Jacob Maxin’s hands were small for a pianist of his caliber. Perhaps to compensate, he developed enviable agility and dexterity, but he always reminded his piano students at New England Conservatory that such exceptional ability was merely a means to an end.
“Mostly, he was concerned with the artistic and emotional levels,” said Steven Snitzer, a former student of Mr. Maxin’s who became a longtime friend. “He would say: ‘That’s fine technically. Now, where’s the poetry?’ It was never just a matter of technique.”
As a performer, Mr. Maxin was known for concerts that were as infrequent as they were memorable. In a 2000 interview with the Globe, pianist Russell Sherman, now a distinguished artist-in-residence at the conservatory, called Mr. Maxin “the greatest of unknown pianists.”
“Jack had a very original personality,” Sherman said yesterday, “and in his playing he always sought nothing less than capital B beauty itself.”
Mr. Maxin, who taught at New England Conservatory for 35 years, died Dec. 16 in Avery Manor, a care facility in Needham, of pneumonia and complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83 and previously lived for many years in the Back Bay and Mission Hill.
After a 2002 performance of a Mendelssohn composition, Globe critic Richard Dyer wrote that Mr. Maxin had “the reputation of being the best pianist in Boston who almost never plays in public.”
Globe critic Michael Steinberg was also effusive in 1971 when Mr. Maxin performed Ferruccio Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica, which Steinberg called “insanely difficult.”
Busoni “writes enough notes to keep four hands comfortably busy,” Steinberg wrote. “You look at the printed page and you can’t believe what you see; you listen and can’t quite believe that either. But there it was and Maxin, making it all sound and look easy, produced all those extraordinary sonorities and elucidated all that polyphony, knowing just how the piece should go and never dropping a thread of it. A stupendous interpretive and pianistic feat!”
Such performances were examples of why audiences sought out his concerts. Nevertheless, though Mr. Maxin “was a brilliant pianist,” Sherman said, “he had no feeling for a sense of career.”
At New England Conservatory, Mr. Maxin was renowned for his teaching abilities and as well known for his absent-mindedness. He might schedule an hourlong lesson that ended up lasting for hours.
“Jack had a very, very special quality that is very hard to capture in words, because it was sort of impromptu brilliance,” recalled Sherman, who met Mr. Maxin when both were teenagers, and said they were the closest of friends.
“He lived in his own dream world, and it was very poignant and poetic,” Sherman said. “And so people loved him, but they had difficulty connecting with him in the sense of a reliable presence, because he lived in his own fantasy world, and that did not coincide with a lesson at 10 and a lesson at 11.
“To his great credit, he followed his dream, and if the dream contradicted reality, well, then, the hell with reality. That was very much a part, if not the center, of his personality and idealism. He was a rare, rare figure who cannot be duplicated or replaced in any way.”
Charming and funny in gatherings with peers or get-
togethers with nieces and nephews, Mr. Maxin “would always crack us up,” said his niece Harriet Clare of Indianapolis. “He would say something, and we would fall off our chairs laughing.”
As often as not he kept to himself, however. He never married and left no immediate survivors.
Mr. Maxin was romantically involved for many years with the singer Martha Schlamme, who died in 1985, but “all relationships were secondary to music,” his niece said. “That was his great love.”
The youngest of five children, Mr. Maxin was born and grew up in Philadelphia. He refined his playing at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, at Swarthmore College outside the city, and at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. Moving to New York City, he graduated from The Juilliard School with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and studied with Eduard Steuermann.
At 25, he performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, and he toured with actor and singer Claude Raines.
Mr. Maxin began teaching at New England Conservatory in 1968, commuting from New York until settling in Boston about a decade later.
“He was an extraordinary man, a very, very sensitive man, a very gentle man,” said Gabriel Chodos, who chaired the conservatory’s piano faculty for 25 years. “He was also an incredible musician in the sense that he knew everything. He knew every piece, and he knew every performer, and had been to every performance. He was so sensitive musically. I trusted his judgment 100 percent.”
As a young man, Mr. Maxin lived for many years with composer Stefan Wolpe and his wife, Irma.
“The one thing I remember Stefan saying over all the years was the one word, ‘More! More!’ And that word will be forever burned into my memory,” Mr. Maxin recalled in a 1983 interview with Austin Clarkson.
The composer, Mr. Maxin added, “was always asking for more expression and more deep intensity.”
In turn, Mr. Maxin asked the same from his own students, and from himself.
“His playing was staggeringly lucid and gorgeous in sound,” said Snitzer, a performer and teacher who lives in Needham.
In concerts with other musicians, Mr. Maxin “was the quintessential collaborator,” Snitzer said. “He made the other players look good. And he had impeccable taste, so there was never a question of balance, of the piano being too much or too little.”
Mr. Maxin, Snitzer added, “was articulate and brilliant in his teaching, as well.” He would listen to a student play through the piece at hand, and then return to the first measure to address concerns.
“There was no way to start at any place other than the beginning,” Snitzer said. “It was a matter of interpreting the piece and setting the stage from the beginning.”
New England Conservatory will hold a free concert to honor Mr. Maxin’s life and artistry at noon March 3 in Brown Hall.
Describing his own playing, Mr. Maxin “once told me he has little ears on the end of each finger and they warned him if he was about to play a wrong note,” Snitzer said.
“It’s hard to imagine, but he had this very intense relationship between his fingers and the keys,” Snitzer said. “It was a miraculous relationship.”