Wednesday, 24 July 2013



We are sad to read of the passing of American pianist and pedagogue Paul C. Pollei (1936-2013) who departed on 19 July 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Dr Pollei was the founder of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition in Utah, a dedicated piano teacher, who sat on the juries of many international piano competitions, including the Singapore National Piano Competition in 2007.

I first met Paul in September 2005 in Hong Kong, during the 1st Hong Kong International Piano Competition where we were both observers. What struck me most was how open, warm and friendly he was, speaking with me (a total stranger hitherto) like someone he had known for a long time. He was full of hearty humour, and had more than a few interesting stories to recall. We, of course, shared the joy of the piano, pianists and piano repertoire, as well as the phenomenon of piano competitions, and had lots of things to talk about at Hong Kong City Hall’s Maxim’s CafĂ©. I remembered a pithy piece of advice he gave, “Never play Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy in a piano competition”. We were later joined by a mutual friend, the Chinese pianist Kong Xiang Dong (former Bachauer winner, or Bachauer-laureate), a former student of his, who also happened to be in Hong Kong at the time.

From the outset, Paul had urged me to visit Utah and attend the Gina Bachauer competition (named after the Greek piano virtuosa), and that was a mantra that was repeated whenever we met. He had founded the competition in the 1970s and developed it to become one of the “big” piano competitions in USA today. The Bachauer is particularly distinctive in that all its participants get to play the full complement of their repertoire before the final six pianists are picked for the concerto finals. Thus there is no actual elimination; pianists get to play three recitals and audiences get to enjoy more music-making. This “pro piano” innovation is also carried out in the Gina Bachauer Junior and Young Artists Competitions, which are now the most prestigious and acknowledged leader in the world of age-group competitions.

One of his greatest regrets was not having met Gina Bachauer (1910-1976) in person. Bachauer and her husband, the British conductor Alec Sherman, were regular visitors to Salt Lake City where the Music Director of the Utah Symphony was Maurice Abravanel, himself a Greek. The piano competition, which began in 1976 as the Brigham Young University Piano Competition and Festival under Paul’s founding, became known as the Bachauer in 1978, named in her memory. This competition and its related events were to be his pride and joy. 

Pianomaniacs meet in Hong Kong:
Paul Pollei with PianoManaic (Photo by Gabriel Kwok) 

We met again in Singapore in December 2007 when Paul was invited by the National Arts Council to be a jury member of the National Piano Competition. This time, he arrived with a pile of commemorative books from the Bachauer competitions specially for yours truly, and also a CD recording of Bachauer’s performances which he had produced. He autographed it for me, with yet another exhortation to come to Salt Lake City. In those days, the solo sessions of the piano competition took place at the Alliance Francaise on Sarkies Road (off Bukit Timah Road). He was thrilled to find out that the venue (despite lousy piano and all) was just a few doors away from Singapore’s only Mormon church. During one of the lunch breaks, he visited the temple of worship and made his acquaintance with the officers there.

Paul Pollei with Mary Wu and Roberto Plano
at the finals of the National Piano Competition 2007, Victoria Concert Hall.

The two other jury members were Mary Wu (Hong Kong) and Roberto Plano (Italy), and the threesome got along very well, with Paul being the most senior of all and the voice of experience. He had interesting things to say about the voting system for competitions in general. He felt that Yes or No votes to advance participants to the next round to be simple and effective. He always wrote humourous comments in judgement of each performer and was not afraid to show all of these to me. He always preferred wayward but interesting performances to overly staid and correct ones, and even voted for one young man who had a technical nightmare with Liszt’s La Campanella but had some thought-provoking ideas. Of course he admitted that “the boy definitely needed proper lessons”. He and his team also awarded second prize to another boy who played Godowsky’s Bromo Volcano and Sand Sea at Daybreak while wearing a batik shirt for his ingenuity in programming (and probably dressing as well). The three judges and I shared a number of dinners together, at Island Club, La Fiandra (SAM) and the al fresco food centre on Victoria Street (now sadly no longer in existence), and we all had chill crab and a good time.

