Robert Baxter, 69, of Cherry Hill, performing-arts critic

Robert Baxter was a tough, but respected, reviewer.
Robert Baxter was a tough, but respected, reviewer.
Posted: August 27, 2010

Robert Baxter, 69, of Cherry Hill, a longtime performing-arts critic whose writing helped advance the South Jersey arts scene and who through the Opera Club amplified interest in opera on both sides of the river, died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday, Aug. 25, at his home.

Sweet and soft-spoken in person, Mr. Baxter was tough and authoritative in writing.

The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia revoked his free review tickets because of his constant harsh criticism of its shows.

And staffers at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township stuck pins in a stuffed walrus, like a voodoo doll, when Mr. Baxter was critical of shows they thought deserved better press.

Some in local theaters said that although they hadn't always welcomed his reviews, Mr. Baxter was considered an honest and fair critic.

"He had a special gift as a critic. . . . He supported the art while critiquing the show. He found a tremendous balance," said Bruce Curless, producing artistic director of the Ritz Theatre Company.

Mr. Baxter was the performing-arts critic for the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill for nearly 30 years. He also wrote for publications around the world, such as Opera Magazine and Opera News.

His articles could make or break a small performing-arts company.

Mr. Baxter's good reviews carried so much weight, said Pamela Brant of the Symphony in C, that the orchestra quoted them in grant applications and promotional materials for members.

"He had a very discerning and critical ear," Brant said. "He was very much a purist."

Mr. Baxter wrote multiple articles when the group, formerly the Haddonfield Symphony, changed its name and moved to Camden. Though he did not like the new name, he "turned the tide for us," Brant said.

Even in his final reviews, he held local concerts to the highest standards.

Mr. Baxter gave three out of four stars to a 2008 Symphony in C concert for what he called an "uneven concert."

"From the opening measures of the symphony," he wrote in the Courier-Post, conductor Rossen Milanov "coaxed a rich, warm sound from the orchestra. He exploited the textures and colors of Beethoven's music."

Mr. Baxter added: "Milanov exploited the extremes of Weber's overture, but his reading was overemphatic and hard-edged."

After Mr. Baxter retired from the Courier-Post in 2008, Symphony in C gave him its first "forever seat": an aisle seat in a center row of the mezzanine, where he had always sat while doing reviews.

Mr. Baxter founded the Opera Club in 1985 and hosted monthly meetings at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. He brought in renowned singers or directors to speak. Each year the club, which had about 200 members, sponsored a recital.

"He helped fan the flames of lovers of opera," said John Lane of Philadelphia, a longtime club member.

In 2008, Mr. Baxter began teaching opera history and history of singers at the Academy of Vocal Arts. After landing the gig, Brant recalled, he sent her an e-mail simply saying, "Dream job."

As an opera teacher, Mr. Baxter was not only knowledgeable but also inspirational to artists, said Olivia Vote, a mezzo-soprano resident at the Academy of Vocal Arts.

"He would be so excited, and it would make us excited," she said.

Mr. Baxter was born and raised in Merced, Calif. He received a bachelor of arts degree and a doctorate in classics, both from Stanford University.

Shortly after finishing his degrees, Mr. Baxter taught classics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., for about 10 years.

In 1979, he became performing-arts critic at the Courier-Post. He reviewed shows, symphonies, and operas in Philadelphia and South Jersey and traveled all over the world to learn more about the performing arts, Lane said.

"He brought a level of sophistication to our arts coverage," said Phaedra Trethan, a Courier-Post editor. "He had a real unique voice and an authoritative one."

Mr. Baxter has no survivors.

A memorial service will be scheduled at the Academy of Vocal Arts in September.


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com.

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