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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Life + Arts

Abbey Simon proves age is just a number


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Cullen distinguished professor Abbey Simon founded the International Piano Festival at the Moores School of Music 31 years ago. | Pablo Milanese/The Cougar

Whether it’s taking the time to chat with students on his way to his studio or participating in the International Piano Festival, which he founded,  Abbey Simon doesn’t let age get in the way of what he loves to do.

Having had almost a century of experience, the 92-year old Cullen Distinguished Professor of Music is one of the most recorded classical pianists of all time. His recordings include the complete works of Ravel, all of Rachmaninoff’s concertos and many Chopin pieces.

No stopping now

“I played in London a couple of weeks ago, and someone was talking to me about doing all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas,” Simon said. “It would be one of the greatest accomplishments imaginable.”

Simon has served on the faculty of prestigious music schools including Indiana University and the Julliard School. He has been teaching at the Moores School of Music since 1977 and has no plans to retire anytime soon.

“I still love teaching, and I always have because it’s part of the great tradition,” Simon said. “Bach, Mozart, Haydn and all the other great pianists taught.”

Inspired young

Simon’s endeavors into music began at the age of three. When he heard the NBC jingle on the radio for the first time, he rushed over to the piano and re-created the jingle perfectly. From that moment on, Simon knew that he loved the piano.

“I was a very lucky child, because who knows what they want to be when they are only 3 years old?” Simon said. “I had always known I was a pianist.”

One of Simon’s greatest inspirations growing up was Josef Hoffmann.  At 11, Simon began studying with Hoffmann before going on to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

“Both Hoffmann and Arthur Rubinstein were great inspirations for me, and in a sense they were sort of in a class by themselves,” Simon said.

Through his experiences and performances, Simon now known as one of the piano legends he grew up admiring.

“He is a master of colorful tone and nuanced musicianship,” said Moores Director of Keyboard Collaborative Arts Timothy Hester. “His status as a legendary pianist shall continue forever.”

In addition to performing, Simon has enjoyed his time as a faculty member at UH. He said believes that Moores has increased its level of quality and is now comparative to schools such as the Curtis Institute and the Julliard School.

Treasured by colleagues

“I adore the music department here, and I think it is constantly becoming better and better,” Simon said. “If I have any constraints about the school, I’ll say that I think we really need more scholarship money.”

Madison Endowed Professor of Music and pianist Nancy Weems said she believes that Simon is a wonderful part of Moores because he shares his vast wealth of musical knowledge and experience to students as well as faculty.

“Mr. Simon is truly a treasure as one of the greatest pianists of his generation, and we have all been honored to work closely with him in the past several decades to build an internationally recognized piano program at UH,” Weems said.

Simon’s students said his teaching skills bring something new to the table. Piano performance doctoral student Teng-Kai Yang, who studies under Simon, said Simon doesn’t just limit himself to teaching piano skills; he teaches students to evoke a certain musical spell from within themselves.

“If you have watched the movie ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ you might remember the scene where the protagonist Andy got a chance to broadcast a Mozart aria, and all the prisoners experience mental freedom at that moment,” Yang said.
“Our lives are like the prison, while Abbey’s piano playing is like the Mozart aria, giving us a vent for something beautiful, something ethereal.”

Simon founded UH’s International Piano Festival in 1984. He said that he started the festival to attract a higher quality of students to Moores.

“I thought the festival would be a good idea because there was nothing like it in the Southwest,” Simon said.

“I was really just the idea man. It was really a woman named Miriam Strain who put it all together.”

In the 31 years of the festival’s history, Simon has only missed participating once. He plans to perform in the next International Piano Festival in January.

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