It's one of the most famous scandals in local journalism: The Critic Who Wasn't There. For 25 years, I've been repeating it as a cautionary tale for young reporters.
It all started one day in the mid-1980s, when I got a call from the San Francisco Ballet.
They were angry because their performance at Stern Grove had gotten a negative review from one of the San Francisco Chronicle's music and dance critics, Heuwell Tircuit. What really frosted them, they said, was that he hadn't even attended the performance!
Their proof: He severely criticized one of the ballerinas, but unbeknownst to him she had been called away on a family emergency, and another ballerina danced instead.
The Chronicle fired Tircuit on the spot. The executive editor even took the unprecedented move of publishing a front-page retraction the next day that completely threw him under the bus.
Needless to say, I gleefully piled on for all it was worth. And so did every other columnist in town.
Great story, huh? Only one problem: I just found out it's not true.
Last week I talked with Robert Commanday, who was the Chronicle's chief music critic, and Janos Gereben, who was covering the Stern Grove event for another paper. And they both said Tircuit was there the whole time. The reason he didn't know about the substitution of ballerinas was that the flyer announcing the switch hadn't been inserted in his program.
He made a mistake, but it was an honest one, undeserving of the death penalty.
To his credit, he refused to feel sorry for himself and bravely soldiered on, freelancing for local music magazines. But he was never able to land a job with a major newspaper again. At one point, he was reduced to operating an elevator.
Tircuit died two years ago, so I can't even call him and apologize for my part in ruining his career. The only thing I can do is try to set the record straight.
This was not journalism's finest moment. We all should be ashamed of ourselves. I certainly am.
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But Tircuit, who loved to encourage talented young performers, would have adored Audrey Vardanega, the 16-year-old piano sensation who has been wowing critics and professional musicians since she was a little girl.
When Audrey was 13, I asked George Cleve, the artistic director of the Midsummer Mozart Festival, how good she is for her age. He laughed and said, "Martin, she's good for any age!"
Audrey will be a featured performer at the Midsummer Mozart Festival in July, playing Mozart's gorgeous piano concerto No. 17 in G Major.
But you can see her April 29 when she performs at the Berkeley City Club with the California Chamber Players, which includes several members of the San Francisco Symphony.
The concert is a benefit to raise money to refurbish the City Club's two pianos – a Steinway and a Bechstein – which are in a sad state of disrepair.
"The action is uneven, and they're badly out of tune," she says, "which is a shame because they're really nice pianos."
Tickets are only $35, a steal considering the quality of the performers. Seating is limited, so visit www.eventbrite.com and search for "Mozart Youth Camerata."
Don't miss this chance to hear Audrey before she becomes world famous. You'll be able to brag that you saw her when.