Critic / Author  Bernard  Jacobson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Bernard Jacobson (March 2, 1936 - February 14, 2022) had an international career that spanned over 6 decades in the classical music world. He was born in London and educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, after serving in the Royal Air Force.

He began his career writing sleeve notes for Philips in the Netherlands, and subsequently worked for EMI and Boosey and Hawkes in London. He contributed articles to High Fidelity, Musical America, Fanfare, and Seen and Heard International, and served as music critic for the Chicago Daily News. His books include The Music of Johannes Brahms, Conductors on Conducting, A Polish Renaissance, and Star Turns and Cameo Appearances: Memoirs of a Life among Musicians.

He served as visiting professor of music at Roosevelt University in Chicago, artistic director of Het Residentie Orkest (The Hague Philharmonic), and as artistic advisor to the North Netherlands Orchestra. His translations include operas by Hans Werner Henze (La Cubana) and Siegfried Matthus (Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke, and Judith), and he had some of his own poetry set to music by composers Wilfred Josephs (a song-cycle Death of a Young Man) and Richard Wernick.

Jacobson first settled in Philadelphia with his wife Laura when he was hired by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1984 as program annotator and musicologist, where he worked closely with its then-music director Riccardo Muti. He gave pre-concert lectures and inaugurated the orchestra's chamber music series. He remained in Philadelphia for more than 25 years, interrupted by stays in The Hague and Bremerton, Washington, continuing to write program notes for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

As a performer, he narrated his own translation of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat as part of the Philadelphia Orchestra's chamber music series, and he was the speaker, with Ignat Solzenitsyn conducting, for Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, a work he had previously recorded for Nonesuch and performed in London and Vienna. His narration for Mendelssohn's Antigone was given its first performance by Claire Bloom at the 1991 Bard Festival, and he subsequently performed it himself with the San Jose Symphony. He returned there to narrate Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, Leonid Grin conducting. He also narrated works by Theo Loevendie and Virgil Thomson in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, and the Cologne Philharmonie.

With conductor Oliver Knussen he recorded the role of Noah in Stravinsky's The Flood for Deutsche Grammophon before repeating it in his 1996 debut at the BBC Promenade Concerts. In 2016, he appeared as narrator in Martinů's The Epic of Gilgamesh at Chicago's Grant Park Music Festival. He also sang as a low bass in the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia.

Among Jacobson's greatest pleasures were cooking and eating. He edited cookbooks by Giuliano Bugialli, and while living in Washington state he fulfilled his dream of becoming a restaurant critic, writing reviews for his local paper The Kitsap Sun. He was predeceased by his first wife Bonnie (Brodsky) and his sister Anne. In addition to his wife of 39 years Laura (Belcove) he leaves behind children Katharine (Andrew) Walkden of North Yorkshire, UK, and Samuel of Philadelphia. He also leaves four grandchildren, cat Kiki, and all the restaurants he hadn't tried yet.

Donations can be made in Bernard's memory to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, or the Philadelphia Orchestra. A memorial celebration is being planned for early autumn.

==  Edited and expanded from the obituary published by The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 3, 2022.  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

At the beginning of February of 1982, Jacobson was back in Chicago representing the publisher Boosey and Hawkes, and the composer
Andrzej Panufnik [shown together in the book jacket-cover photo below-left].  I prevailed on him to speak with me, and he said he was delighted to do so.  We spent just over an hour discussing various things, many of them operatic.
Portions of the conversation were aired a couple of times on WNIB, Classical 97, and now forty years later I am pleased to present the entire chat.  Being versed with a huge vocabulary, he occasionally used a word that I later had to look up.  A few of those are indicated in this text.

I began by asking about his current locale . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   How is London musically-speaking?

Bernard Jacobson:   There’s a very great deal of musical life.  The big difference from New York, and even more so from Chicago, is that we’re much more on the track.  This is because everything is much closer together, in the sense that one is quite frequently getting German and French and other orchestras coming through that probably doesn’t happen that much here in Chicago.

BD:   It’s not really a very far jump from Paris to Vienna to London.

Jacobson:   Exactly.  It’s analogous with the jump from Cincinnati to Cleveland.  The U.S. is a continent, which is what you have to compare.  But London has a very active musical life.  There is a fair amount of tradition of interest in enterprising things, but I have to say two things on the other side.  One is that the London orchestras are quite appreciably below the actual level of standards that they were ten or fifteen or twenty years ago.  I don’t think there’s a London orchestra that can hold a candle to any of about ten or twelve in the States, and that is not because the musicians aren’t good.  It’s quite the contrary, they’re very good.  It is because the conditions of the musical life are so extremely competitive and rushed, and they do such a fantastic amount of work.

BD:   They’re just doing too much?

Jacobson:   Yes, and partly that is a matter of structure.  There is not the same tradition of subscription series.  In terms of ticket sales, the Philharmonia, which is one of the five London orchestras, have to some extent solved their ticket sale problem by introducing subscription series.  In fact, one tends to get much worse seats for their concerts than for anybody else because they do sell out.  But, on the other hand, generally they still are doing each program just once.

BD:   [Surprised]  They rehearse a concert and that’s it???

Jacobson:   Yes, because when there are five orchestras, and each one has its spot in the hall, you can’t really take three days with the same program.  There are occasional things which get done twice, maybe one Sunday and the next Sunday, or something like that, when there’s some special big thing.  Usually it will be a choral work, or something like that, but it’s the exception, and that means the ratio of rehearsal to performance is very difficult to have enough rehearsals for a concert you’re only going to give once.

BD:   Is it somewhat analogous to the Ravinia Festival [summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra] where everything is performed once?

Jacobson:   In that regard, yes.  But one other thing is that we are, at the moment, in a very profound state of economic decline, which I’m very sad to see.  You will be following us in a year or two because you’re following the same policies that have taken us there.  We have our first Social Democratic government, and are beginning to climb out again.  This economic decline has had a very serious effect on musical life in Britain.  Thinking just of opera, every year the Royal Opera House has its press conference, and they announce what they are going to be doing, and every year, two or three productions inevitably fall by the wayside.

