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Seymour Lipkin

Seymour Lipkin, born 1927, Detroit, Mich., died Monday, November 16, 2015, Blue Hill, Maine. He was a pianist, conductor, teacher, musical collaborator, and for 29 years, Artistic Director of the Kneisel Hall chamber music school and festival in Blue Hill, which, at his death, he had conveyed to the very pinnacle of American musical life. He was a pianist prized for the purity, clarity and humility of his performances. Never indulging in device or grand gesture, he employed his intelligence, introspection and discipline to illuminate the shape and architecture of the music he played, paring away extraneous mannerism to make clear the line in the music, drawing the listener along. Because his playing was so free from artifice or additional “fluff,” one would suddenly hear the composer’s (and the music’s) purpose, often making even pieces that might be familiar, more alive and available to be understood.

A diminutive, somewhat spare man, he quietly, over years of un-flamboyant dedication in teaching and performance, attained a standing of pre-eminent respect—reverence even, among both his colleagues and the musical community at large. It was typical of his concerts that they should be as populated by fellow musicians as by members of the general public. He enjoyed a spectacular early career. A student of Rudolf Serkin and Miecyslaw Horzowski at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, at 17, he was selected to accompany the famous violinist Jascha Heifetz on a USO tour during the second world war, two years later winning the Rachmaninof Prize, a national piano competition adjudicated by Vladimir Horowitz, which earned him debut performances with all the major American symphony orchestras. However, he did not appear to seek the large-scale public prominence that these beginnings offered. His parallel interest in conducting led him first to an apprenticeship under George Szell at the Cleveland orchestra, followed by a position as Assistant Conductor at the New York Philharmonic. Ultimately this interest, and his frustrations with the shortcomings of the piano as an insufficiently lyrical instrument, led him to put aside performing for 20 years, serving in that period as Conductor of the Joffrey Ballet and the Long Island Symphony Orchestra.

He returned to performance in 1981, joining the faculty of The Juilliard School and assuming the Directorship of Kneisel Hall in 1987, having earlier been appointed to the faculty at Curtis as well as teaching at a series of other music schools. Lipkin’s exacting standards, and the quality he sought, created a demanding framework. Not, however, a pitiless demand for abstract perfection, but an insistence that musicians play with engagement, honestly and without self-indulgence, attentive to hearing both colleagues and themselves, attending tirelessly to details, however minute or thankless. He liked to refer to a story perhaps revealing of his own attitudes, which involved the tyrannical conductor Arturo Toscanini. A psychiatrist and amateur musician was asked after attending a rehearsal where the conductor had been particularly difficult, “But why do the musicians take it? Why don’t they just walk out?” The psychiatrist answered, “Because he doesn’t do it for himself.” This was epigrammatic of Mr. Lipkin. His approach to music making was selfless, his adherence to musical ideals quite unrelated to questions of ego or career. He would tell students, “We become the greatness of the composer we are dealing with,” in this one statement both encouraging the student, and shining the light on the composer, deflecting the attention from the performer.

His rigor was applied in far greater measure to himself than to students or colleagues. In the hours before every single faculty performance at Kneisel Hall, students on the campus would hear his preparations, a methodical march through a series of finger-excercises of his own devising—simple and maddeningly dull-sounding patterns which he used to foster control of the individual muscles of the hands and arms. Generally musicians before a performance will be heard playing and re-playing all the most demanding passages in the music to be played. Lipkin, instead, faithfully adhered to this routine—before every single concert. His special ire was reserved for young pianists who, in the heat of performance, might play with too much self-involvement (and volume), not listening or deferring to their colleagues. In avoiding this himself, Mr. Lipkin designed a lower music stand for the piano, which though it made reading the score more difficult (and turning his pages a terror), blocked less sound, so he might more accurately gauge his interaction with fellow performers.

In 1995, after a first marriage to Catherine Bing, he met and later married Ellen Werner, who became his partner in guiding the development of Kneisel Hall. He is further survived by his son from his first marriage, Jonathan and wife Danae Oratowski, stepchildren Daniel Walker (Melisa), Benjamin Walker (Jennifer), Sarah Hodges (Curtis), grandchildren Sophia Lipkin, Eve Lipkin, Louis Walker, Harry Walker, Melina Walker and niece Clare Schwarz (Mark Zdzairski).

One might easily misunderstand the determination with which Lipkin addressed what he saw as his duty as a musician. It was sometimes joked that his only manifested weakness was a fondness for cookies, in particular New York style Black-and-Whites. He could appear unswerving, unrelenting or, sometimes, fierce. In fact, the dedication with which he addressed himself to his craft was in service to his absolute delight in the music he played, a joyous liveliness in all his performances, which inspired generations of both colleagues and students, and allowed that music to remain relevant in a much-changed world.

Donations in his memory can be made to Kneisel Hall, P.O. Box 648, Blue Hill, ME 04614.