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Writer’s notebook: Kellow tested boundaries of music criticism

It is easier to be a flatterer than a critic of substance
By Steve Forrester

The Daily Astorian

Published on July 26, 2018 8:56AM

Last changed on July 27, 2018 7:19AM

Brian Kellow

Kurt Sneddon

Brian Kellow

The life of Brian Kellow, who grew up in our corner of America, was emblematic of the value of a good public education. He was a graduate of Tillamook High School, and he made it big in New York City. His accomplishments weren’t in today’s hot currency of technology. It was in music, magazine journalism and biography.

Kellow died on July 22 at the age of 59. Brain cancer was the cause of death. He made two public appearances in Astoria over the past 20 years, speaking to Columbia Forum.

A Catholic nun in Tillamook — a piano teacher — gave Kellow the basic equipment of musicianship. At Oregon State University a writing instructor was a particular mentor. Speaking at OSU years later, Kellow recognized that man’s place in his career development.

With musical and literary skills, Kellow reached New York in the 1980s. He initially found work in the cultural hotbed of the 92nd Street Y. In 1988 he joined the editorial staff of Opera News magazine, one of classical music’s most influential publications. Being a musician gave Kellow an advantage in writing music criticism.

Fred Cohn, who wrote Opera News’ obituary of Kellow, described his editorial talent. “I myself once turned in a feature that led with two paragraphs of foofaraw; Brian took out his red pencil and found the exact right opening. He would encourage his writers to burrow deep — to avoid the anodyne and provide the telling, even gritty details that would give a story interest and depth.”

In the upper reaches of classical music criticism, it is easier to be a flatterer than a critic of substance. Kellow tested that boundary when he wrote a memorable column in Opera News that disparaged one of the Metropolitan Opera’s biggest investments in set design — for its Ring Cycle. Kellow’s larger point was that when stage gimmickry gets in the way of a work’s essence, priorities are backward. The board of the Metropolitan Opera Guild — particularly one of its most prominent members — did not like Kellow’s column. I was not surprised when, several months later, Brian wondered if I knew of job opportunities in his field in the Pacific Northwest. He landed at Florida Grand Opera as public relations manager.

Another startling Kellow column described his becoming a Roman Catholic. He recounted growing up in a household that was forcefully agnostic. Since Brian was openly gay, becoming Catholic was a somewhat puzzling choice.

Among Kellow’s biographical subjects were the Broadway legend Ethel Merman and the film critic Pauline Kael.

The last time my wife and I saw Kellow was June 2016. He and his husband emerged from the press room at the San Francisco Opera, prior to a performance of Don Carlo. Under Kellow’s arm was a laptop computer. It contained the text of the novel he’d long talked about. He wouldn’t let the laptop out of his sight. That piece of fiction was set in Tillamook — a coming-of-age story, I expect. I hope one day we will see it.

Steve Forrester, the former editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian, is the president and CEO of EO Media Group.


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