BD:   I would think that the contracts which were signed long ago would make that almost impossible, and they’d have to go through with all the productions.

Jacobson:   Yes, but there are sicknesses, and then there are strikes.  A couple of years ago, there was a strike.  Gustav Kuhn was supposed to be coming in to conduct Der Rosenkavalier, and a strike affected things in such a way that he couldn’t have the two extra rehearsals that he had insisted on, and he withdrew, entirely justifiably.

BD:   He was here this fall [Fidelio with Meier/Marton, Vickers, Roar, Plishka, Kavrakos].  I had a nice talk with him.  Very interesting man, and very knowledgeable.

Jacobson:   He gives the impression of being a serious performer.  But at the very last press conference about two weeks ago, which was to announce next season (1982/3), apparently the management were really embarrassed at not being able to say there were any new productions.  I can’t quote you figures on this, and I can’t be accurate about this because my job now is essentially contemporary music for Boosey & Hawkes, so I don’t actually have that much time to do with opera.  It is much more concert music, and it’s the feeling of decline in opera that is depressing.  What we do have, on the other hand, is a very good second opera company in the city, which, in many respects, is entirely on a level with the first opera company.  That’s the English National Opera, which is the vernacular house, the way City Opera is in New York vis-à-vis the Met.

BD:   But the City Opera doesn’t do things in English, and that disappoints a lot of people.

Jacobson:   [Surprised]  Not anymore?  They used to.  But the English National Opera always does, and they are a very fine house.

BD:   Is this a good thing to be able to see oftentimes the same opera within a couple of years in one house and then in the other house in two different languages?
Jacobson:   It’s a marvelous thing educationally.  I personally believe that a major city needs two houses.  That way people can graduate through one to the other.  I’m firm believer that you don’t get ultimately the absolutely full value out of an opera until you have come to know the piece, done your homework on the libretto, and can really follow the nuances of the texts in the original language.  Even with the finest translation, you are going to have some vowel sounds on the wrong notes.  You can’t avoid it.  Better translations have fewer, and worse translations have more, but I don’t think there’s been a translation yet that’s perfect.  I have a certain amount of criticism of this because I did an opera translation myself about four years ago of La Cubana by Henze.  This was for the British premiere, which was done by English Music Theatre, which no longer exists.  But we have English National Opera, which has a marvelous new music director, a young conductor called Mark Elder, who’s doing an extraordinarily fine job.  They still quite often have Charles Mackerras guest conducting, who was their last music director but one.  There was Charles Groves in between.  A couple of weeks ago, just before I came over to the States, on Christmas Eve I went to a matinee of The Rosenkavalier, conducted by Mackerras, and it would have been entirely worthy of any city’s first opera house.  Then we have English National Opera North, which now has changed its name to Opera North.  They’re a very active house with an excellent music director, David Lloyd Jones, a very good conductor.  Actually, one of my oldest friends, Wilfred Josephs, is now in the course of composing his first full-length opera for them on commission [Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier].  I have the feeling it may be their first commission.  He did a Requiem which Giulini conducted here in Chicago.

BD:   Is Opera North a touring company?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Lucy Shelton, and Charles Wuorinen.]

Jacobson:   It’s based in Leeds, but it is essentially a company to serve the north of England, and it tours around a fair amount.

BD:   Do you they go off to Ireland and Scotland as well?

Jacobson:   There’s Scottish Opera up there, and there’s Welsh National Opera.  Those are both superb companies.  I saw a production by Welsh National touring in England of Die Frau ohne Schatten a few months ago, and that was one of the most dazzling productions I could hope to see.  Imagine in a provincial opera house where there was an ovation at the end, and the conductor got the orchestra to take a bow.  The audience cheered for five solid minutes.  That was the feeling of the whole occasion.  It was really quite marvelous.  Obviously, Welsh National serves Wales mostly, and Scottish Opera serves Scotland, but there’s all of Yorkshire and Lancashire.  There’s Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, York, Huddersfield, Bradford, all the major cities in the north of England which are essentially served by Opera North, and by occasional visits from the others.  There is a newly refurbished theater in Manchester to which the Royal Opera now goes, we hope, once a year.  They’ve set it up as one the major touring houses.  They’ll probably take three or four operas, and do each two or three times.  That’s the basic structure.  
[According to someone who lives in Leeds, it never happened.  She told me they came once, plus the Royal Ballet came only in 1982 for one week, and they said it was cheaper to bus everyone down to London than for them to come up.]  In addition to that you have Glyndebourne.  After a period, during which I would say it probably went a little bit down by comparison with the great early years, and the great 1950s and early 60s years, now that Bernard Haitink has taken over there, the standards of that place are rocketing again.  In fact, last midsummer day I saw the greatest production of an opera I’ve ever seen anywhere.  Opera being a pretty complex art form, so if you see a production that gets eighty out of a hundred that’s pretty damn good.  That production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream of Britten I would give ninety-nine out of a hundred.  It was absolute magic from beginning to end!  Haitink conducted, and was wonderful.  The score sounded better than its ever sounded before.  Peter Hall directed.  

BD:   Were there any big names in the cast?

Jacobson:   Ileana Cotrubaș was Tytania, James Bowman was Oberon, and there were several other medium big names.  Cotrubaș is a first-order star, and she was magical.

BD:   Sometimes you
’ll go to a performance that has no big star, and yet it is more magical than when you have very well-known names in the cast.

Jacobson:   It can be.  Cotrubaș was the biggest name in the cast, though there was a very big success by a relatively little-known singer, Lieuwe Visser, the Dutch baritone, who does things like Eight Songs for a Mad King [Peter Maxwell Davies].  He was Theseus, and was really very superb.  There were also one or two American singers in it, including Dale Duesing as Demetrius.  It was absolutely an enchanted evening.  The sets were absolutely magic, and it started off with all those glissandos in the strings at the beginning.  It opened with a darkish stage that gradually got a little brighter.  As the music started, the trees were people, and started swaying.  But unlike most productions, they started when the music started and stopped when the music stopped.  There wasn’t a two-second gap.  It was so perfectly rehearsed that it was magic.  When the curtain went up on the second act where the lovers are discovered asleep, and on the third act, it started absolutely dark, and gradually began to acquire a glimmer of light on the stage surface.  Then you gradually caught a glimpse of little tops of trees, and three or four groups of lovers.  It could have been anywhere.  It could have been on Earth, it could have been in Heaven, you couldn’t tell because everything was so delicately done.  It was like a vision suddenly coming at you from mid-air.

