Kevin Riordan: A tribute to arts critic Robert Baxter

The phrase "didn't suffer fools gladly" fit Robert Baxter flawlessly.

So, too, did the nickname "Bobby Bee," with which the respected fine-arts critic, journalist, and teacher liked to sign off particularly piquant e-mails.

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Robert Baxter, respected critic, journalist, and teacher, died too soon, on Wednesday.

Robert died Wednesday after what writers far more hackneyed than he might describe as a "brave battle" with pancreatic cancer. He was only 69.

Given that Bobby Bee's sting must be avoided at all costs and at all times, I hereby vow to bravely battle my congenital Irish Catholic zest for sentimentality in today's column.

A longtime Cherry Hill resident, Robert grew up in Northern California and came from pioneer stock, the real deal. The fiercely handsome men and women in his 19th-century family photos looked as if they might conquer a continent, as, in fact, they had.

From this uplifting heritage came a bred-in-the-bone conservatism that found unequivocal expression in his politics. Let's just say the day I found him no longer watching Fox News was the day I realized he'd be leaving soon.

As was true of his politics, Robert's aesthetic sensibility was rooted in an almost primal soil - a basic material enriched by serious study, including a Ph.D. in the classics from Stanford. His earthiness could startle almost as much as his erudition could inspire. And he nourished his intellect through a lifetime of living and listening well.

Orchestral music was essential, but opera was like breathing, particularly if the lungs were those of Maria Callas. The diva's dramatic face gazed down from seemingly every wall of his home, reigning until the end.

Mind you, Robert did have his guilty pleasures, musical and otherwise. That's why the recordings he gave me range from Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony to Mae West's "Way Out West."

He admired Frank Sinatra and, not surprisingly for someone who was 15 or so when Elvis hit, liked some rock-and-roll, too. But he could be merciless about pop - such as the time he unleashed a delectable (though unprintable) assessment of Madonna.

If lack of talent earned Robert's scorn, the presence of it - whether at the Met or the Unity Community Center in Camden - earned kudos in the reviews he wrote for the Camden Courier-Post and other publications.

One of his proudest accomplishments as a critic was helping launch the career of Othalie Graham, the Philadelphia-based dramatic soprano.

"He believed in me," said Graham, one of three friends at his side when he passed away. "He was the first one."

Robert did, indeed, prize the hard work, diligence and mastery inherent in fine technique.

But he also recognized that even a performance with technical shortcomings - say, by a newcomer onstage at the Ritz Theatre in Haddon Township - could communicate something profound.

What he sought in a performance or in print was the sort of truthful, fearless act of communication, the emotional charge that arises from the heart and bridges the gap between us.

This beautiful exchange, particularly in the form of song, nurtured him much as he nurtured it through his work.

It helped him carry on even after the death of his mother, his retirement from newspapers, and the cancer diagnosis - all within three cataclysmic months in 2008.

It helped him continue to teach vocal music history, even though he was so weak he needed a cab for the few blocks from the final PATCO stop in Center City to the Academy of Vocal Arts.

A few weeks before the last pieces fell away, Robert told me that, if reincarnated, he'd like to return "as an enormous ear."

What better way to hear more of what he had long listened for?

It would be so wonderful to hear it all fresh. To hear it all again.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.