By Scott MacClelland
AFTER 12 YEARS as the San Jose Mercury News’ outstanding music critic, Richard Scheinin has been reassigned to cover real estate. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that the struggling daily places a higher value on the lucrative South Bay real estate market than on the arts. “I don’t think the Merc would dispute it’s been cutting back on its arts coverage for years, even decades,” says Scheinin (pronounced ‘shaynin’). “But arts coverage is vanishing everywhere.”
Scheinin began his career at the Mercury as a writer “on general assignment” in May of 1988, and simultaneously, with his wife Sara and first two of three sons, a Santa Cruz resident. Like many Monterey Bay residents, he commutes ‘over the hill.’ “Back then we wrote nearly magazine-length stories—it was a great gig.” He savors the memory of doing features and interviews with many high-profile personalities, citing musician Ike Turner, Secretary of State George Shulz and World Series titlist Tony La Russa. “Today, I’m not so much into sports, but I was a huge baseball fan. I even wrote a book about it.”
Scheinin’s reputation as the Merc’s music critic traces its origins to his youth in New York, where he was born and grew up. He remembers Camelot on Broadway when he was about five. “I was a total music lover from a young age. I studied saxophone from about eight or nine.” (A sketch-artist made the drawing of him, right, when he was about 11.) “I became a complete jazz freak from age 14 or 15.”
Before being assigned to write about music, Scheinin spent several years on the religion and ethics beat. “I wrote cover pieces for 11 years.” During that time he interviewed the Dalai Lama and Billy Graham among other luminaries. “The Bay Area is as interesting religiously as musically.”
Scheinin entered Columbia College in Manhattan as a psychology major, but instead took a Concentration in Music degree in 1976. “I really got into the music scene from ’72 to ’76, when I was at school.” He took piano lessons, studied music theory and first-year conducting and orchestration. He also worked on the college radio station where he interviewed such heroes as Cecil Taylor, Horace Silver and Dizzy Gillespie. At the same time his interest in classical music was expanding. “I’d be listening to Tristan and Debussy.” In 1975, “at age 19 or 20”, he met composer Steve Reich and “got to attend an early performance at his loft of Music for 18 Musicians, maybe the first.” He considers the “revolutionary” piece one of the greatest composed during the last half century. “For me, it was a little like being there for the premiere of The Rite of Spring.”
In 1977, finding himself unemployed he entered Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He took his MA there in 1978, then was hired by a small Massachusetts paper. “I was allegedly a business writer,” he says with an ironic chuckle at the new turn of events at the Merc. He subsequently became a staff writer for the Buffalo Courier-Express and USA Today. During a six-year period, when Sara was a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he freelanced for, among others, GQ and Manhattan,inc magazines.
It’s obvious where his heart is when he starts ticking off the many memorable concerts he has attended during the last dozen years, and even before. He recalls (as I do) the glory days of UCSC’s late, lamented Arts & Lectures Series, naming performances by violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Guarneri String Quartet. He revels in calling to mind concerts at Kuumbwa Jazz by Elvin Jones, Dave Holland and Branford Marsalis. He has a vivid memory of hearing the Beaux Arts Trio—and its irrepressible founding pianist Menachem Pressler—play the great Shostakovich Opus 67 at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose. “I feel it was a great, great privilege to be immersed in that world for 12 years. To hear the San Francisco Symphony and Opera, and watching the impressive first decade of Symphony Silicon Valley, with its fine soloists and conductors, some of whom have developed a real rapport with the musicians.” And he loved talking with composer John Adams and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and getting “a little bit of insight into the genius in their heads.” He has been a regular working fan of Marin Alsop and the Cabrillo Festival.
At the same time he calls the collapse of arts coverage in the mainstream press “kind of a disaster. I mourn for the loss of arts coverage in the media all over the place.” He adds, “The beat was so fabulous, a dream job, most challenging thing I’ve ever done as a journalist. Having to pass judgment on a performance is a daunting responsibility.”
I asked him what he knows about real estate. “I once had a mortgage,” he said.