BD:   This worked at Glyndebourne.  Would it have worked in a house the size of the Royal Opera?

Jacobson:   No!  This was very definitely a Glyndebourne production, and, that’s the point of a house like that.  Two years ago they did a production of The Rake’s Progress [Stravinsky] with the David Hockney sets, which also was magic in a different way.  But you still can get standards like that there, and I have the feeling with Haitink that it’s like being in on the first few years of one of the great regimes.  In Haitink’s first year as music director there, I saw when he conducted La Fedeltà Premiata [Haydn].  I remember saying to a friend of mine at the interval that it’s like being in on Fritz Busch’s first year, in the sense that Haitink has already created such a sense of identity, and placed his imprint on the house, that it’s gone like that.  It’s a marvelous feeling.  There is one other phenomenon that I should mention...  I don’t have the direct experience of it myself.  I wanted to go and see these people the week before I came to the States, but I was so busy getting everything sorted out that I was unable.  There’s as group called Opera Factory, which is dedicated to blowing the cobwebs off the form.  [More information about Opera Factory can be seen HERE.]  They did an experimental season a couple of years ago.  David Freeman who runs this group, and who previously had a company in Zurich, brought a production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea to London.  Apparently it was an extraordinary way-out production.  It’s very, very contemporary in theatrical terms, and now he’s set up this Opera Factory thing, which is, in a way, under the auspices of the English National Opera.  You book through the Coliseum, but they haven’t got a real home of their own yet.  They did two productions in a season of about two or three weeks just recently in a place called The Drill Hall, which is a very unluxurious venue.  They did two alternating operas, or semi-alternating.  One was Punch and Judy by Harrison Birtwistle, and the other was The Beggar’s Opera in a version which was exceedingly controversial.

BD:   What an interesting combination!

Jacobson:   For the most part it got tanned by the press, although one critic whom I respect
very much, David Cairns, wrote an extremely enthusiastic review, and one or two other people were enthusiastic.  But it’s got the lot.  It’s got nude brothel scenes, and bit of rock injected into the score for this, that, and the other.  It’s a very radical re-think.  I wanted very much to see the Punch and Judy production, particularly as that was said to be quite magical, but, unfortunately, I just didn’t get to see it.  But I should mention it because it’s the latest thing on the London opera scene really.
BD:   How does the public react to modern opera, and to old opera in modern guise?

Jacobson:   I don’t know what sort of ovations and receptions they got, but I do know that several nights were sold out.  It was quite hard to get in, which is encouraging.  I’m sorry I can’t tell you more about it.  I wish I knew more myself, but next time I will get to see them, I hope.

BD:   What about the London public in general?  Do they react well to modern opera, or do they just sit on their hands and go away?

Jacobson:   No, not in general.  The Drill Hall is a smallish place, but we’re no more enterprising than anybody else.

BD:   What about some of the other recent performances, for instance We Come to the River of Henze?

Jacobson:   I reviewed the premier of that.  I was still a critic in those days.  That was in International Music Guide, along with a whole lot of other Henze stuff, because he was one of the composers of the year in that year.  In that journal I did a big interview with him at the time, and it’s actually out of that that my involvement with La Cubana started.  It was not a great public success, and was not a great critical success either, except for me.  I thought it was a marvelous piece.

BD:   What about its use of three orchestras?

Jacobson:   [Laughs]  Yes, that didn’t all work, but I think it could because especially the second half of it is a on very high level.  Maybe not quite as high in level as what is probably his greatest work, which is The Bassarids.  I saw that one conducted by Mark Elder at the English National Opera.  They revived the production about four years ago, and I think it has a very strong claim to being regarded as the greatest twentieth-century opera because it was absolutely riveting, all two and half continuous hours of it.

BD:   There’s no break at all, like Rheingold?

Jacobson:   Right, it
s the same length, but it has a certain audience.  When Tippett’s The Ice Break was premiered, there was some audience, but then that’s probably the Tippett audience, really.  I ran into an old friend from Chicago there who had gone to London for it.  There are people like that.  I should mention one other thing, and this is not a commercial break, but I have to be very careful how I approach these things because I now do work with Boosey & Hawkes, and we publish much of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies.  His group, The Fires of London, does, of course, do other chamber opera productions along the lines of the English Music Theatre in its day, only generally smaller.  The instrumental ensemble is usually anything from six to nine or ten people, and he has written a couple of operas for them which have been done very well.

BD:   Is one of them The Martyrdom of St. Magnus?  That was given here by the Opera School of Chicago.

Jacobson:   That’s right!  I had the score in London in July 1979, which was my second week at Boosey & Hawkes, so that was my first success, if you like!  [Both laugh]  I only heard about it three days before the production was happening.  I had had certain conversations
with Lee Schaenen [Director of the Opera School of Chicago, later called the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, 1974-91] who called up for various details.  Then the whole subject seemed to die.  I thought it hadn’t happened, and suddenly somebody came into my office and said, Do you know The Martyrdom of St. Magnus is opening in Chicago next week?  It was just like that.

BD:   It was done here in Thorne Hall.

Jacobson:   Did you see it?

BD:   Yes, I did.

Jacobson:   How did it go?

BD:   I enjoyed it, but a lot of people didn’t.  There was a small audience, a lot of whom came for that particular piece because they wanted to see it, and wanted to enjoy it.  It was a bit screamy for a lot of tastes.  My wife hated it...

