With best wishes and gratitude to John von Rhein on his retirement

Mon Jun 25, 2018 at 12:17 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

This is the final week on the music beat for John von Rhein, who is retiring July 1 after 40 years as the Chicago Tribune’s classical music critic. All local music organizations, ensembles and musicians can testify to my senior colleague’s extraordinary influence for good on Chicago’s music scene over more than four decades of dedicated arts journalism.

John’s impact on Chicago arts has been vast, crucial and comprehensive. His energetic beat coverage, fair reviews and his encouragement of young, up-and-coming groups, all speak for themselves.

He has consistently sought out the newest pop-up ensembles and was happy to give them as much encouragement, previews and review space as possible. Equally laudable and important was his consistent advocacy for American music of the past and present. 

John’s exceptional journalistic legacy is common knowledge. But I’d like to take a more personal tack and talk about how much John has meant in my life and career.

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Nobody has had more of an impact on my professional life than John von Rhein. It is no exaggeration to say that there would be no Chicago Classical Review–or New York Classical Review, Boston Classical Review or South Florida Classical Review–were it not for John.

In the early 1990s, John took a chance on a complete stranger–a law-school dropout with writing ambitions who loved classical music and was living in the suburbs making a (barely) itinerant living as a freelance editor and proofreader. I sent my few paltry clips to the Tribune, which worked their way through various desks and eventually to John, who gave me a shot.

I was largely inexperienced in the form and mechanics of daily journalism. My first couple efforts were pretty awful and most Trib editors were dubious. But John saw potential in my awkward attempts and continued to give me opportunities whenever he could. With John’s work as a guidestar, I worked relentlessly at improving and began to imbibe the basics of newspaper writing. After a while, my stuff became only semi-awful and then gradually more fluent and polished.

Amazing as it seems in today’s era of drastic newspaper downsizing, at that time the Tribune had multiple classical freelance reviewers. With John’s encouragement–and that of former Tribune arts editor Pat Kampert–I quickly worked up from the bottom of the heap to become John’s de facto No. 2. I stayed in that role for several years until I left Chicago in 2000 to take a full-time job as classical music critic at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale (then and now a Tribune paper) and, later, the Miami Herald. 

This background is by way of saying that John was my first and only mentor, even though he led by example more than by any direct tutelage. John’s eloquent writing, detailed profiles and previews and incisive reviewing all cast a long shadow; most of my early efforts were a pale imitation of him.

From the start, John was positive, encouraging and complimentary. He never became impatient or angry with me while I was learning the craft of journalism. He told me not to worry about it when I would make a dumb error that required a correction in the next day’s paper. 

And, perhaps most importantly, he trusted my judgement and allowed me complete critical freedom in my reviewing, which was crucial in developing my confidence and individual voice. 

John never asked me to tone it down, even after I would write a brutal review of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or Lyric Opera–then as now the twin Big Berthas of Chicago’s classical beat. When I called Daniel Barenboim’s first Mahler performance with the CSO (a heavy, lugubrious take on the Fifth Symphony) a “train wreck,” some Trib editors winced but John stuck by me. I think he privately enjoyed the “good cop/bad cop” tandem our mutual critical personalities morphed into over time.

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Like many newspaper critics who have been at the same local beat for a long time, John has mellowed over the decades. I confess I miss some of the rapier wit and eagerness to engage in combat of his earlier years–as when he famously asked whether the Barenboim-CSO marriage was working, or when he would take a rhetorical stiletto to some of Lyric Opera’s more hapless Verdi productions of the 1990s.

But after four decades on the job, John has earned the right to cover the music beat any way he wanted. If he has tended to emphasize the positive side of the ledger more in recent years, the quality, verve and distinction of his prose has never diminished.

As someone who still finds writing a tortuous task, I am consistently astounded by the richness, fluidity and style of John’s prose. After 25 years in the business, I still don’t know an arts critic on any beat in the country who is a better pure writer from top to bottom.

John’s prose is sterling–tight, concise, smart, elegant and always focused and on point. And, especially noteworthy in an era of crashing journalistic standards, errors are a rarity. After four decades John still hardly ever makes a mistake.

When I moved home to Chicago in 2009 to start Chicago Classical Review, for the first time John and I were competitors. Yet even as we became quasi-rivals, John was invariably gracious and supportive and we remained friends–no mean feat considering both our relentlessly competitive natures.

John’s personal dedication, strong work ethic, professional integrity, finely tuned ear, vast knowledge, and open-hearted embrace of all great music remain models of arts journalism now and always. John set a critical and journalistic standard that most of us will try in vain to equal, let alone surpass.

The fact that he gave a suburban kid with zero connections and little experience, an opportunity to try his hand writing about the music he loves for a major metropolitan newspaper was, and is, an extraordinary act of personal kindness and professional generosity for which I can never thank him or repay him enough.

Enjoy your retirement, Doktor Johannes. And should the critical urge ever resurface, there will always be a lamp in the window at CCR. 

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One Response to “With best wishes and gratitude to John von Rhein on his retirement”

  1. Posted Jun 26, 2018 at 3:11 pm by Bryant

    Beautiful tribute, Larry. I will miss reading John’s reviews online from afar.

    I do believe you are now the dean of Chicago critics.

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