An appreciation: the late Lubka Kolessa, pianist, international virtuoso

by Dr. Ireneus Zuk

MONTREAL - To her students, the distinguished lady was always simply "Madame Kolessa" or "Madame K." In fact, this extraordinary woman had been one of Europe's most celebrated pre-war pianists. At a time when musical performers were known for their unique personalities, she embodied the notion of the international virtuoso.

Lubka Kolessa was born on May 19, 1904, into a family of scholars in Lviv, a city with a rich musical tradition and at that time a part of Austria-Hungary. Her uncle, Filaret Kolessa, was one of the towering figures in the early history of ethnomusicology. Her father also had been a noted scholar, later rector of the Ukrainian Free University, and shortly after Lubka Kolessa's birth, an elected member of the Austro-Hungarian Parliament in Vienna.

For this reason, the young child was able to study in that great musical center with Louis Thern, and on graduation from the Vienna State Academy was awarded the Bösendorfer Prize. After further studies at the graduate school, with the Liszt pupil Emil Sauer, she was awarded the State Prize, at that time the highest award in Austria. Additional studies followed with another Liszt student, Eugen d'Albert, who markedly influenced her concept of tone and style.

At the age of 15 she was already used to extensive tours that eventually took her to most major cities in Europe and to South America. She also frequently appeared as soloist with major orchestras and performed repeatedly under the most eminent contemporary conductors, including Karl Böhm, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Felix Weingartner, Willem Mengelberg, Sir Henry Wood, Erich Kleiber, Herbert von Karajan.

Throughout the world she was acknowledged as a front-rank pianist by audiences and critics alike. Her concerts were anticipated with great enthusiasm. I remember my late mother, a personal friend of this remarkable lady, recounting how a Kolessa concert would be preceded for weeks by a wave of excitement, and her appearance would create a frenzied reaction not unlike that accorded today's rock groups.

During the 1938-1939 concert season her schedule consisted of 178 concerts. It was in the early 1940s, at the height of her international career, that Mme. Kolessa arrived in Canada and soon thereafter began her concert activity in this country. She gave many public recitals and also appeared with orchestras, including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra as well as the New York Philharmonic. On the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation she performed weekly in several series of recitals, each series dedicated to the presentation of major piano works of an individual composer - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin.

It was also at this time that Mme. Kolessa began her pedagogical activity. She initially taught at the Toronto Conservatory of Music and subsequently was invited to head the Senior School upon its creation. Later, while continuing to be a resident of Rosedale, she taught at three Montreal institutions: the Conservatoire de Musique et d'Art Dramatique de la Province de Quebec, the Vincent d'Indy School and the Faculty of Music at McGill University. During each academic year she made weekly trips from Toronto to Montreal, until her retirement in the 70s.

Mme. Kolessa was an insightful interpreter with a sure and brilliant Lisztian technique. A few quotes from New York critics give an idea of the deep impact she had on her listeners:

"... a pianist of uncommon personality and charm. Her playing showed that she has something of her own to say as a musician and what she has to say was worth paying attention to. Here clearly was an artist with a mind and heart of her own ... she played with elegance of style and consistency of character. The accent was on expression, not on technical fireworks. For she was making music which should be the aim of an evening in Carnegie Hall." - Harold Taubman, The New York Times.

"Her work last night revealed her to be a pianist of genuine individuality. The pianist's innate musicality and delicacy of style were ingratiatingly in evidence in her interpretation ... She brought to her conception the breadth of style, the impassioned sweep, ... the reflectively poetic touch needed for a telling conveyance of the composer's [Chopin's] message." - Jerome D. Bohm, New York Herald Tribune.

[Headline] "Kolessa at Carnegie where she belongs.

...That was the beauty about Lubka Kolessa's playing. No matter what she played - Bach, Debussy, Schumann, Mozart, Chopin - a sure discipline held everything in line. The control was unwavering through the toughest stretches.

"Still, the control wasn't the cold academic kind that crowds out feeling. Miss Kolessa applied plenty of warmth where it was needed, but it never sizzled over to the point of warping the line.

"The playing was clean and transparent in all idioms tackled by Miss Kolessa ... The outlines were softly molded, and details were filled in as if by the gathering momentum of the music itself.

"Anyway, remember the name - Lubka Kolessa. She will probably be back now as a seasonal regular."

- Louis Biancolli, New York World Telegram.

Mme. Kolessa was not only a great performer she was also an inspired and inspiring teacher. She had that special ability to convey her tremendous knowledge of technique and repertoire in her lessons. There can be no doubt about how greatly she enriched the musical scene in Canada.

As a student of two Liszt pupils, Mme. Kolessa ably handed down this famous pianistic tradition to her Canadian students. These include many prominent musicians: conductor Mario Bernardi, composer-pianists Clermont Pépin and John Hawkins (University of Toronto), and pianists Howard Brown (professor emeritus, Bishop's University), Patricia Grant Lewis, Richard Gresko (deceased), Millicent Kavanaugh, Gordon Kushner (former vice-principal and acting principal, RCMT), John McKay (Gustavus Adolphus College, Minn.), Louis-Phillipe Pelletier (chair, piano area, McGill University), Eugene Plawutsky (chair, performance department, McGill University), Pierrette Froment (Ottawa), Luba Zuk (piano faculty, McGill University) and this writer.

Mme. Kolessa died in Toronto this past summer. To the very end she kept in contact with a few of her former students. To me, she was a constant source of understanding, advice and inspiration. Mme. Kolessa will be greatly missed not only by her former students, but also by the Canadian music community as a whole.

Ireneus Zuk is director of the School of Music at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 3, 1998, No. 18, Vol. LXVI

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