Monday, June 4, 2012

Our "Wonder Pianist" ~ Winifred Byrd

         A New York Times reviewer said, "She is the Little Devil of the keyboard.  She possesses a polished technique".  Winifred Byrd also received high praise as a concert pianist from Walter Damrosch, New York Symphony conductor, who called her "the feature of the concert and one that will not easily be forgotten  She seemed a fairy figure, clothed in a unique shade of blue, with an air and profile delightfully childlike, but an intensity and remarkable fire and passion in her playing". He also noted her "Buster Brown" coiffure.
            Salem-born Winifred was a small young lady, but when her fingers flew over the 88 keys to energize the music of Chopin, Beetoven, Schumann or Liszt, it seemed as though sparks came from them. After her 1918 debut in New York, she traveled to other cities earning praise wherever she played: In Chicago a reporter wrote that her "fleet and accurate fingers [showed a] mixture of fire, delicacy, , impetuosity of youth, excellent left hand and singing tone." In San Francisco she was named "one of the most brilliant to come out to the coast, displaying a piano technique that fairly carried her audience to their feet". In Boston, Winifred was said to have displayed " a high order of musicianship, excellent tone, nice phrasing and nuancing".
            Salem was a small town of 17,000 when Winifred was growing up, not a city where young musicians might expect to find superior training.  However, she had her mother's memory to inspire her: Teresa Holderness Byrd received a music degree from Willamette University and taught piano until her death in 1886 when Winifred was two years old. Winifred attended Salem schools and Willamette for a year.  However, at an early age she left Salem to study at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she won the Spaulding Scholarship, and then traveled in Europe for graduate study. She studied in Boston with "Madame Hopekirk", Carl Baermann and Theresa Carreno. She eventually taught music at Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan.
            Winifred performed in her hometown.  One recorded event was on December 19, 1933 when she was soloist in the Capitol Theatre with the Portland Symphony, conducted by William van Hoogstrattan.  Tickets were 50 cents, $1, and $1.50.  It was noted that a Steinway piano was used for the concert. She also performed for Elizabeth Lord, pianist Dorothy Pierce, and Alice Crary Brown in Salem.
            In the 1930s, Winifred moved to Los Angeles where she died in 1970 at the ago 86.  Her niece, Martha Byrd Blau of Salem, recalled that her gifted relative would play for her and her husband, Sandy Blau, when they visited in California.
            The Portland Journal summed up Winifred Byrd's Oregon appearances with a review saying her audience was "composed of many of the music lovers and leading families of the metropolis. By her own genius and power she is entitled to approval in her own home state among her home people."

This quotation and the biographical information from ”Winifred Byrd: America’s Wonder Pianist”, Historic Marion, Al Jones (date unknown) and “Your Salem Family Album”, Statesman Journal, Salem, OR, October 26, 1990.

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