Courtesy of Tony Cencicola
Anthony Tommasini ’70 MUS ’72, writer, pianist, Yale alumnus and former New York Times chief classical music critic, retired more than two months ago but still responds promptly to emails. He wrote in his initial digital response: “So good to hear from you. I’m glad your message reached me.
Tommasini, who penned his first byline for The New York Times in 1988, was one of the best and brightest movers of music criticism in a city with arguably the most vibrant music scene in the world. He’s written about everything from the untimely death of composer Jonathan Larson before his hit show “Rent” first aired to the orchestra‘s blind audition process to increasing diversity in New York’s symphony orchestras. . Tommasini served as the New York Times’ senior classical music critic for 21 years, until his retirement in 2021.
Tim Page, a longtime friend of Tommasini and winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his work as music critic, described him as “a lover”.
“She’s one of the nicest people I know,” Page said.
Before falling into music criticism, Tommasini received a bachelor’s degree in music theory from Yale College in 1970, then earned a master’s degree in piano from the Yale School of Music in 1972. He also earned a doctorate in musical arts from Boston. University. After teaching for a while, he started as a freelancer for the Boston Globe before ending up at the New York Times.
Adam Sexton, a lecturer and critic of English at the Yale School of Art, noted that Tommasini’s strong background in acting and studying music is one of the factors that contributed to his writing skills.
“One thing that made him special was that he knew his music,” Sexton said. “It is not uncommon for music critics to have not studied music or [to not] learn to play a musical instrument. He writes from a place of great knowledge and authority due to his background.
Page said that Tommasini, above all, “knew his music…It’s essential to his writing.”
“I know a lot about music, but I also understand that people have subjective reactions and they might not agree with me,” he said.
But for critics like Tommasini, Page and Sexton, tapping into his expertise must also come with good writing. As important as knowledge and a thorough education are, Tommasini said the quality of prose was even more of a priority.
“Your expertise matters. But more than that, you have to be able to translate it into really good, lively writing,” he said.
Tommasini’s attitude is reflected in his long dedication not only to music, but also to the literary history of music criticism and, more importantly, to musical awareness and education. Although many of his articles touch on musical events that make headlines around the world, such as the Metropolitan Opera’s first opera by a black composer or a screening of Thomas Adés’ adaptation of the opera entitled “The Tempest”, he used his writing as a way to encourage people from all communities and musical backgrounds to appreciate classical music. He attended student concerts with the same enthusiasm as going to the Metropolitan Opera and said musical institutions — like the Yale School of Music — should be a resource for their local communities.
“Community will come,” Tommasini said of the stereotype that classical music audiences are skewed toward a white, wealthy demographic. “The range just needs to be better.”
Tommasini taught music at Emerson College before becoming a reporter for the New York Times. This context informed his criticism; he said that in his writing career he “always felt like a teacher, trying to explain not only if I liked [the music] but what it was.
He noted that while musicologists write for each other, journalists like him write for the general public. He found himself trying to translate the experience of listening to music into the written word, acting as an educator more than anything else.
Tommasini’s work brings classical music to the intersection between analog and cutting edge, old and new, ancient and fresh. While much of his work focused on repertoire, programs and above all the beauty of pure music, Tommasini also made sure to include the whispers of restless audiences, the chirping final echo of an operetta solitary, the feeling of you too being in the hushed crowd of the Shubert, watching the music unfold.
“His writing was so refreshing because he wasn’t one of those critics who went out to gore everyone in the books,” Page said. “He was thoughtful and always felt that criticism was kind of a lesson.”
Tommasini has also been described by Page as a towering superhero figure in the world of music criticism.
“I believe Tony is the best chief critic The Times has ever had,” Page said. “A newspaper like the Times has a certain power. And Tony has always used his power wisely.
Tommasini recently published an article commemorating his first New York Times signing, which paid tribute to his late friend Bob Walden, a former Marine fan and Mozart enthusiast who died of AIDS.
When first published, he said he was struck by the thought that “well, I guess I’m a writer”.
Although music criticism was not part of Tommasini’s initial career plan, he remained totally and unmistakably committed to passing on his love for classical music to the everyday person.
But what is most important in Tommasini’s writing is precisely that: the writing. In the age of facts, figures and journalistic detail, in search of truth and unbiased reporting, he asked, “What does a newspaper sell, after all?”
Responding, he said, “I write.