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Robert Commanday

Interview Date: November 1 and 5, 2014 and February 5, 2015
Affiliation: Bay Area music critic
Interviewer: Corey Jamason

Robert Commanday was the San Francisco Chronicle's music and dance critic for almost 30 years before becoming founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice (, the Bay Area's web-site journal of classical music criticism. He has been an essayist, a lecturer and served as a lecturer in music at the University of California, Berkeley, at U.C. Santa Cruz, San Francisco State University, and the University of Victoria.  Educated at the Juilliard School of Music, Harvard University and the University of California, he followed a career as conductor and teacher at Ithaca (N.Y.) College, the University of Illinois, and at UC Berkeley for thirteen years. There at Cal he conducted choral groups and other ensembles including the Oakland Symphony Chorus and prepared choruses for the San Francisco Symphony.  He was president of the Music Critics Association of North America, the recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism, the John Swett Award and was honored as citizen of the year by the Il Cenacolo society and the Harvard Club of San Francisco.

Robert Commanday, or Bob, sums up his life as "blessed" –  first to have been born to parents who loved music and prized education above all. That got him into Juilliard as a school kid, through Harvard and for graduate work at UC Berkeley. Luckily, in World War II, he was trained and occupied as a cryptanalytic translator of encoded Japanese. More luck helped him move from Ithaca College and University of Illinois posts to Cal where he conducted choral groups for 13 years, and met Mary who would become his wife/partner 18 years later. He was also leading other ensembles including the Oakland Symphony Chorus, preparing choruses for the San Francisco Symphony, serving as a Lecturer at Cal and guest at four other universities. He served as president of the Music Critics Association of North America for four years, received the Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism and the John Swett Award for service to education and was honored as citizen of the year by the Il Cenacolo society and the Harvard Club of San Francisco. That sums up his first two careers before a phone call out of the blue led to his becoming the San Francisco Chronicle's Music and Dance Critic for another 30 years. Five years later, he founded the Bay Area's pioneering web-site journal of classical music criticism, San Francisco Classical Voice, turning musicians into music critics for eight years before deciding that enough was enough.

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Session 1 - November 1, 2014
Early years
Juilliard and Harvard
University of Illinois
Oakland Symphony and Chorus
SF Conservatory in the 1950s and '60s
Kurt Herbert Adler
Pierre Monteux
Bay Area music critics
The function of music criticism

Session 2 - November 5, 2014
San Francisco Chronicle memories
New music in the Bay Area
Seiji Ozawa
Joseph Krips
New operas
Letters to music critics

Session 3 - February 5, 2015
SF Conservatory memories
Davies Hall
Edo de Waart
Terence McEwen
Herbert Blomstedt
Michael Tilson Thomas
Lofti Mansouri
Colin Murdoch
San Francisco Classical Voice
Pamela Rosenberg
David Gockley
50 Oak Street and music school curriculum
Reflections and advice


Early years

Harvard University

Early years at the Chronicle

Colleagues at the Chronicle

New music and Classical Voice

Function of music criticism

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