Jacobson:   [Laughs]  Looking in my mind at all the things that we’ve been talking about, which is helping to focus my mind, certainly the very big difference between London opera and Chicago opera, if you look at those two things, is that in spite of all attempts to vary it over the last any number of years, Chicago opera still tends basically to feel, even if it isn’t actually, as if it’s very Puccini-Verdi centered, whereas there’s a better balance of nationalities in the English operatic scene.  We tend to get a lot more Strauss, and Mozart, and Janáček, and Martinů.  There was a wonderful production of Martinů’s Juliette at the English National Opera three or four years ago, and also a production of his The Greek Passion by Welsh National Opera, which has now become a record.

BD:   Indiana University did The Green Passion, and they took it to New York.  I wish they had also brought it to Chicago.

Jacobson:   Yes.  It’s interesting, because there’s a very bright person who got involved in coordinating this enterprise.  The libretto is written in English, and Martinů set the work in English.  Welsh National Opera did it, and then once they had done it and had the production down pat, they put together a recording in Prague with a Czech orchestra and chorus.  But it was all the WNO soloists, and Charles Mackerras conducting.  That’s how the recording got made on Supraphon.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   In what direction are the English composers pushing opera today?

Jacobson:   Very much there is the music-theater chamber opera tradition, formerly of English Music Theatre, maintained by The Fires of London, and groups of that kind.

BD:   Is the big Covent Garden-type opera going out, and the smaller opera taking more hold?

Jacobson:   Quantitively there is a move in that direction.  I don’t think it will ever become a total move because there will still be composers who are fascinated by this grand medium, and are willing to work in it.  My friend Wilfred Josephs, who has wanted to write a big opera for many years, is finally getting the chance by virtue of a commission, and a major grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain to give him the possibility of spending most of the year working on this piece.  There are always going to be composers doing that.  Richard Rodney Bennett has written pieces on that scale, and Maxwell Davies has.  John Tavener (1944-2013) is planning another one.  I don’t know the scale of Oliver Knussen
s fairly recent opera Where the Wild Things Are, which is on a Maurice Sendak subject and was done in Brussels.  But Knussen is another of the talented young English composers.

tavener Sir John Kenneth Tavener (28 January 1944 – 12 November 2013) was an English composer, known for his extensive output of choral religious works. He was knighted in 2000 for his services to music and won an Ivor Novello Award. He was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by Sarum College in 2001.

Tavener first came to prominence with his cantata The Whale, premiered in 1968. Then aged 24, he was described by The Guardian as "the musical discovery of the year", while The Times said he was "among the very best creative talents of his generation". During his career he became one of the best known and popular composers of his generation, most particularly for The Protecting Veil (1988), which as recorded by cellist Steven Isserlis became a best-selling album, and Song for Athene (1993) which was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana. The Lamb (1982) was featured in the soundtrack for Paolo Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty.

In 2020, Sir David Pountney, former artistic director of the Welsh National Opera, announced that Tavener's final opera, Krishna (which was completed in 2005 but had remained in manuscript form) would be staged by Grange Park Opera in 2024. Pountney himself will be directing the production.

BD:   Most of my knowledge about English opera is what I read in Opera magazine, edited by Harold Rosenthal.  Is that journal good?

Jacobson:   Oh, it’s pretty good.  Harold’s pretty open-minded.  He covers most of what there is.  It’s the best source you will find for a fair amount of international opera coverage.  It’s the place we often pick up first on what’s going to be happening in one or another Continental European city, and it’s a pretty fair picture of the English scene I would say.

BD:   What, if anything, needs to be done to get more people to come to the music-hall type opera?

Jacobson:   [Thinks a moment, then laughs]  That’s the big question in all these fields, isn’t it?  There are big changes in public and critical tastes in contemporary music as a whole, and inevitably they will have their reflection in opera.

BD:   What are these changes?

Jacobson:   What fifteen or twenty years ago was pretty authoritatively and ubiquitously in command as the avant-garde, can now more accurately be described as the avant-derrière-garde, because of public and critical taste in many countries.  I travel a fair amount around Europe now, for ten or twelve weeks of the year in various countries, most of all France, Holland, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland.  Those are the crucial ones, and I’m also moving out to Scandinavia and Spain, and a couple of other places.  My observation in most places, and certainly in England also, is that there has been an enormous returning arm of the parabola away from the extremes of what was the avant-garde.  In circles that feel this way in England, these are what we call New Music in the old-fashioned sense, namely things that were sufficiently rebuffed and obscure that you felt there must be something good about them.  Whereas fifteen or twenty years ago, if you did a piece in London with tunes in it, you could reckon on certainly getting tanned by the press because it wasn’t obscure enough.   That’s no longer the case.

BD:   Is it good that we’re coming back to tonal music with a melody?

Jacobson:   I think it is.  Performers are now performing things they actually like performing, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  There’s a whole new wave.  Firstly, many of the old composers have moved around themselves.  We have a fairly extreme avant-garde practitioner at fifteen years ago, like Peter Schat (1935-2003) in Holland, who recently wrote an entirely tonal symphony.  Then there is Peter Maxwell Davies, whose Second Symphony is pretty firmly in B minor.  Penderecki is a notorious case...

BD:   Were you here for Paradise Lost [the opera by Penderecki which was commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago for the Bicentennial]?

Jacobson:   No, I’m afraid not, but I have heard his Violin Concerto [written during the same period for Isaac Stern], which is part of the same movement as far as I can make out.  I’m not making value judgments in this.  People can do that in a good way, or they can do it in a bad way, but as a whole I find it a very healthy trend, especially since there is also a whole wave of composers who are using tonality in an extremely fresh and illuminating way.  Several of these we have the great pleasure of publishing at Boosey’s.  [Vis-à-vis the book shown at left, also see my interview with Henryk Górecki.]

BD:   What about some of the composers who write in elliptical terms, such as Terry Riley or Philip Glass?

