Theodore Lettvin

Pianist with an interactive approach to performance

Theodore Lettvin, pianist: born Chicago 29 October 1926; married 1960 Joan Rorimer (two sons, one daughter); died Bradford, New Hampshire 24 August 2003.

The American pianist Theodore Lettvin believed that joy was the secret to artistic excellence. Every concert should, he said, be "a joyous and beautiful experience for the audience and myself".

At the end of a performance he always wanted to know if the members of the audience had enjoyed themselves. "If it's a good performance for the performer, it's good for the audience. If the audience is enjoying it, the performer starts to say, 'Hey, I can play.' "

Given this interactive approach, it is perhaps not surprising that Lettvin spent much of his life in musical academia. He was variously associated with the University of Colorado (1955-56), the Cleveland Music School Settlement (1956-68), the New England Conservatory of Music (1968-77), the University of Michigan (1977-87) and Rutgers University in New Jersey (1987-98). He was also an important figure in the creation of Great Lakes Performing Arts Associates, an organisation that supports gifted artists from that region.

Combined with his teaching commitments was an extensive concert schedule. When Lettvin was still a child, the conductor Frederick Stock suggested that a notable career lay ahead for him. By his teens he was studying with Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Although he will be best remembered for performances of works such as Brahms' piano concertos and Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Lettvin's repertoire was varied, and he thrived on challenges. At his audition for the piano professorship at the University of Michigan he was asked what he wanted to play, to which he retorted: "What do you want to hear?" Gyorgy Sandor suggested the fiendishly difficult Prokofiev Toccata, which Lettvin delivered with panache.

At the core of his music making was a desire to create a work of beauty. "Beauty is in the ear of the listener, the eye of the beholder, the taste of the eater, all of these things - everything that is delicious gives pleasure," he said shortly before his retirement in 1998. "That's what I've been trying to do."

Theodore Lettvin was the son of Solomon and Fannie Lettvin, Ukranian immigrants who settled in Chicago. By the age of five he was showing such promise under the tutelage of Howard Wells that he was selected to take part in a recital series in Chicago. Two years later he received an award from the Society of American Musicians, and at the age of 12 made his début playing a Mendelssohn piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock.

At 15 he won a scholarship to study at the Curtis Institute. His first radio appearance was on the Bell Telephone Hour. During the Second World War he served for two years with the US Navy, initially at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago, and later at Palm Beach, Florida, but he contracted scarlet fever and missed the opportunity to go to sea.

Returning to his performing career, Lettvin began collecting more awards: the Naumburg Award in 1948; the Michaels Award in 1950; and a finalist's medal in the 1952 Queen Elisabeth competition in Belgium. The 1950s and 1960s saw him touring extensively on both sides of the Atlantic. At the Wigmore Hall in 1958 - where the critics praised his "sincere and sensitive musicianship" - he introduced a sonata by Howard Whittaker, his director of music at the Cleveland Music School. Three years later he was back playing Bach, Mozart and Chopin in a performance of "faultless technical accomplishment. . . presented cleanly and brightly. . . always clear in design and precise in detail".

Lettvin briefly took up the baton in 1951, when he served as apprentice conductor to William Sternberg at the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra in upstate New York. But, on balance, he preferred life at the keyboard. He met his wife, Joan Rorimer, a concert promoter, at a New Year's Eve party at the home of the pianist and writer Arthur Loesser. They were married in 1960, and together founded Great Lakes Performing Arts Associates.

Lettvin's performing career remained undiminished. He toured throughout Europe, the Middle East, South America and the US, and gave the first American performance of Bartok's Scherzo for piano and orchestra.

He retired from both teaching and performing in 1998, and spent his final years in New Hampshire.

Tim Bullamore

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