Born in Follansbee, W.Va., into a humble Italian immigrant family, Anthony di Bonaventura started playing piano at age 3 because his older siblings needed an accompanist. When a local music teacher announced he had no more to teach, Mr. di Bonaventura’s father moved the family to New York City, arriving with no job and without even the name of a music teacher.
A neighbor in the family’s tenement building pointed him toward the Third Street Music School Settlement.
“The next day my father lined us all up and marched us over there,” Mr. di Bonaventura recalled in a 1978 interview with the Globe. “The head of the school was standing on the stairs and he sized up the situation immediately — here was another family of ‘geniuses,’ and all of them would need scholarships. We all played — and we all won scholarships.”
It was a decisive moment in a musical life that would take him to Carnegie Hall by 11, to the New York Philharmonic at 13, and, as an adult soloist, to perform in 27 countries. He settled in the Boston area and his local performances often earned the highest praise.
Mr. di Bonaventura, a professor for nearly four decades at Boston University, died Nov. 12 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital of complications from a heart attack, according to his daughter Betsey Brown. He was 83 and had lived in Newton.
Reviewing a 1992 account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with the Boston University Chamber Orchestra, critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in the Globe that “not a ripple disturbed the calm waters of his playing, so lovely and simple. Yet the melody was never more aching, the music never more bittersweet.”
Mr. di Bonaventura’s performance career included contact with luminaries of an earlier generation such as the conductor Otto Klemperer, under whose direction he performed the last three Beethoven Piano Concertos. Mr. di Bonaventura also forged links with major contemporary composers of his time, including Witold Lutoslawski, Luciano Berio, Alberto Ginastera, whose Second Sonata he premiered, and Gyorgy Ligeti, whose Piano Concerto he premiered in Austria in 1986, with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of his brother Mario di Bonaventura.
Mr. di Bonaventura’s recordings included a noted set of Scarlatti Sonatas, issued in 1972 by Connoisseur Society. He also recorded for Columbia, RCA, Sine Qua Non, and Titanic. His playing was distinguished by its aristocratic polish, an elegance and poise that often belied a startling freshness of musical thinking. In his teaching and occasionally in interviews, Mr. di Bonaventura stressed the need to place hard-won technical virtuosity at the service of deeper artistic values.
“Virtuosity is a two-edged sword,” he told the Globe in 1978. “You have to develop this tremendous skill in order to exhibit yourself to the public. But that same virtuosity leaves you with no place to hide: it can expose how empty your mind is. If you do not have cultural awareness and musical understanding, you have nothing. That is why I tell my students not to practice all the time. Instead they must go out and learn about other things.”
One of those students was Konstantinos Papadakis, who studied with him at Boston University from 1996 to 2000.
“He was interested in every student as a person, and I had never seen that before,” Papadakis said. “He wanted us to be good, healthy, curious human beings, to do justice to the music, to be honest, to be humble.”
Mr. di Bonaventura’s own teachers included the towering Russian pedagogue Isabelle Vengerova, with whom he studied at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“She put me through hell for 18 months,” he recalled in 1978. “I had to relearn, physically, how to play the piano — I was forbidden to play any music, only Madame Vengerova’s exercises and some scales, for a year and a half.”
His time at Curtis had other rewards, including meeting a junior at Bryn Mawr College. Their wedding the following year in a small Roman Catholic church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was widely reported in the society pages. Mr. di Bonaventura, as the newspapers repeatedly noted, was the son of a barber. His bride was Sara Delano Roosevelt, a granddaughter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Their marriage ended in divorce.
Mr. di Bonaventura’s second wife, the former Muriel Applebee, died earlier this year.
“A major figure in the music world since his debut as a child prodigy, Tony enriched the School of Music with his passionate commitment to musical excellence and his advocacy of new music by such luminaries as Ligeti, Berio, Ginastera, and [Vincent] Persichetti, all of whom wrote music for him,” Benjamín Juárez, dean of the Boston University College of Fine Arts, said in a statement.
In addition to his daughter Betsy and brother Mario, Mr. di Bonaventura leaves four other children, Christopher, AZ Greene, Peter, and Sarina Birsh; and 14 grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Monday in Sacred Heart Church in Newton. Burial will be private.
Reviewing a recital in Sanders Theatre in 1982, Globe critic Richard Dyer offered much detailed praise of Mr. di Bonaventura’s final encore, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10. Dyer decided the playing surpassed even his own descriptive faculties.
“Nothing I could tell you about that transcendentally teasing performance would make you believe it,” Dyer wrote, “because I still can’t believe I heard it myself.”