minimalist compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass ("Everything [Glass] wrote I would play on my radio program" on WNYC); former BMG Catalyst executive producer and consultant, shepherding such recordings as Spiked, an album of Spike Jones music with liner notes by Thomas Pynchon; and currently professor of music at UM-St. Louis and artistic advisor and creative chair of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
On this day, the scheduled RFT interview interrupts his work on an article for the Washington Post on '60s avant-garde rock trickster Captain Beefheart, which follows another appreciation piece he did for the Post on one of his current "enthusiasms," the English pop band the High Llamas. According to Page, the High Llamas are "evolving a musical sensibility that ranges from the austere minimalism of Steve Reich to the airy fluff of Herb Alpert and Burt Bacharach."
While he goes to turn off the Captain Beefheart, there's time to take note of the books on his shelf: Pynchon, Racine, Mann, Lorrie Moore, V.S. Pritchett, Plato's Republic. On the coffee table are CDs of Procol Harum and composer Alan Pettersson.
"If I were really saying what I basically did with my life," Page continues, seated on his sofa, "it was sharing enthusiasms and explaining enthusiasms: to myself, first of all, because often you don't know why something moves you that profoundly, and then explaining them to other people."
Page first appeared in the role of enthusiast as an open-faced, engaging, precocious, supersmart kid in the documentary short "A Day with Timmy Page," made when he was 12, chronicling his life as an 8mm silent-movie director with his neighbors and relatives in Storrs, Conn., as cast and crew. The film shows the young aesthete speaking with great confidence about filmmakers who have influenced him: Griffith, Keaton, Hitchcock.
That boy can still be seen in the man Page has become -- open-faced, engaging, more ebullient than precocious, supersmart: "Going back to childhood with the silent film, I was completely fascinated by silent films, and I wanted to share that enthusiasm by making my own film. Later on I was into all these obscure rock groups and tried to play my own version of them or talk about them." Page played keyboards and composed music for a rock band called Dover Beach in the early '70s, which performed (according to his resumé) "a 45-minute rock symphony, "Prometheus Unbound.'"
Page got into radio work and music criticism, first for the Soho Weekly News, then eventually for the Times, Newsday and the Post. After some 20 years of writing classical-music criticism, the Pulitzer came, but Page found his interest waning. "I felt that sort of cold breath saying, "You've done this an awfully long time.' I often found in my reviews "I sound a little crabby there.' I did not want to become one of the all-too-many middle-aged or older music critics who seemed to suddenly take a perverse glee in trampling on an art they got into because they loved it.
"I was worried about that. There's also this thing where I've turned 45." Page lets out a theatrical gasp: "My life! I'm going to be 50 in five years."
So when the SLSO and executive director Don Roth came a-courting, they found a man in the middle of life's journey ready for a change. And they came with a position ideal for what Page himself describes as "my own particular restless sort of temperament."
Page's job description, he says, "changes daily. It includes everything from meeting with the board and going on the radio with Charlie Brennan and Ron Klemm at KFUO, to meeting with Hans Vonk and saying, "This is a really good artist -- you ought to take a listen. This is a piece I think we should be doing.'
"I'm also trying to plot strategies for doing some commercial recordings instead of just Arch Media recordings, where we'd actually get paid something and do stuff that is a little different from the Arch Media stuff." Arch Media is the SLSO's nonprofit recording company, which has produced four CDs of Beethoven, Schubert and Mahler, all within the staple of the classical repertoire.
"Also, I'm trying to think up festivals, trying to think up ideas that will hold things together. Every day it will be different. Today, in addition to finishing this piece, I've got to write a speech. Tonight I have to host a special concert for community partnerships, where I'll be talking and being the emcee. It's a little bit of everything. There's some public relations. There's some purely pie-in-the-sky idealism. There are trips to hear important artists and conductors, composers. It's a blast."
Page arrived in town just this summer, so he, Vonk and Roth are still forging a discourse. Page says of Vonk, "I like him enormously. He's a very searching conductor. He's made me feel very welcome. He listens.
"One thing that is important to remember is that I have a lot of the prerequisites for the job, but I also don't have Music Management 101. It's an odd situation that way. I'm very grateful that I have everybody's ear, but I have no final say, especially while I'm getting to know the terrain."
Vonk and Roth provide the necessary "Great idea, but it ain't gonna work" to Page's least earthbound ideas, but he says, "I'm learning fast. I'm getting fewer and fewer of those ideas. But critics are utopian in a funny way. We get to sit back there in the audience and say, "Why wasn't it more this?' That's a real job, but it's not your job when you shift sides."
Some of what is emerging from the discussions between Page and the maestro will be heard very soon. "I have some composers I want us to do. For instance, we're doing a Rautavarra piece next year." Page is kind enough to spell the name, along with the composer's first name, Einojuhani. "It's a piece called "Countess Arcticus.' It's for orchestra and tape sounds of wild birds. It's very beautiful and strange and evocative.
"One of the few things you're going to see on the schedule this year is, we're adding the Carl Orff children's music to go with "Carmina Burana.' First of all, because "Carmina Burana' -- everybody does it. It's like, "Let's do something a little different.' The children's music is never done, and it's wonderfully strange and beautiful. It's got the great tunes of "Carmina' with youthful voices. It's amazingly charming music.
"There are composers I want to do. I very much want to do the Alan Pettersson -- a Swedish composer -- the Seventh Symphony. A real masterpiece, frankly. I think we'd play the hell out of it.
"It's one movement that lasts almost 50 minutes. It's for a big orchestra. It's for a virtuoso orchestra. It's for an orchestra that can play both aggressively and tenderly. It needs structural guidance, which I think Vonk is terrific at. In my opinion, it's a real symphonic classic. I genuinely believe an audience listening to it will also respond to it. It's a step beyond Mahler, although it's not as difficult as some later Mahler.
"I've known the piece for almost 20 years, and I've always thought it would someday get people listening to it. This guy wrote 16 symphonies; most of them are Mahler at his most hysterical -- which is not one of my faves at all -- but this symphony has a haunted sadness. It's very, very beautiful."
Here is Page the enthusiast. An aside in the Powell biography, about Powell as literary critic, says as much about Page's own critical stance: "She was willing to allow herself to be unexpectedly carried away (one mark of a mature critic)." In a Post review he paraphrases the late drama critic George Jean Nathan: "There are two types of criticism -- subjective criticism and bad criticism."
"I really do think that's true," Page concurs. "You have to go out on limbs.
"I used to give my class at Juilliard, when I taught criticism there, an exercise. I'd play something strange and unfamiliar. Tell them to write about it. "Oh, we can't do that.' So they'd do it. I'd give them 10 minutes. Then I'd say, "That was the second movement of Sibelius' Fourth Symphony.' They'd go, "Oh.' I'd play it again, and they'd write something else. Then the third time I'd tell them the history of the piece, when it was written, how it was written, what people have thought of it over the years, and they'd write a third piece. The weird thing was, always the first pieces were the best, because there they were out there and they had no clichés to founder on. They were just swinging through the air and grabbing at what they could. The moment they found out it was Sibelius, they started getting these phrases like "the austere northern master' or "he shakes his fist at the gloomy sky,' that sort of crap.
"Obviously that argument can be used to suggest a know-nothing criticism. That's not what I'm doing. What a critic should be able to do is know all about a piece, know all about what has been written about it, the whole history of the piece, and then sit down and have a completely fresh experience. Put that all on hold. If someone says, "This is a great masterpiece,' you say, "Well, let's see.' If someone says, "This is a little, silly piece,' you say, "Let's see,' again. That's what I've always believed."