Delicate and almost birdlike to behold, Beatrice Erdely coaxed beauty from the piano, never trying to overpower the keys beneath her fingers.
“She had an ineffable way of creating a sound at the piano. It was really a holistic way of how to draw it out,” said Christopher O’Riley, the host of the NPR show “From the Top” who studied with Mrs. Erdely when he was a New England Conservatory student.
Her approach, he said, resulted in “a warm and wonderful sound at every volume, really making the piano not a percussive instrument, but a singing instrument.”
Esteemed as a teacher, she guided students in Boston, Cleveland, and beyond, and her performances ranged from duets with her violinist husband, Stephen, to appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Mrs. Erdely, who augmented her musical elegance with a welcoming presence at home for those who arrived for a lesson and were invited to stay for dinner, died in her sleep Monday in the Concord house where she had lived since the 1970s. She was 90.
“She is a musicianly pianist who treats the piano as an instrument of melody and color,” critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in the Globe of a 1987 recital. “None of her performances are pushed at you or ‘sold.’ Instead, she presents the music with clarity and craft.”
A decade earlier, Globe critic Richard Dyer, himself a former student of Mrs. Erdely’s, wrote that “the primary quality of her work is its consistent control and consistent beauty of sound — there was not a harsh or forced or flurried note in the entire recital; one even occasionally heard that rarest of pianistic effects, a true pianissimo effected without use of the ‘soft’ pedal.”
She had studied piano with Heniot Levy and Edward Steuermann, two pianists and composers who were born and trained in Europe. Mrs. Erdely herself “was a bridge to a very old tradition of European piano playing,” said Janice Weber, who is on the piano faculty at Boston Conservatory, one of several schools at which Mrs. Erdely taught during her career.
She brought to her playing and teaching “a concentration on the performer being a servant of the music,” Weber said, “rather than the music being a servant of the performer.”
Evon Cooper of Lincoln, who studied with Mrs. Erdely for about a decade, called her “the kind of teacher one searches for one’s entire life.”
“She was able to tell you exactly how you could accomplish your intentions at the piano,” Cooper said.
“She could put into words precisely what you had to do, and it always worked. Whether it was a small adaptation of your fingers or your arms or your shoulders, she could tell you what to do to get the sound.”
Always stressing the quality of the piano’s sound, Mrs. Erdely showed students that fingers and hands were only part of a pianist’s tools.
“Beatrice had these tiny little hands,” O’Riley said. “When you have small hands, you realize how important it is to use the support of the arms and shoulders and let the sound be a confluence of interlocking parts of all the muscle groups. The hand is really the last and most finely-tuned of that equation, but the sound comes from an integrated sense of the whole body.”
Mrs. Erdely, he added, “really changed the way I played the piano.”
Born Beatrice Epstein in Chicago, she was the younger of two sisters.
“She was a child prodigy,” said her husband, Stephen, a former music professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Her life was entirely in music: practicing, performing, and teaching. She was completely devoted to the piano.”
She graduated from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, studied in New York City, and met her future husband while performing with the orchestra at the Deerwood summer music camp in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. They became a couple once they were back in New York City, and married in 1951.
When he played with the Cleveland Orchestra, she taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music. They moved to the northwestern part of Ohio when he taught at the University of Toledo. She taught piano there, too, until they moved east when he took a teaching position at MIT.
In Greater Boston, Mrs. Erdely taught at various times at New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, MIT, and Brandeis University, while continuing to take on private students.
“I hadn’t played for decades, so I had terribly stiff hands, and she was acutely perceptive about what I needed,” said Dr. Harald Mackenzie of Concord. “You were very quickly aware of being with someone with an amazing depth of intellect, musical knowledge, and above all musicianship. It was all served up with a light touch. She had a sparkle and a way of making complex things easily understood.”
Dyer, who studied with Mrs. Erdely when he was a student in Cleveland, said that although she was “highly professional herself, she had many of the qualities of the neighborhood piano teacher in that she was genuinely interested in the qualities and talents that anyone might have and tried to draw it out of them. She wanted any musical experience you had to be a fulfilling one, and she wanted to hand you the tools.”
Though Mrs. Erdely performed with orchestras and ensembles from Chicago to Toledo, Cleveland, and Boston, she provided some of her most memorable moments to listeners who heard her play solo, or with her husband.
The couple’s repertoire of violin/piano duets was extensive, ranging from Bach and Mozart through Beethoven, Brahms, and into modern compositions.
O’Riley once was turning pages for Mrs. Erdely as she played a duet with her husband and became so captivated that he momentarily forgot his duties and neglected to flip the page.
“She had a hypnotic and unmatched beauty of sound with the piano,” he said. “It was extraordinary to work with her as a teacher, but also to hear her play.”
Services will be private for Mrs. Erdely, who kept teaching even as age began to diminish her hearing and strength.
“The most remarkable thing was when she became frail,” Cooper said. “Sometimes she couldn’t hear when you talked, but the moment you played she came alive. It was almost spiritual. The moment you played the piano, she could hear everything.”
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