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Two books - and a life's work - from Tom DiNardo

In the early '70s, Tom DiNardo, who went on to write for the Philadelphia Daily News and the Inquirer, got his start as a music critic and reviewer.

Reviewed by Frank Wilson

In the early '70s, Tom DiNardo, who went on to write for the Philadelphia Daily News and the Inquirer, got his start as a music critic and reviewer.

DiNardo was never a staffer, always a freelancer, and if that rewarding but uncertain line of work holds any attraction for you, these two volumes are must-reads. He has chatted with some of the biggest names in the business: conductors Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch, opera stars Renée Fleming and Denyce Graves.

The downside of freelancing is equally clear: It's not exactly steady and the pay's not great. When DiNardo remarked to then-Daily News editor Zach Stalberg that he had been writing for the paper for 20 years and was still getting the same pay, Stalberg told him, "You were probably overpaid then, and are probably underpaid now, but it all evens out."

DiNardo's beat wasn't just classical music. He also reviewed jazz and pop, and got the chance to go on tours. Which is why you can't read these pages without learning a lot.

Composer Alec Wilder is best remembered as the author of American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, but how many people know he wrote a slew of works for "odd combinations of instruments"? DiNardo reviewed a couple of those works - Wilder's Quintet No. 13 and a sextet - and sent the review to Wilder, who wrote back saying, "You mustn't be embarrassed by my acknowledging that SOMEBODY CARES!"

Mention of Wilder makes it also necessary, unfortunately, to note that DiNardo refers to Wilder's classic book slightly inaccurately, as The American Popular Song. Like everyone who writes, DiNardo has some complaints about editors and their editing. But his books could have used a little of both. Otis Blackwell wrote some great songs, including some hits for Elvis Presley, but "Love Me Tender" is not among them (it was adapted from the Civil War ballad "Aura Lee"). On one page, Graves' name is spelled two ways. There are other such slips, and they are all minor, but they also annoy, detracting from what is in fact a gold mine of musical and biographical information.

It's nice, for instance, to be reminded in detail that Philadelphia and its environs have produced some pretty noteworthy composers, including David Raksin, called "the grandfather of film music," who wrote the theme song for Laura; and Alex North, who wrote the score for A Streetcar Named Desire and who was nominated for 15 Academy Awards.

Then there are the quotes. Harpsichordist Temple Painter says of his instrument, "I think of [it] as a big guitar that looks like a piano and is approached like an organ." Composer Ned Rorem draws this blithe distinction: "The French are profoundly superficial. . . . By comparison, the Germans are superficially profound."

Norman Carol, for 28 years the Philadelphia Orchestra's concertmaster, tells a touching story of how, during Eugene Ormandy's last Carnegie Hall concert, the conductor had to lie on a cot during intermission:

"We were to play the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, a work Ormandy usually conducted without a score, but the librarian placed the opened score on the music stand. Ormandy walked onto the podium, slammed the cover closed, and conducted like a young man. He never missed a beat. . . . It was one of the most spooky things I have ever experienced."

Perhaps most interesting of all is Muti's explanation of why he chose Michael Myers to sing the tenor part in Scriabin's Symphony No. 1: "I didn't want to use big names, some I like, some I dislike from the deepest part of my heart, including one that's going around the world killing the Italian repertoire."

Who might that be?

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. - The Epilogue. Email him at