Obituary: Lamar Crowson

Ruth Thackeray
Wednesday 09 September 1998 23:02

TALK TO any musician who performed with the pianist Lamar Crowson or was his student, and within the first sentence at least one (and, more often than not, all) of the following adjectives will be uttered: "inspirational", "magical", "peerless".

In 1981 Alfred Brendel described Crowson as "one of the finest chamber music pianists of our day". Brendel was reviewing The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and his comments referred to the lamentable (accidental) omission of an entry on Crowson - an oversight now rectified for the forthcoming edition. Reflecting on one of the first times he heard Crowson - in partnership with Jacqueline du Pre - Brendel wonders why a virtuoso soloist of his calibre should prefer to concentrate on chamber music. Crowson's own words provide an answer: he occasionally confessed to finding solo work "bare and lonely".

Nevertheless, as a soloist he brought exceptional eloquence to his playing, especially of sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Clementi, while summoning an equal degree of panache to such Romantic works as Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto and an astonishingly wide range of contemporary music. Peter Racine Fricker's Twelve Studies, of which Crowson gave the first performance in Cheltenham in 1961, are dedicated to him.

It was probably his capacity to bring out the best in others that made him a consummate chamber musician. As Emanuel Hurwitz, leader of the Melos Ensemble, put it: "When you walk on to a platform with someone of his artistic integrity, you feel nothing but total confidence". Among his recordings with the Melos, the Mozart and Beethoven Quintets for Piano and Wind, Hummel's Quintet and Septet, Schubert's "Trout" Quintet (why has that not yet been reissued as a CD?) and Janacek's Concertino (which earned the Edison Award), particularly demonstrate the vibrancy of his pianism. His flawless rhythmic drive, always intense and compelling, is equally apparent in his recording of the Faure Piano Quartet (with the Pro Arte).

The list of artists with whom he appeared is a paean of praise in itself - the Amadeus Quartet, Janet Baker, Dennis Brain, Norbert Brainin, Pierre Fournier, Ralph Kirshbaum, Manoug Parikian, Itzhak Perlman, Ruggiero Rucci and Uto Ughi, to mention only a few. More recently, indeed just a matter of months ago, Crowson accompanied Tasmin Little on her visit to South Africa.

Born in 1926, Crowson received his early education in Portland, Oregon, where he went on to study history, literature and art at Reed College in 1943-44 and 1946-48; the intervening period was spent in the US Navy.

In 1948, at the invitation of Arthur Benjamin, he left the United States to become Benjamin's piano pupil at the Royal College of Music in London (as Benjamin Britten had been in the 1930s; it was from Britten that Crowson said he learned the quiet art of page-turning). During the 1950s he was awarded many prestigious prizes, notably the Chappell Gold Medal, the Dannreuther Prize and the Harriet Cohen International Medal. In 1952 he was among the finalists in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. He went on to perform concertos with such illustrious conductors as Barbirolli, Barenboim, Boulez, Boult, Davis, Monteux and Sawallisch.

Having been appointed to the staff of the Royal College of Music in 1957, Crowson made his first visit to Cape Town as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in 1963. After three years as a lecturer at the South African College of Music (University of Cape Town, 1965-68), he returned to the RCM (1969-71), but his connection with South Africa was the one that was to endure.

His decision to settle there in 1972 was met with general bewilderment; there can be no doubt, however, that he enhanced the musical life of the country beyond measure, while also retaining his international links. At UCT he was made a professor in 1980 and received an honorary doctorate in 1996.

The warmth of his personality, his nervous energy, intellectual rigour, generosity of spirit, creative imagination, sense of humour, quick wit, immense wisdom and kindness all contributed to Crowson's exceptional gifts as a teacher. His master classes, not only at the RCM and UCT but also at the Britten-Pears Academy, Dartington, the University of Queensland and elsewhere, were the perfect vehicle for him to communicate his insights and encourage in his students the ability to exchange ideas and articulate their opinions on questions of style and technique, tone production and colour.

The pianist Howard Shelley, one of his pupils, said of Crowson:

As a teacher, he was one of that rare breed who is able to adapt to each student's personality, drawing out the very best. The antithesis of the typical music professor, he

was lively, modern and dynamic in appearance and approach. He was usually dressed in denims and cowboy boots, and his trademark was a distinctive pipe through which he puffed aromatic tobacco as he expounded his fascinating and individual theories on music, the piano and performing. His refined fingers produced a unique luminosity and expressiveness, even in the softest pianissimo.

Among other students of Crowson to have developed professional careers of their own are Clifford Benson, Ian Brown (of the Nash Ensemble), Gwenneth Pryor, Jan Latham-Koenig, Niel Immelman and the late Steven De Groote. Crowson was as devoted to his pupils as they were to him. As he wrote in a recent letter to Benson, "Records get deleted; critiques crumble; but good students, [like] children and grandchildren perpetuate".

John Lamar Crowson, pianist: born Tampa, Florida 27 May 1926; three times married (two sons); died Johannesburg 25 August 1998.

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