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Wednesday, February 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Travis Rivers, longtime EWU professor and Spokesman-Review classical music critic, dies at 81

UPDATED: Mon., July 29, 2019

Travis Rivers (Courtesy Eastern Washington University)
Travis Rivers (Courtesy Eastern Washington University)

Travis Suttle Rivers, a retired Eastern Washington University music professor and prolific reviewer of the Spokane Symphony, covering hundreds of performances for The Spokesman-Review, died July 21. He was 81.

Rivers’ wife Sharlene Rivers said his death was caused by complications after hitting his head at their apartment at Rockwood Retirement on the South Hill.

Known as perhaps the best-dressed journalist to grace The Spokesman-Review newsroom – always wearing his iconic bow ties – Rivers covered the Spokane Symphony for 32 years.

He quickly rose to prominence in Spokane’s classical music scene writing stories that not only spoke to and satisfied the symphony crowd well-versed in musical terminology and history, but also general audiences.

Music critic Larry Lapidus, who now covers the symphony for The Spokesman-Review, said he was initially apprehensive about following such large footsteps.

“I had my work cut out for me,” Lapidus said.

Eschewing a trend in music criticism that Lapidus said put the critic above the composer, performers and audience, he said Rivers flipped the script, putting humility above all else, even when judging a poor performance.

“He viewed himself as the servant of the other three,” Lapidus said. “And he did that superbly well.”

Born in Mexia, Texas, Rivers grew up an only child who quickly became enraptured with music. After earning a degree in piano performance from Baylor University in Texas, he moved to Iowa, where he met his wife and acquired a doctorate in music history from the University of Iowa.

That degree eventually led him to Cheney and Eastern Washington State College (now Eastern Washington University) in 1964, where he started a long career as a music professor. Known by students for having an encyclopedic knowledge of music history and classical music, teaching was Rivers’ first avenue for sharing that mastery with an audience.

“He was a walking encyclopedia,” said Jody Graves, a graduate program director and music professor at EWU, who took several of Rivers’ classes during her undergraduate days. “In fact, in our music history class, he didn’t use a textbook. We had a reference dictionary, and the rest was just from his head.”

When not teaching, Rivers, a trained pianist, would play in trios and quartets at school concerts or with his wife, who is also a skilled musician.

Sharlene Rivers, 80, remembers spending long afternoons with her husband as they both sat on a piano bench and toiled away at the keys. When not playing together, they would go hiking, or venture out into nature for long camping trips – a hobby he didn’t learn to enjoy until he met Sharlene.

“I introduced him to that and he loved it,” Sharlene said. “Even if it was raining, he still loved it.”

Around the time the couple moved to Cheney they had their first and only son, Martin Rivers. Martin, 57, recalls his father often playing classical music on ihis record player.

Although he developed an appreciation for the genre, Martin said by the time he was in the third or fourth grade he – along with the rest of the country in the early-to-mid 1970s – was listening to rock music, specifically Led Zeppelin. He remembers going to the library in Cheney and bringing home a copy of Led Zeppelin III, the band’s third album.

“They tolerated it,” Martin said, half-jokingly. “I just remember my dad making comments about telling his students that his son, in third or fourth grade, was into Led Zeppelin.”

After 15 years teaching music, Rivers in 1979 began critiquing it professionally. He retired from teaching in 1997.

His first story published in The Spokesman-Review with his byline was an Oct. 29, 1979, review of the symphony as it welcomed pianist Emil Gilels.

Even then, in the budding moments of his music criticism career, Rivers’ distinct style was on display. While his first few paragraphs heaped praise on the orchestra’s performance, he wasn’t afraid to dwell on what didn’t work.

Namely, when Gilels’ “performance of a master” for the first movement dipped into an improvisatory, faster tempo.

“It resulted in some uncomfortable movements for all concerned,” Rivers wrote. “Still, there were so many wonderful things about his playing of this piece that it would be unfair to dismiss his approach to it after only a single hearing.”

Before long, Rivers was known as a critic whose writing chops matched his musical knowledge, and who was fair and honest to musicians. Former Spokesman-Review features editor Rick Bonino, who edited Rivers’ reviews and previews for about 10 years, picked “diligent” as the best way to describe him.

Even as a correspondent whose office could be wherever he wanted, Bonini said it wasn’t rare to see Rivers writing in the newsroom late on Friday nights after a performance, ensuring the review would make its way to readers in Saturday’s paper.

“He wasn’t really a loud sort of person,” Bonino said. “But his words tended to carry a lot of weight, whether he was talking about music or life in general. He didn’t necessarily use a lot of words, but the ones he did really mattered.”

Annie Matlow, who did public relations work for the symphony for many years, grew to become close friends with Rivers after years coordinating with him on performance coverage.

When he retired from the newspaper in 2011 – much to the dismay of many Spokesman-Review readers who relayed as much in several letters to the editor – Matlow said it wasn’t due to burn out or disinterest. It was hearing issues.

“He said, ‘If I can’t hear the music absolutely perfectly, I can’t review,’ ” Matlow said. “That shows his level of integrity.”

And as for the bow ties, they were plentiful. From his high school days to his retirement parties, it was rare to see the dapper critic’s neck free of cloth.

“And it wasn’t the clip-on bow tie either,” Matlow said. “He just had that very, I don’t know. He was Travis.”

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