Obituary: Yonty Solomon

Born Cape Town, May 6, 1937. Died London, September 26, 2008, aged 71.


A naturally empathetic pianist, Professor Yonty Solomon brought out the best in the composers whose works he interpreted and the many music students he inspired.

The youngest of seven children, Yonty (Jonathan) was the child of immigrants from Lithuania to South Africa. Yonty played the family piano from three, copying the popular boogie-woogie jazz of the 1930s and 40s.

He started playing seriously at eight, but still by ear. At secondary school, his talent was picked up by a teacher and he learned musical notation at 15. He quickly grasped the language of classical music and became fluent playing Haydn, Bach, Chopin and Beethoven.

He won a University of Cape Town music scholarship, which included study in England. To please his parents, he took music with pyschology and gained disinction in both before moving to London from 1959-62 to study under the legendary Dame Myra Hess.He imbibed her holistic approach, combining technique with deep understanding of the composer's ideas.

Making his 1962 debut at London's Wigmore Hall with Bach's Goldberg Variations - his speciality - and Chopin's 24 Preludes, he was noted by the JC as "a pianist worth watching".

He studied under other world-class teachers, many of whom gave him free lessons in recognition of the talent which won him, among other prizes, the Harriet Cohen Beethoven Medal.

Settling in Britain, he played under leading conductors and orchestras and with instrumentalists such as Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. His ever-widening and deepening repertoire earned rave reviews for his technique and empathy. He played in quartets and from 1990-94 led his own trio.

A 1969 programme of Schubert, Beethoven, Debussy and Janacek at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, was praised by the JC's chief music critic, Arthur Jacobs, for its "almost speaking style" and "naturally flowing" playing. Jacobs also commented on his "peculiar finger motion" but considered this a minor distraction.

He encouraged new work and in 1967 premiered Wilfred Joseph's Piano Concerto at the Camden Festival. The JC commended his "closely committed reading" of the dialogues between piano and orchestra and his "intimate grasp of musical structure".

His recital of Kaikhosru Sorabji's 1943 composition, Three Transcendental Studies, at the Wigmore Hall in 1980 was praised by JC arts editor David Sonin for its "effortless handling of explosive textures" and "brilliance without sacrifice", achieved because the pianist "matched technique with clear understanding and regard for the composer's convictions".

He turned to teaching in 1977, becoming professor at both the Royal College and Trinity College of Music. He communicated his musical vision to students, who reciprocated his enthusiasm. His generosity in giving charity concerts included Jewish charities.

Among his many recording sessions and engagements, the most unusual was his 300 hours of tuition to the 11-year-old Indian child actor, Navin Chowdhry, to mime playing a musical prodigy in John chlesinger's 1988 film, Madame Sousatzka. He continued giving recitals throughout the 1990s.

He was nursed through his final illness from a brain tumour by his partner, Rowan Meyer, who survives him.

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