I also remember vividly the masterclass Paul gave at the Young Musicians Society on Waterloo Street. He is one of very few teachers who also addresses the audience directly, sharing with them pearls of pianistic wisdom as if on a television talk show. If ever piano masterclasses were televised, his would be the first ones I will attend. He does not only address technical issues of playing, but also on the processes of proper practising. Proper practice meant earnestly working on phrases repeatedly, and warned that this should not be mistaken for rehearsals of concerts which many a pianist wannabe are tempted to do. He also addressed the issue of judiciously using all the pedals on a grand piano. Most people rely only on the sustaining pedal but not including the sotto voce pedal, and that is not optimising the potential of the piano. He advised pianists to have both feet on two pedals, and not leaving the left foot idling and lagging behind, a stance which reminds him of a tripod.

He kept a list of Ten Commandments for piano teachers and students, which I hope somebody somewhere in the world has taken the time to commit to memory, copy and share with the rest of us all. Unfortunately in my excitement I had forgotten them all, and in my tardiness neglected to write to him for them. In my lazy mind, I would still get to see them again “when I visited Salt Lake City next”, knowing that he will be there with wide open arms. For the next trip to USA, I went to Fort Worth, Texas instead. That was the last time we spoke, and my regret is that there will be no next time.

Dr Paul C. Pollei, we will always remember you.   

1 comment:

Jay Mower said...

Synopsis by Kary D. Billings, Executive Director,
Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation

At the funeral, Mack Wilberg, conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, offered his memories of being a student of Paul’s, and of traveling with him, more often shopping the sheet music stores and CD shops in the great cities of the world than visiting the usual tourist stops.

Then approximately 100 members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed a section of the Faure Requiem, a piece that Paul had long requested to be sung at his funeral.

Paul’s son, Mark, reflected on the experiences of he and his sister Emilie growing up with two artistic parents. His mother might be having lunch with movie stars and making clothes for television shows, while Paul would be somewhere in the world, judging competitions or teaching master classes. He remembered the morning ritual of enduring Paul’s seemingly endless session of scales and arpeggios as he and his sister attempted to sleep. Mark also spoke of Paul’s obsession with learning and experiencing as much as possible, and the daily delivery of books and CD’s to their home and the ever expanding library thus created.

Robin Hancock, a current member of the American Piano Quartet, of which Paul was a founding member, spoke of Paul’s devotion as a teacher and educator, of his almost single handedly reviving repertoire for 8-hand piano, and of his wish to meet Joseph Smith and Franz Liszt in heaven, the two people he thought would be most interesting.

The American Piano Quartet, with current members Robin Hancock, Scott Holden, Jeffrey Shumway and former member Mack Wilberg, performed Bach’s “Sicilenne”, arranged by Mack Wilberg, on two grand pianos. A fitting and beautiful tribute to Paul.

Kary Billings, current Chairman of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, spoke of his experiences growing up with Paul as his piano teacher, and of the sometimes intimidating demands Paul asked of him. Paul always expected excellence in himself and others, and was passionate about life, music, and learning. Kary remembered traveling with Paul on the international audition tours, and hours of listening followed by late-night gatherings with friends and jury members. In every city, everyone adored Paul and greeted him as a dear friend.

William Tanner, spoke of the four childhood friends, who remained friends for life. Paul’s mother would not let him play until he had finished his practicing. Paul met Norene in their LDS church ward, performed in musicals together, and he Norene introduced Bill Tanner to his eventual wife. Bill spoke of the great love Paul had for his family, including Mark and Emilie.

David Pollei praised the good example his parents set for him and his brothers. He noted that Norene was the perfect wife to support Paul in his career, and that Emilie was a faithful daughter who diligently met the challenge of caring for two ailing parents simultaneously.

Scott Pollei, Paul’s nephew and Bachauer staff member, gave the graveside prayer.