I first talked to Michael Steinberg on stage. The work was Schoenberg’s massive “Gurrelieder”. I was singing the part of the Bauer, and he was taking the part of Der Sprecher, a role written in Sprechstimme, halfway between speaking and singing. Michael’s German, remembered from childhood, always had a kind of English tinge to it, and he was an elfin presence anyway. I remember particularly the physical way he intoned the last lines: “Erwacht, Erwacht, ihr Blumen zur Wonne” with all his might and main, his small body shaking. Michael had a child’s kind of wonder. Sitting on stage next to each other, he lost no time in giving me a quick review of an operatic performance I had just sung. The language was characteristic: direct and fair. He said my performance was well-sung, but it was a caricature—he was right on both counts!! Michael was a lover of the subtle detail, an extraordinary working method for such a passionate human being. For him, love was in the details. He had an almost magic ability to show how most great technical achievements in music were, at their base, working in the service of a deep singularity. Since he was a great writer he could show how these details contributed to the great singing idea with an empathy that was really a kind of love letter.
He loved rehearsals. The process delighted him. Student rehearsals were just fine by him. I have many times seen him sitting alone in the Theatre Concert Hall while the Fellows did their work. I remember one time in particular when we had been working for six weeks on a ferocious cantata by Jean Barraque. His retort to me when I asked him if he liked it (again it was a combination of the direct and his own personal brand of fairness) was just a laconic, “No”. Then maybe forty-five seconds later he said, in his mischievous voice, “But I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Michael showed me in the few times we talked that music was something to treasure. Most wonderful of all, I remember his comments in a radio interview many years later. Leonard Bernstein was conducting a rehearsal of the last movement of the Mahler 9th, again with the Fellows at Tanglewood. Michael had some penetrating things to say, but what moved me most, was that he opened his description of the rehearsal with these words: “Never to be forgotten.” Never long winded, its his short phrases I most often remember. Michael’s language had the precise,sweet directness of love.