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Coda/Somebody's Lion

Composer Robert Kritz let his gift languish for 40 years, but now he's back and his reputation is building.


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The postcards are handsome: basic black-and-white, with a photo of a chamber ensemble or soloist and a dash of savvy copy. They've been coming every month or so lately, announcing a performance of a work by composer Robert Kritz--who's also the man behind the perfectly pitched cards. Kritz, who made his living selling products like television sets and financial services by direct mail for more than 40 years, is now marketing the music he wrote before he took one of the longest pauses in history--and new compositions he's written in the last few years. His most recent mailing brought word that his "String Quintet 1946" would be performed March 14 by the Mondriaan Quartet at Amsterdam's renowned Concertgebouw.

Kritz was born in 1925, the youngest of six children of a Chicago cantor. He began piano lessons at age 6, went on to the bass fiddle and cello, and at 11 started to study composition with Paul Held at the American Conservatory. He graduated from Senn High School at 16 and enrolled at Northwestern University as a music major. A year later, with the country at war, he dropped out to enlist in the marines and was sent to the Pacific. When he returned three years later he went to University of Wisconsin, attracted by the Pro Arte Quartet. He stayed at Wisconsin for a year, playing bass with a jazz combo for spending money and composing music influenced by Bartok and Ravel. Then he returned to Chicago to study with theorist Oswald Jonas at Roosevelt University and to marry Dorothy Labinger, a silver-voiced soprano.

He wrote a cycle of love songs for Dorothy, with lyrics by his sister, poet Brina Rodin, but their idyllic days were short. A pregnancy in the first year of their marriage left his wife with kidney damage that resulted in her death 12 years later (the baby lived only six months) and saddled Kritz with medical bills that took another 10 years to pay off. In 1952 he stopped composing and took a job selling records at his brother's store, Alan Radio & Appliance, which eventually became Douglas TV. He soon took over the store's advertising and then joined a direct-mail company, where he rose to vice president of marketing. He also remarried, had two children, divorced, and--finding himself out of a job at 58--opened his own direct-mail shop, which he ran until he retired at the age of 69.

During his years as a businessman Kritz would occasionally pull out his music, wishing he could hear it played, wondering if it had been any good. In 1995, at the urging of his companion, Georgeanna Fischetti, he made a cold call to the music department at Northwestern, got an appointment with associate dean Richard Green, and took in one of his old scores. "I was nervous," Kritz says. "I expected them to laugh me out of the office." Instead Green was polite, "and then he started humming a little to himself. He said, 'I'd like to discuss this with the head of the theory department and we'll call you back.'" When they did, Kritz was amazed: they wanted his permission to do a "reading" of the piece, and after that they wanted to set up a master class to work on it. "For four months they played my quintet in rehearsal and then they gave two performances as part of the music school's chamber music festival," Kritz says. "That was November '95. [The performance] happened on my 70th birthday."

Since then he's been composing steadily and attending the increasingly frequent performances of his work. (One week last month the Reader's classical music listings posted eight.) He's reorchestrating a concerto for the Chicago Chamber Orchestra's next season, and in August two of his pieces will be played at a music festival in France. But the major recent development is a commission from Northeastern Illinois University for a piece for orchestra and voice, "Lamentations for the 21st Century." It'll be performed by the Orion Ensemble next September in Chicago and then in three other cities. "For a guy that six years ago was selling postcards," Kritz says, "this is beyond anything I dreamed of."

Somebody's Lion

Architect and preservationist Thom Greene was browsing at Architectural Artifacts last year when he came across six beguiling lion heads. They were "rich, speckled, amber-colored terra-cotta, like thick honey in a jar"--just the right shade to go with the six brick row houses his firm, Greene & Proppe Design, was putting up at 1218-32 W. Bryn Mawr. He talked the developer into buying them (at about $800 each) so one could be mounted on the front of each home, and he asked a staff member to trace their origin, which turned out to be the Lee Plaza, a deserted historical apartment building in Detroit that once bore dozens of the heads. Greene played up this nice bit of history on his firm's Web site last spring, and the lions were put in place in early summer. In July angry calls started coming in. Callers accused him of looting the lions, as if he'd climbed the 16-story building and ripped them out himself. Stuart Grannen of Architectural Artifacts says he bought them at an Ann Arbor flea market two years ago and didn't know they'd been stolen. Greene, a Detroit native and founding member of the Edgewater Historical Society, says he's had some conversations with Detroit police, but no one's asking for the lions' return.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, Bruce Powell.


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