Daniel Webster, 86, whose perceptive, elegant criticism chronicled the classical music scene in Philadelphia and beyond for nearly four decades, died Sunday at home in Wilmington, said his wife, Karen Gripp.
The Inquirer’s classical music critic from 1963 to 1999, Mr. Webster occupied his spot as Philadelphia commanded national and international attention through an orchestra that toured, recorded, and broadcast widely. He retired as classical music was being buffeted by many of the cultural and demographic shifts that continue today.
“His contribution for many, many years to the musical and cultural life in Philadelphia has been very important,” said Riccardo Muti, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980 to 1992. “He was knowledgeable, honest, critical, and a very nice person.
“He was not the man of the elite, but the man of the people,” said Muti, recalling the critic’s early calls for classical music to attract wider audiences by abolishing highbrow perceptions.
Mr. Webster’s Philadelphia era was bookended by artists like tenor Richard Tucker and conductor Hermann Scherchen in the 1960s, and the arts boom of the 1990s that created hundreds of millions of dollars in custom-built arts facilities and one of the most bustling music scenes in the country.
“Dan wore the language of music as comfortably as an old tweed jacket,” said Rebecca Klock, former Inquirer fine arts editor. “Never pedantic or punitive or imperious, he made you feel that you should know these pieces as friends, or potential friends. His deep knowledge and sharp judgments were palpable, but beneath these lay a tender affection that spoke to a kinship with music that was far more personal than professional. In every review, he could have been writing for himself.”
He described English violinist Nigel Kennedy in 1999 as “charming his audience with downscale nonchalance and upmarket playing.” A 1988 visit to the Painted Bride by avant-garde composer Meredith Monk drew the observation that her “songs project everything but words. Her post-verbal texts are made of glottal stops and hisses, tongue clicks and tones pushed out from the diaphragm. Voice and amplification are one. She has almost erased the distinction between voice and the electronic means that project it.”
He said of Joshua Bell’s 1988 local recital debut at age 20 that the violinist was “clearly testing ideas, taking chances and sometimes running headlong through music, propelled by pleasure in his own dexterity.”
Mr. Webster was one of only a handful of journalists to travel with the Philadelphia Orchestra to China in 1973 as the communist regime cautiously cracked open the door to Western culture. A few years later, with Eugene Ormandy’s powers winding down and the best of his four-plus decades as the orchestra’s personification clearly behind him, it was Mr. Webster who cheered on the young Italian firebrand Muti.
As traditionalists clung to the idea of keeping the orchestra in its ancestral home, the Academy of Music, Mr. Webster applauded the drive to build a new hall whose acoustical quality could be on par with that of the city’s famous ensemble.
“He had a very open mind,” said Muti. “He was a person always looking ahead and hoping for a society more culturally cultivated.”
Particularly so for Philadelphia, which, despite its arts chic today, had a very decidedly less progressive vibe and aesthetic in the middle of the last century. “When he came here in ’63, it was, as [composer] Ralph Shapey used to say, a musical graveyard,” said Anthony P. Checchia, founding artistic director of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. “Dan was encouraging and supportive of new endeavors and projects.”
Harvey Daniel Webster, born and raised in Grand Junction, Colo., trained as a French horn player and he recalled his astonishment as a young adult encountering his first Beethoven Symphony No. 3. It arrived over the car radio, and he pulled to the side of the road to hear it to its conclusion.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, he worked as a counselor at the New England Music Camp in Oakland, Maine, where he met his first wife, Helen Theresa Sault. They married in 1953. During the Korean War, he spent two years in the U.S. Army Band stationed in Salzburg, and after the war he went back to school, earning a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University.
Soft-spoken and prone to deflecting praise, Mr. Webster had his first job at the Newburyport (Mass.) Daily News, and then moved on to the Quincy Patriot Ledger.
He was hired by the Inquirer in November 1963. It was a different time in music director-music critic relations, and Ormandy did not resist the urge to critique the critic.
“We spoke frequently. When he didn’t like a review, he would call my wife,” he recalled in a brief reminiscence written a few months ago. Helen Webster died in 1989.
Among the moments Mr. Webster considered high points: The trip to China in 1973 (“a chance to see a vanishing culture,” he said); visits to Italy before Muti was hired; travel in Europe with the orchestra; attending the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s new house in Lincoln Center; recording the growth of music and dance in the city, especially with the start of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society; and working with Vera Wilson at Astral Artists, which he did for a dozen years after retiring from full-time work for the Inquirer.
“It was a fortunate time in journalism and in music,” he said.
He also wrote a coins column for the Inquirer under a nom de plume borrowed from his father-in-law, Henri Sault, and often wrote dance criticism for the paper.
He was in his post long enough to see cultural policies rise and fall like hemlines. He marveled when a study was commissioned to prove that the Musical Fund Hall’s historically important 600-seat auditorium was of no use to the city, and then, just a few years after demolition of the hall’s auditorium, he watched as arts leaders stumped for what would eventually become the Kimmel Center, which included a hall of about 600 seats.
And yet he expressed wonder most often at the unlikely profession of listening to music and telling readers what he thought of it, and at the growth of the art form itself. Wrote Mr. Webster in his farewell column: “Institutions may wobble, but music does not.”
In addition to Gripp, whom he married in 1993, he is survived by their daughter, Emily Webster Gripp; children Martin, Nathan, and Theresa; and six grandchildren. Donations in his name may be made to Astral Artists, 230 S. Broad St., Suite 300, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102; the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, 1528 Walnut St., Suite 301, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102; or Delaware Hospice, 6 Polly Drummond Center, Newark, Del. 19711.