Jacobson:   I must confess that I haven’t heard a great deal of their work in recent years.  I’ve never heard a note of Philip Glass, which is a terrible omission on my part, because he’s very much au courant in many circles right now.  Terry Riley and Steve Reich I heard a certain number of years back, and was not tremendously impressed by them.  They obviously had something fascinating going for them, but basically, I didn’t feel that it was a tremendously original contribution, or a tremendously valuable one as far as my very incomplete experiences and acquaintances with what went on at that point.  But I think this is generally a very healthy trend.  Finally it is a refusal for people to be hoodwinked, and I mean people both public and critical, because there is a very, very recognizable critical syndrome which is to let me not be caught with my critical pants down.  This has led many very eminent and distinguished critics to swallow any rubbish rather than run the risk of appearing to have missed the point.  This has vitiated [destroyed] the work of some very excellent critics whom I don’t intend to name.

BD:   Now you’re an ex-critic, so let me ask you a dangerous question.  What is the role of critic?

Jacobson:   I don’t think it’s a dangerous question.  I can’t do it in twenty-five words, but I’ll try to be brief.  There are two, or three, or four main functions that are served by a critic.  One is to be a person with a degree of experience, perceptiveness and the ability to communicate what he can illuminate for less experienced people, or even equally experienced people with different sets of pre-conceptions.  He can give certain insights into works that they might not have otherwise come to by themselves.  I would qualify that by saying it is not meant in any sense that he’s got to make them feel the same way as he does about these things.  He’s just got to offer them a certain way of looking at something which will either spark off agreement on their part, or cause creative disagreement.  That’s one function.  The second function is to act as a watchdog for standards in terms of the whole socio-economic-political setup of the arts in their society, and make sure that things don’t get submerged for want of attention, and don’t get ignored and suppressed.  It’s an ostensive [demonstrating] function, really saying,
Look!  That is out there and is worthy of attention!

BD:   Should the critic say, “You should go listen to this.  You might not like it but should go listen to it?”

Jacobson:   Yes, yes!  Thirdly, our role is perhaps to make performers see new angles on things.  It is perhaps arrogant to feel that this role can be fulfilled, but it’s probably not inaccurate to say that out of my own past experience, there are enough cases to suggest that it might actually work.  In my days in Chicago, after a couple of years I began to get rather amused comments from some of the performers who would say to me,
“At the first rehearsal we asked if we take the repeat, and then somebody said we’d better because Jacobson might be reviewing it!”  [Both laugh]  In a sense that may be considered unhealthy because, after all, performers should not do things because critics may be there.  On the other hand, insofar as it means that you’ve made them think about the thing, it’s a valuable contribution.  I arrogantly hope in that particular regard that the decision is so self-evidently right once you’ve made it, and once they’ve actually tried it that way, they’ll see how much fun it is, and I think that has actually happened.  The attitude toward correctness is not just me.  There have been several other critics at the same time who were getting onto the same hobby-horse, and the attitude toward repeats has greatly changed in western Europe and the United States in the last ten years.  If there were fifteen recordings of the Brahms Symphony #2 available fifteen years ago, I would bet, just purely off the top of my head, that maybe two of them have the first movement repeat.  If there are twenty-five available now, I would bet anything that between twelve and eighteen have the first movement repeat.  That’s a very considerable change in practice.  It’s quite fascinating.  I wrote an article on repeats several years ago for Musical Newsletter, and at the very end I asked the questionon which I hadn’t done the homework so I didn’t know the answer, but it just occurred to me, as one considers all these other repeatswhy have we always accepted that when you do the da capo of a minuet in a classical piece, you only do it once?  You do the minuet the first time with each half repeated, then you do the trio with each half repeated, and then traditionally you do the first portion with each half only once.  I also analyzed those movements of Beethoven piano sonatas where the da capo was written out instead of being marked da capo, and I can’t remember the exact figure, but what it came out as was something like fourteen movements on that general nature, in nine of them he wrote the da capo out with repeats, and the other five he didn’t.  Another factor is that Haydn and Beethoven very often wrote menuetto da capo ma senza replica’ [but without repeats].  If you have to mark it that way, that surely suggests that the normal way was to it con replica [with repeats].  It’s a dicey argument, but it’s prima facie [accepted as correct until proven otherwise] evidence for that.  Now, the fascinating thing is that article appeared four years ago, and I think it’s part of a trend.  I was quite delighted to discover when the new Academy of Ancient Music series of the Mozart symphonies started coming out on original instruments about two or three years ago, they have taken that step.  They are now doing the da capos with repeats.
BD:   Might it be that critics and composers in their two different fields, from varying parts of the globe, evolved to the same point and the same time?

Jacobson:   There is something in the air very often, yes.  Works seem to marinate, and seem to get easier to do as they go along.  There’s a certain amount of that which is accountable with new works by the fact that somebody’s marked up the parts, and they gradually got improved and corrected.

BD:   Has the same thing happened with public taste?

Jacobson:   Oh, I think so, yes.  There are movements in the air.  After all, if you look at certain movements of Beethoven and Schubert which are not to public taste in particular, but they must have been responses to it.  There are movements in Haydn that make one think that he must have been listening to such-and-such piece of Schubert, except that the dates make it impossible.  There are all sorts of cases like that.  After all, this is part of an historical stylistic tendency that one can analyze, so it’s more explicable.  About two years before Schoenberg devised his twelve-tone system, Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959) devised his.  It was a quite different one, but he was working on the same thought, the same idea at exactly the same time.

BD:   Each with no knowledge of the other?

Jacobson:   Right.  Hauer
s just didn’t happen to catch on.  Charles Ives was writing several dodecaphonic pieces without any knowledge of Schoenberg’s movements in that direction.  It’s a terribly metaphysical thing to say, but I think there are such things.

BD:   Schoenberg once said,
“Somebody had to be Schoenberg, so it might as well have been me!  [Both laugh]  But if it hadn’t been Arnold Schoenberg, it would have been...

Jacobson: would have been necessary to invent him, yes.  Although, a caution is required here in the sense that I don’t think any such views ought to make us swallow the notion of historical progressivity in the arts.  I’m not talking about advances towards an ineffable peak or something like that.

BD:   Is John Cage a put-on?

