A Century of Piano
The U celebrates 100 years of educating pianists from around the world.
In 1913, a young man named Thomas Giles, recently returned from seven years of musical studies in Europe, was appointed to the University of Utah’s faculty. Out of necessity, he taught virtually everything in the music department, including, of course, piano. Although others had taught piano before him, Giles, in both numbers and longevity, is rightly regarded as the founder of the U’s grand tradition of piano instruction.
Thousands of students have studied and performed at the U in the century since then, and many have gone on to illustrious careers. The School of Music’s Piano Area has evolved and grown and is now the largest area within the School of Music, representing 18 percent of the students. So it seems appropriate that Raymond Tymas-Jones, dean of the College of Fine Arts, has declared 2013-14 “The Year of the Piano.” Susan Duehlmeier BFA’70 MFA’73, the Piano Area’s chair, says the U plans a yearlong series of public and private concerts and community events to celebrate.
To kick off the festivities, a recital was held this past April in New York’s Steinway Hall. Several hundred alumni and friends of the University heard performances by three recent graduates of the School of Music: Whitney Pizza Smith BMu’08 MMu’10 and J. Michael Stewart BMu’11, who are both now pursuing graduate degrees at New York conservatories, and Karén Hakobyan BMu’06 MMu’08, who has become a successful international performer and composer. A second display of University talent will take place in Steinway Hall this October, when members of the U’s piano faculty will demonstrate their own keyboard mastery.
“Music holds a special place in the cultural language of Utah,” says U President David W. Pershing, who attended the Steinway Hall concert in April. “The University’s outstanding piano faculty, facilities, and program attract gifted students from around the state and the world to perfect their skills, explore their natural gifts, and create music that endures.”
Duehlmeier says that during the 2013-14 academic year, the Piano Area also plans a series of recitals by U piano students that will be held in community members’ homes and will give listeners a chance to mingle with the musicians in a relaxed atmosphere. In April 2014, the centennial celebration will culminate in a special “homecoming” concert in Libby Gardner Concert Hall that will bring together many former members of the piano faculty, as well as alumni. It will be a festive party, Duehlmeier says, “to remember where we’ve come from—the fledgling years as well as the recent past—and to honor all those who have made this extraordinary century possible.”
Back in 1913, Giles ran the department almost singlehandedly at first. Gradually, as other teachers were added to the faculty, piano study became more diversified. In 1923, Ellen Nielson, who had a certificate in piano from the New England Conservatory, joined the U faculty, followed four years later by William Peterson, a versatile musician and fine pianist with New York credentials.
Serious local students also had other alternatives. One was the McCune School of Music in downtown Salt Lake City, and some musicians studied both there and at the U. The most famous product of this kind of collaborative education was the acclaimed concert pianist Grant Johannesen ex’40. The son of Norwegian immigrants, he became the student of McCune’s Mabel Borg Jenkins, a native of Utah’s Sanpete County who had studied piano in New York.
While in Salt Lake during a tour, the famous French pianist Robert Casadesus heard the young Johannesen and accepted him as a student on the spot. But Johannesen’s parents insisted that he first get a practical education, so he became a freshman at the University in 1938 while continuing his piano studies with Jenkins. He performed in a recital in 1940 at the Assembly Hall at Temple Square in Salt Lake and then went on to study with Casadesus, and to an international career. Over the years, Johannesen continued to lend his name and services to his alma mater, and the U awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1978. Instead of the traditional acceptance speech, he played a recital.
Another noteworthy early U piano student was Leigh Harline ex’26. After studying at the U in the 1920s, Harline moved to Los Angeles, where he soon became a staff composer with Walt Disney Studios, writing music for such Disney classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940), for which he received two Academy Awards, one for best film score and the other for his song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” He went on to write scores for other studios’ movies after he left Disney in 1941 and, in all, received eight Academy Award nominations during his career.
The World War II years seriously depleted the student body and decimated campus musical activity, but the return of large numbers of GIs under the GI Bill brought a welcome rejuvenation. After the war, large amounts of war surplus became available, including pianos and space for much-needed practice rooms, in buildings at Fort Douglas.
When A. Ray Olpin became the U’s president in 1946, every area of the University was challenged to look well into the future, and one important consequence was the formation of the College of Fine Arts, with the famous sculptor Avard Fairbanks ex’22 as its dean. Olpin then joined forces with Maurice Abravanel, the Utah Symphony’s new conductor, to find a chair for the Music Department to replace the retiring Giles. When Utah composer Leroy Robertson won first prize in a prestigious international competition, they knew they had found their man.
Taking charge in 1948, Robertson quickly organized the U’s graduate programs and incorporated new faculty members. With Olpin’s hearty approval, Robertson invited the Utah Symphony to rehearse on campus and made the symphony principals adjunct instructors in music. Reid Nibley BFA’50 MA’53 was appointed to the faculty in 1950 and remained until the early 1960s, as an artist-in-residence and master teacher, and was the Utah Symphony’s pianist. Ardean Watts MA’60, who followed Nibley as pianist (and assistant conductor) of the Utah Symphony, came to the U for graduate work and later served on the University faculty for the remainder of the century. Gradually, a real “piano faculty” was beginning to emerge.
The growing program also continued producing excellent alumni, such as Robert Cundick BA’49 MFA’50 PhD’55. A composer and organist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir who also served on the music faculty at Brigham Young University, he received one of the U’s first three music doctorates. Although his major focus was organ, Cundick was in great demand as a piano accompanist and chamber music collaborator during his years as a student at the U.
