Renowned musicologist Michael Steinberg dies

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Michael Steinberg
Michael Steinberg was the program annotator for the Minnesota Orchestra at the time this photo was taken.
Photo: Jorja Fleezanis

Eminent music critic Michael Steinberg died Sunday of cancer. He was 80.

Even in classical music, a world where people are often praised as giants, Steinberg stood out for his passionate and encyclopedic knowledge and writing on the genre.

Steinberg was diagnosed with cancer three years ago.

Minnesota Orchestra historian Mary Ann Feldman said the much-loved classical music writer had a long and wide-ranging career.

"[He] was a great mind and a uniquely wonderful human being," Feldman said. "He'll be much missed."

Steinberg worked as a music critic for the Boston Globe, and taught music history and criticism at several colleges and universities, mostly on the East Coast.

He also worked with many of the major symphony orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

Toward the end of his career, he was an advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra, and gave pre-concert talks in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York.

Feldman has known Steinberg since the early 1970s. She remembers him as a mentor and friend who taught her much about communicating with audiences.

"That is something we shared. Both of us loved to talk to audiences, especially before a concert," said Feldman. "It was a feeling of helping them be prepared for the experience without necessarily having to read program notes or boning up on anything. The speaker can kind of open the door for every listener, whether they are sophisticated and experienced, or coming to a concert at Orchestra Hall for the first time in their lives."

"[He] was a great mind and a uniquely wonderful human being."

Steinberg was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1928, and spent part of his childhood in England after escaping with his family from Nazi Germany. He moved to the United States with his mother and brother before the end of World War II.

It was in England that he found his love of music.

In a 2008 interview, Steinberg recalled seeing the original "Fantasia," the Walt Disney movie, for the first time. He could only afford to see the movie in the theater once.

"I had next to no money, no pocket money of any kind. But I did find out that there was an alley where you could stand behind the theater and you could hear the soundtrack," Steinberg said at the time. "I used to go after school every afternoon for about as long as it was running, which was about two weeks, and listen to the music. And that was my introduction to the 'Rite of Spring,' for example."

He said the experience made a huge impression on him and turned him on to classical music for life.

Steinberg moved to Minneapolis after his wife, violinist Jorja Fleezanis, was named Concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra in 1989.

Brian Newhouse, from American Public Media's Performance Today, knew Steinberg through his work with the Minnesota Orchestra.

"He could go into a concert hall in any of the great halls, literally of the world, and people would know him and really seek his opinon out," Newhouse said. "For all of that, he was so approachable and so kind of funny, and in love with the music right through. You never got the sense that as he aged that that was less important to him. Actually, it seemed to be more important as he aged. He valued these great pieces of art, and his relationship with them and you got that sense from him all the time."

Michael Steinberg is survived by his wife, his sons and a large extended family.

The family will receive friends at their home in Minneapolis on Tuesday, July 28 from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Concerts to celebrate Michael Steinberg's life will be presented in San Francisco and Minneapolis, at times to be announced shortly.