Jacobson:   He’s a lovely guy.  He can write music.  The Concerto for Prepared Piano is an entirely composed piece, which is rather strong.  There are some little piano pieces that are rather lovely, but for the more characteristic part of his output, I find him, as I find Stockhausen, a very interesting second-order musician.  By that I mean they seem to present fascinating ideas about music, rather than fascinating music.  When I actually get to hear the music, it bores me stiff very often.  Stockhausen’s program notes are much more rewarding than his musical works.  I try again every three or four years with Stockhausen, but I haven’t got into him yet, and I have been doing this for twenty years.  There’s a lovely quotation from Christopher Fry in A Phoenix Too Frequent where the character says,
All these notions of progress and regress are really quite absurd.  All mankind can really be said to do is to gress!  [Both laugh]  That’s actually a very, very crucial thought.  Music is not further on at one point than it was in another, in an evaluative sense.  You get better composers and less good composers, but they’re not part of some sort of gradual standing-on-shoulders thing.  They are in the sense of technical development, but not in the aesthetic value in my view.

BD:   Is there no line that goes from Lassus and Palestrina through to Monteverdi...

Jacobson:   Oh, sure there are lines, but they’re not up and down lines.

BD:   Is that right to think of this progression linearly?

Jacobson:   Absolutely!  Sure, one person leads to another, but that doesn’t mean the other is better than the one.  There are people who write about Beethoven piano concertos in terms that suggest that they have perfected and subtle-ised these silly little things that Mozart was doing.  To my mind that is a patently absurd view.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re a Mozart man.  How is Mozart going along in London now?  Do you get enough of it?

Jacobson:   [Laughs]  Well, you can never get enough of Mozart.

BD:   You never get to the point where you’ve heard so much that you’ve just got to get away from it for a while?
Jacobson:   Oh, never, never.

BD:   [Taking it to the absurd]  Even if you wound up listening to a full opera, two symphonies, and maybe a quartet, and a few songs every day?
 [Vis-à-vis the book shown at right, see my own interviews with James Levine, and José Serebrier.]

Jacobson:   Oh, I wouldn’t do that!  [Both laugh]  We have to have a degree of common sense.  Mind you, I did in the old days.  When I was doing an article on Telemann for High Fidelity many, many years ago, I spent six weeks, fourteen hours a day, listening to Telemann.  It’s a great tribute to Telemann that at the end I liked him even more than when I started!  There’s a fair amount of Mozart, and the encouraging thing is that we’re getting also a fair amount of Mozart in
authentic performances, although that’s a very dangerous word.

BD:   Let’s talk just a bit about Mozart.  Should there be a plan for Lyric Opera of Chicago to do La Finta Semplice, or should they stick to Così Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Magic Flute?

Jacobson:   Until those latter works are really known and owned by Chicago, then they should be stuck to.  Mozart is not an established operatic composer in Chicago.

BD:   Should there be a Mozart opera every year in a season which has just seven operas?

Jacobson:   Oh certainly, yes.

BD:   Can we plug in any other composer and insist he be done every year?

Jacobson:   This is my own personal view, but I don’t think you can plug in any other major composer.  Mozart is the most important opera composer.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  May I quote you on that?

Jacobson:   Oh, yes!  Absolutely, without question in my mind.  Mind you, there are lots of other great opera composers... well, not lots, but there are maybe half a dozen.

BD:   Who are the others in that half dozen?

Jacobson:   Monteverdi, Handel... one has to say Beethoven because of Fidelio, also Verdi, Puccini, Strauss.

BD:   Could there have been Strauss without Wagner?

Jacobson:   Yes.  I’m talking about quality, not historical influence.  We should also include Janáček, Tippett, Henze, and maybe Britten.

BD:   So, that’s really ten?

Jacobson:   Yes.

BD:   [Feigning alarm]  You’ve left out most of the bread-and-butter of most major opera houses!

Jacobson:   Yes.  Donizetti is a very delightful opera composer, and Rossini is a very delightful opera composer.  They’re on the edge because there are two or three works of each that might qualify them, but I don’t think on the general level that their production is of the first water.

BD:   Are there a lot of composers who write one big piece, and then the rest are sort of middling?

Jacobson:   Oh, I think so.  This is probably true of Mussorgsky, where Boris Godunov is very clearly a different order from all the other things.

BD:   Does that mean we should never do the other Mussorgsky operas?

Jacobson:   Oh, no.  You need to in order to have an historical perspective.  It’s important to play bad eighteenth-century music so that you don’t go around with the idea that all music written in the eighteenth century was good.  After all, we have greater accuracy of perspective on music of the twentieth century, so as far as possible we should try and get it for previous centuries as well.  It’s enormously encouraging for twentieth century composers to hear a piece by Franz Danzi (1763-1826) and discover how bad composers could be in the eighteenth century.

BD:   So a season of seven operas should not try always to do seven masterworks?

Jacobson:   Not always.  I don’t think this is necessary until the end of time.  I just have the feeling that Mozart has been so neglected, relatively speaking, in Chicago that he needs a pretty big dose to establish the sense of what is opera.  [Remember, this interview took place early in 1982, and Lyric Opera has presented well-known and lesser-known Mozart operas in various seasons.]

BD:   Do Mozart operas really work well in a theater the size of Covent Garden [2,250 seats], or the Lyric [3,560 seats]?
Jacobson:   They can, yes.

BD:   Wouldn’t they be better in the Civic theater [900 seats, adjacent to the large theater where Lyric Opera plays... though, sadly, this area was converted to rehearsal space in the renovations of 1993-96], or Glyndebourne [now expanded to 1,200 seats]?

Jacobson:   Yes, I think that there are places in which it would be better, but on the other hand I’m not demanding they all be
‘authentic performances.  If you’re playing with modern instruments, and modern audiences, then you have a different aural perspective anyway.

BD:   Do you want to have Monteverdi played on modern instruments?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Tatiana Troyanos, James McCracken, and Werner Klemperer.]