What could be termed the modern era (with the “Piano Area” as a distinct division within the Department of Music) really began almost by accident with the timely arrival of Gladys Gladstone. She had been raised in upstate New York and had received impeccable training under Artur Schnabel in New York. “Gladys” to virtually everyone, she came to Utah from Los Angeles in 1947 when her husband, Dr. Harold Rosenberg, was assigned to the VA Hospital after World War II. She performed with the Utah Symphony and played chamber music, but not until several private students had won their divisions at the Utah State Fair did she begin to attract real attention as a teacher. With Abravanel as her musical champion, Gladstone was finally appointed to a U professorship in 1966, after years as an adjunct instructor. For almost five decades, she was “the teacher.” Her students now can be found performing and teaching around the world, from Hollywood to the south of France. Like all members of the piano faculty, Adjunct Professor Lenora Brown BFA’71 has studied with many world-class artists, but she says her most influential teacher was Gladstone. “She was the consummate musician and teacher in every sense of the word,” Brown recollects.
Another “Gladys” student, Paul Pollei BFA’61, this past March was named Artistic Director Emeritus of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, which he founded in 1976. Pollei, who was a faculty member at Brigham Young University, started the original Bachauer Competition on a shoestring. Gina Bachauer’s personal interest, coupled with encouragement from Abravanel and the Utah Symphony, brought the contest to Salt Lake, where, gradually, the competition assumed its present status as one of the oldest and most prestigious in the nation.
The Bachauer Competition has been the impetus for much of the U Piano Area’s growth. Ning Lu BMu’92 MMu’94 debuted with the prestigious Central Conservatory orchestra in Beijing at age 12. A few years later, after winning first place in the China preliminaries, he competed in the Bachauer finals in Salt Lake. He stayed to study at the University with Duehlmeier, who received her doctorate in piano performance from Boston University and has been the fire and energy behind much of the Piano Area’s success for nearly four decades. After Lu went on to doctoral studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he returned to join the U’s piano faculty, where he now serves as assistant chair.
Hakobyan, who performed at the U piano-centennial celebration in New York, came to America in his mid-teens after winning Bachauer auditions in Armenia. He decided to attend the U, and after graduating, went on to receive diplomas from the Mannes School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music in New York. He has performed several times in the last year at Carnegie Hall in New York.
Weihui Mao BMu’95, who was a child movie star in China during the 1980s, debuted with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in 1988. She moved a year later to Salt Lake, studied with Duehlmeier at the U, and went on to win several top prizes in national and international piano competitions. She continues to perform around the world.
“Our students come from major schools of music to study with us, and our undergraduates have been accepted into some of the most prestigious graduate programs in the country,” Duehlmeier says.
Students from within the state have gone on to success, as well. Stewart, who also performed at the spring Steinway Hall recital, grew up in West Valley City, Utah, and received a full scholarship to attend the U, where he studied with Duehlmeier. In 2012, he won first place in the American Protégé International Concerto Competition, an honor that brings the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall. Smith, who shared the stage at the Steinway Hall recital, has been a laureate in numerous competitions, including the Seattle International Piano Competition. While at the U, she studied with Vera Watanabe and Bonnie Gritton.
Steinway Artist Josh Wright BMu’10 MMu’11, another student of Duehlmeier at the U, completed a piano album that topped the Billboard classical charts just three weeks after its release in April 2011, and he is scheduled to release a second CD in 2013.
Currently, the U School of Music’s Piano Area has about 60 piano performance majors, including 12 doctoral and eight master’s degree candidates. All of them have auditioned for their places. Other music majors also study piano as part of their degree requirements, and many other students enroll simply because they wish to play better.
One of the biggest challenges to the Piano Area has come since 2000, as the U has strived to provide enough instruments for the growing number of students. With the inauguration of the new Gardner Hall in 2000, Utah benefactor Bruce Bastian (cofounder of WordPerfect) made a generous gift of 55 new pianos, including two matched Hamburg Steinways, for the Libby Gardner Concert Hall.
The renovation also brought more studio space, along with new lab facilities and practice rooms, several of which, through Bastian’s gift, were equipped for the first time with Steinway instruments to replace most of the worn and battered pianos of the last century.
Little more than a decade later, however, growth had tripled, outpacing even the magnanimous Bastian gift. Space was once again at a premium, and providing enough instruments with the sensitive range and touch required at advanced levels was proving difficult. The influx of students made the Piano Area the largest single division within the School of Music, and the constant search for practice rooms (the bane of music students everywhere) was robbing piano majors of vital practice time. Other areas were also growing, and they, too, needed good instruments for accompaniments and chamber music.
The solution was to find enough money for another major piano purchase. Through the efforts of Dean Tymas-Jones and other administrators, with an intermediary in the indefatigable Gerald R. “Skip” Daynes, Jr. ex’66, owner of Daynes Music in Salt Lake, a centennial campaign raised $2 million to help purchase 49 new Steinway pianos, mostly for the School of Music, but also for the Theatre Department, Kingsbury Hall, and elsewhere on campus. This allowed the School of Music to retain its coveted status as an All-Steinway School. The University now has a total of 196 Steinways or Steinwaydesigned instruments.
As this “Year of the Piano” unfolds, Duehlmeier notes that the Piano Area has much to celebrate with its century and more of great music. “Generations of piano students have benefited from the piano program’s start 100 years ago,” Duehlmeier says. “The program’s legacy—and its future—are graduates who become outstanding piano performers and teachers.”
—Roger L. Miller is a University of Utah professor emeritus of musicology who taught at the U for 25 years.