Arts critic Andrew Patner dies at 55; versatile Chicago writer, radio host
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In Chicago’s classical music world, you didn’t connect through six degrees of Kevin Bacon.
You intersected through six degrees of Andrew Patner.
Versatile, respected and enthusiastic, Mr. Patner seemed to know everyone in the arts community, from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to the Lyric Opera, to jazz clubs, to classical music festivals across Europe. His opinions were informed with an encyclopedic knowledge of history, art, literature, city politics, architecture and mythology, spiced with Jewish humor.
He educated readers and listeners, mentored many and charmed even more. He could joke with music maestros and point out the best place for Chinese food in Hyde Park, where he had deep family and intellectual roots. A friend of famed cabaret pianist Bobby Short, he could discuss the Great American Songbook or advise film buffs not to miss the French masterpieces “Pepe le Moko” and “Children of Paradise.”
To hosts and producers of Chicago and radio TV shows, Mr. Patner was like a perfect dinner party guest — he could be relied on to fill an empty seat at the last minute and better yet, engage in lively, off-the-cuff conversation.
Mr. Patner, 55, died unexpectedly Tuesday at St. Joseph Hospital. He began feeling ill over the weekend, said his partner of 25 years, New Yorker cartoonist Tom Bachtell. “What started as a fever on Saturday morning quickly developed into pneumonia and a full-blown bacterial infection and sepsis,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
“It developed so fast,” Bachtell told the Sun-Times, where Mr. Patner was a contributing classical music writer. “He had been in contact with his doctors through the weekend and thought he was having symptoms of the flu. He was taking ibuprofen and drinking Gatorade. In the meantime, he was developing pneumonia, and yesterday, it just escalated. When he walked into his doctor’s office, they took one look at him and said, ‘You’re going to the E.R.’ ’’
He was quickly transported to the intensive care unit. “The infection was too much for his heart,” his partner said. “He just shut down.” Mr. Patner’s doctors have taken blood samples but don’t yet know what type of infection felled him, he said.
“I had enormous respect for him as a man of great culture and deep humanity,” said CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti. “We had a sincere friendship, and his death is a tragic loss to the cultural life of Chicago.”
Jim Kirk, Chicago Sun-Times publisher and editor in chief, said: “We are shocked and deeply saddened by the news of Andrew’s passing. He was a passionate supporter of the arts in Chicago. Through his writing, he pushed our city’s institutions to strive for excellence on every level. He will be missed by the Sun-Times family as well as by his legion of readers who consistently turned to him for his sharp insight and commentary.”
“He was a profoundly intelligent man of great wisdom,” Lyric Opera General Director Anthony Freud said in a statement.
Since 1998, Mr. Patner had been a critic-at-large for WFMT, where he hosted “Critical Thinking” and did commentary on “Critic’s Choice.”
“He was very well known in Salzburg, Norway, Poland — all over Europe — as a writer and as a radio commenter and as a radio producer,” said Steve Robinson, WFMT’s general manager.
Mr. Patner helped host a 2010 memorial concert honoring world-renowned piano player and accordionist Joe Vito, who once called him “the most brilliant man I ever met.”
In Hyde Park, Mr. Patner was “the de facto mayor,” his partner said. He couldn’t walk down the street without getting stopped by someone who wanted to chat or discuss one of his reviews.
He was never too busy to mentor and connect people. In 2000, he spied college senior Marc Geelhoed in the lobby of Carnegie Hall, crestfallen over a sold-out CSO show. Geelhoed was then a trumpet student auditioning for the master’s program at the Juilliard School. Mr. Patner not only gave him a spare ticket but also took him backstage to meet an orchestra trumpeter. “He introduced me to so many interesting people, and people who could help me in my career,” said Geelhoed, now manager of audio media at the CSO.
Mr. Patner — whom Chicago Tribune wordsmith Jon Anderson once said resembled Dustin Hoffman — had a puckish sense of humor. In a posting on the Reader website last year, he ruefully recalled leaving high school for six months to work in Washington for U.S. Rep. Ralph Metcalfe (D-Chicago). Despite his departure, “I had paid my prom fee, and they somehow graduated me anyway,” he said.
“I often felt like I was married to the Marx Brothers,” his partner said. Sometimes, while attending concerts, Mr. Patner would wordlessly hand him an absurdist cartoon he jotted to silently communicate his feelings about a performance.
While Mr. Patner celebrated excellence and the profound joy the arts can bring, he was not afraid to call out artists whose diminished skills indicated they may have overstayed onstage. Those comments were not said with brutality, but with the message that it was time to let others shine. “He was very considerate, but he was also very brave,” Bachtell said.
Mr. Patner attended Kenwood Academy High School, the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin. He was a 2003 USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellow and he won a 1984 Lisagor award for his coverage of Harold Washington’s mayoral race.
He also wrote the book, “I.F Stone: A Portrait.” Previously, he worked for Chicago magazine, WBEZ and the Wall Street Journal.
His mother, Irene, was an ACLU secretary who was active with Urban Gateways. His late father, Marshall, was an attorney who helped found Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. He is also survived by his brothers, Seth and Joshua.
“Andrew was sort of the bearer of a unique Jewish sensibility,” said Seth Patner, “more around humor and an exuberant approach to life, and maybe also the morals and the politics of ‘tikkun olam’ — to improve, to reconstruct the world.”
He was particularly fond of Japanese restaurants, including Itto Sushi, Katsu, Sumi Robata and Yoshi’s Cafe, and had his own sake bottles at several of them.
A public memorial is being planned, Seth Patner said.
“I can barely conceive of attending a concert in Chicago and not seeing Andrew arriving, as usual for him, with mere seconds to spare before the curtain or downbeat,” said Wynne Delacoma, former classical music critic for the Sun-Times. “Andrew was one of those endless fascinating people who know a lot about a lot — from poetry to the thorny music of Pierre Boulez. Chicago’s artists and those of us who care about their work have lost a very good, very smart friend.”