Jacobson:   In the opera house it can work very well.  It can also work with old instruments, but with old instruments it had better be a smaller house.  To that extent, one can distinguish between two different valid ways of doing it.  I’m not a proponent in any sense of the notion that there’s only way to do anything.  I don’t accept that view about any musical experience.  I was very delighted when I was interviewing Nikolaus Harnoncourt for a book I did on conducting.  I interviewed him on Bach, and I expected him in advance to be a fairly a priori thinker, and to have good solid German theoretical ideas.  In fact, he was exceedingly refreshingly empirical, and said, “I don’t for one moment argue that there is one way to do these things.  This is the way that I find works for me.”  That, mind you, is the only healthy approach to these things, and he said he never uses the word ‘authentic’ because he considers it too loaded a word.

BD:   Does he use a different word in place of the word ‘authentic’?

Jacobson:   He speaks of using period instruments, or original instruments.

BD:   So, nothing is authentic?  It’s just of the period?

Jacobson:   Right, and it varies because historical perspective changes.  We are different people from those who heard Messiah for the first time.

BD:   Do the works of Monteverdi and Mozart speak to us today?

Jacobson:   They speak to me, and they seem to speak to a fair number of people.

BD:   Do the works of Henze, and Tippett, and Birtwistle speak to us today, or are they waiting to speak to someone another forty, or eighty, or two hundred years from now?

Jacobson:   I don’t feel I can really answer that except in the most half- assed relative way.  They probably speak to many of us less than other works did because we’ve had longer to get used to the others.  But on the other hand, there are audiences for these pieces. They’re just smaller.  It’s probably a mistake to imagine that any art can ever be for everybody.  We can constantly work towards and strive for a situation in which a lot of art is for a great many more people, but some people are always going to prefer football, and that’s fine!  It’s arrogant to suggest that until they come to these things that we love, they’re missing something that would greatly enrich their lives.  There are some lives that would not be enriched by such things.

BD:   Should we try to get the football fans into the opera house, or should we just forget about them?

Jacobson:   We should try and get as many people as possible, but we should not be downcast when a number refuse to follow.  It’s a matter of time, rather than expecting a certain result.  It’s almost self-defining in way.  Obviously, there must be many people who potentially could love music, but don’t yet because they haven’t had the chance.  In the act of going out for them, we can hope to get a fair number of them, but we shouldn’t be disappointed that we don’t get a fair number of the other people who are never going to be interested anyway.

BD:   In all of this, what part do the electronics play
radio, records, television, etc.?

Jacobson:   A very important role.  I’m not sure what state you’re in with the television in the U.S., but in the old days there was very little music on television.  In England there’s probably a much higher saturation of music going into programs on television.  In London, you can probably see in the course of an ordinary week, anywhere from four to six or seven programs that are operatic, or orchestral, or a musician introducing things, which is a considerably higher saturation than you have here.

BD:   What do you say to the person who wants to sit and watch the music on the television, and really doesn’t want to go to the theater?

Jacobson:   At least he won’t be annoyed by people coughing, and unwrapping candy, and chatting.  But, he’ll miss something.  One can, perhaps, get a high proportion of the satisfaction of an opera from listening to a record, but only when one has seen it a few times because then you can recreate the visual in your mind.
BD:   If you’ve seen a few, you can create one that you haven’t seen?

Jacobson:   Yes, but again, the thrill of being face-to-face with the act of recreation will never be replaceable.

BD:   Do you think that we’re getting to where we expect too much?  Are we expecting perfection because we get the cut-and-splice recordings that are perfect, so we’re expecting the same kind of thing in the concert hall?

Jacobson:   This is a problem.  I couldn’t quantify it because I haven’t counted, but I have a feeling very much that in the last four or five years, there’s been a very encouraging trend to make more live recordings from concert performances.  There have been several very memorable ones in recent years.  Bernstein is having the best of both words because what he’s doing is giving two or three concert performances, and each of them is being recorded.  Then they are putting them together to get rid of the errors, but at least you have the feel of the live performance there, which tends to be of a different quality somehow.  A thing like the [April 1979] Boston recording of Gurre-Lieder [shown above-right], and a quite marvelous recording of Diabelli Variations that Alfred Brendel made live at Royal Festival Hall in London [February 1976, shown at left], and so on.  There are many other things like that.  I seem to come across many more of these than I did, and I think it’s a very healthy trend.  [In the years since this interview, many of the top-level organizations have begun making records this way.]

BD:   Is it wrong to stop a recording because the pianist loses his place?

Jacobson:   In the studio, that’s the way you go about things.  Again, I don’t think there’s any one way of doing these things.  The essential thing is to know what you’re face-to-face with, and be aware when you’re listening to a highly-polished studio recording that that’s what it is, and not be disappointed when you go into the hall and the chap turns out to be human.

BD:   That’s the secret.  How can we get more people to understand this, especially the children who are coming from the electronic age?  They’ve been watching the box so much, and they expect perfection.

Jacobson:   Of course, there are many different views about this.  There was the John Culshaw view that opera on record is a quite different animal from opera in the opera house, and that it was not the function of the record producer to try to reproduce the experience of the opera house, but to produce a new kind of experience.

BD:   Is that a valid approach?

Jacobson:   It’s a valid thought, but I don’t agree with it.  I tend to be more of the school that likes to be reminded of my theatrical experiences.  Therefore I tend to like a balance that is credible in opera house terms.  On that, I would probably compromise.  I like to be able to hear all the singers, but I don’t want to have them jumping out at me.

BD:   You don’t want it larger than life?

Jacobson:   No.  I don’t want to be made to feel I’m sitting on a second violinist’s lapel.  Many of the old American Columbia recordings used a multi-mike technique with a very big sound, and really made one feel they were sitting in the middle of the orchestra.

BD:   [Playing Devil
s Advocate]  Yet when the man who sits in the middle of the orchestra listens to the recording, its great.

Jacobson:   Yes, he can continue to go on making invalid judgments about the gifts of conductors, based on hearing one-third of the score.  [Laughs]  That’s a naughty thing to say, but you know what I mean.  I tend to listen with care and attention when orchestral musicians say positive things about conductors, and to listen with rather less care and attention when they say negative things about them, because I don’t think they’re really in the best position to judge.  I don’t want to be in that position!  I want to be out there listening.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t ever want to sit and saw away in the back of the violin section???

Jacobson:   No!  I did that for a couple of years.  I was second desk of the second violins in the school orchestra, of which there were two desks!  I was pretty bad, but I had fun.  But no, that’s not what I want to do.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Do you have any thoughts on getting young children to understand opera?  What kinds of things we can do, and what kinds of things are just deadly?

Jacobson:   There is an encouraging wave of composing operas for children going on, which has got to help.  Several English composers have written pieces of that nature in the last few years.  I don’t know whether American composers are doing the same sort of thing, but I would imagine that they are.

BD:   The only one I can think of is Malcolm Williamson.

Jacobson:   Yes, there’s Malcolm Williamson, Robert Saxton (b. 1953), and Gordon Crosse (1937-2021), as well as two we have already mentionedJosephs, and Maxwell Davies.  So there are quite a number of English ones.  These things are having an impact, but a very small one.  We’re talking about tiny, tiny steps forward.  Bernard Shaw had a phrase about when you think of the comparative amount of time expended in schools on music, and the comparatively revolting and unimportant subject of mathematics, you realize what we’re up against.  [Both laugh]  I don’t think that mathematics is unimportant, but I do think that the music is more important than the average school curriculum would lead one to believe, and until it has a reasonable place in educational circles, it’s going to be an uphill fight later on in individual lives.

BD:   I assume part of the problem is just allocating funds.

Jacobson:   Yes.  There isn’t enough time and there aren’t enough funds, but the priorities are probably not quite right the way they are.  Many opera companies could also be more imaginative in the special arrangements they offer for schools, and children, and so on.  I must emphasize I am no longer a critic, so I must not be a critic.

BD:   You worked for several years as a critic.  Now you’re working in a different end of the business, in promotion.  Do you find when you go to a concert that you listen differently?

Jacobson:   Yes, quite often.  Taking the question head over heels, as it were, when I was a critic, I found that sometimes I would be at a concert that I didn’t think I was reviewing
if I was visiting somewhere, and I just felt like going to something for pleasuretwo or three times it happened that somebody discovered I was there, and said, “Oh! We need a review.  Could you do one for us?”  The funny thing was that I then had to replay the concert in my mind.  It sounds arrogant to say that one can do that, but what I’m doing is distinguishing.  It’s not that one listens a different way, it’s that one pays attention a different way.  Because my listening training is the way it is, and it always will be, it goes in.  If I’m not reviewing, I’m not watching out for certain things.  But once the concert’s in there, I can look at it again.  It’s a very curious thing, but I actually used to do that.  This happened a couple of times, and I would sit down with a scorewhich I probably didn’t have with me if I wasn’t reviewing the concertand then go through it, and rehear the concert.  That’s the difference.  In terms of what I’m now doing, I can relax a lot more when I’m at concerts.

BD:   Are you more forgiving?

Jacobson:   Yes, and I don’t think I was a mean critic actually.  I was always a critic who looked for positive things when I could find them.  It’s not too much a question of forgiving in terms of performers, it’s that I’m more accepting in terms of music.  Driving to work a few weeks ago, I was listening to the Chausson B-Flat Symphony, which, when I was a critic here in Chicago, I remember thinking was an absolutely contemptible and unacceptable work.  But listening to it on the radio, I thought it was really not a bad piece at all!  I couldn’t defend it, and that’s why as a critic I couldn’t accept it, but just as a passive listener, I can enjoy it a lot.  I also went to a performance of the Franck Symphony not long ago, which I enjoyed, and the Saint-Saëns Third.  These are all pieces that I wouldn’t have had then, and in a sense that is admitting, in terms of my relationship with my subject and my audience, that I was perhaps not doing as good a job then as I should have been doing.  I wasn’t empathizing enough what one should be listening for in music, rather than what a critic should be listening for in music.  I could have done better in that regard, but it’s nice to be able to relax into that way of things.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You should get a list of all the subscribers to the Daily News, and send a handwritten letter to each one of them!  [Both laugh]  I’m glad that you are in Chicago again.  How often do you get back?

Jacobson:   Well, it’s been three years actually, which I regret.

BD:   You’re here talking about Andrzej Panufnik?

Jacobson:   Yes.  I’m in the United States because I was asked to talk about him and his music.  His new symphony was being done in Boston last week.  It’s one of the centennial commissions.  We publish him, and six months ago he said to me that I’ve got to be there.  Then I wrote to a couple of people to set up some lectures in order to pay my fare.  For Chicago, Panufnik was a very natural choice simply because there is a very large and important Polish community here.  Very sadly, the new symphony that he’s written for Boston has turned into a much more violently topical piece than it was when it was conceived.  It’s a symphony dedicated to the Black Madonna of Poland, which is a national symbol of independence and statehood.  The piece was written between August 1980 and August 1981, and all that happened since has just made it horribly, horribly apposite [apt in the circumstance].

BD:   Is it political, like Beethoven scratching out the dedication of the Eroica?

Jacobson:   Right, turning it into something different, yes, yes.  At the performance on Friday afternoon in Boston, there was a standing ovation for the piece, which I’ve never seen on a Friday afternoon anywhere.  The man next to me was standing up clapping wildly.  I was sitting down, and my managing director was sitting down next to me, because we feel it is not part of our function to create demonstrations in favor of our own clients.

BD:   But you should go along with an ovation, and not make the people around you uneasy.

Jacobson:   We did get up eventually, but we weren’t going to be among the first to do it.  We wanted everybody else to go first, and then once it was thoroughly going, we would get up.  It is just a matter of delicacy.  I hate people who immediately start demonstrating for their own clients.  But the thing was, this man turned and perhaps thought that because we were still sitting down at this stage, we were somehow disagreeing.  He turned to me and said, “The applause is for Poland!  It’s not for him!”  That was a disappointing thing to hear, but at the same time it was right because that’s what the piece is for.  Even though people may not be aware that’s the process, the result is achieved.  So, that’s why I’m here, and that’s why it’s Panufnik.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success, and I hope you come back again soon.

Jacobson:   I shall be over more often.  I’ve got to do that. 

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© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 2, 1982.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1989 and 1994.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.