Reynaldo Reyes at the piano, in traditional Filipino barong tagalog
20 April 2015
Last weekend I had the privilege of being part of Towson University’s 50th Anniversary Retirement Celebration for Filipino pianist Reynaldo Reyes, who has been an integral part of that institution, and musical life in Baltimore, for a half-century. Mr. Reyes was my musical father. He taught me to play the piano, during the crucial formative years of my life (ages 5 to 16) — taking me from Leila Fletcher’s Book One all the way to Balakirev’s Islamey. But that fact by itself merely hints at a mentoring relationship of extraordinary generosity, creativity and vitality. Indeed, when I try to describe Reynaldo Reyes, the words that emerge are all from the world of music — brioso, con fuoco, molto energio ma sempre espressivo and, to quote from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 101, mit der Innigsten Empfindung.
He was born into the broiler of the Pacific World War, in a time and place of extreme hardship. That his mother was able to procure an upright piano in his native Phillipine village of Alitagtag, was a miracle; Reynaldo’s weekly 6-mile barefoot walks with his sister to and from their early piano lessons was a second miracle; and the survival of young Reynaldo, his family, and even the family instrument yet a third miracle — for the Japanese occupying force burned his town to the ground upon their retreat in the closing chaotic time of the Great War, not long before atomic weapons visited destruction upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite all of this, Reynaldo learned to master the piano with such brilliance that he was sent on a Philippine government scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire for study with the great pianists Marguerite Long (1874-1966), Jean Doyen (1907-1982) and Jacques Février (1900-1979).
Among Rey’s graduating prizes in Paris were Grand Prix in sight-reading and solfège — necessary skills much-neglected by pianists these days — and he is without question the greatest score- and sight-reader I have ever witnessed. After coming to Baltimore in 1958, he worked with Mieczyslaw Münz (1900-1976), an important disciple of Ferruccio Busoni; and he brought me to play for Münz also, when I was still a teenager.
Reynaldo Reyes racked up a fine shelf of international piano competition awards including 2nd Prize in the Busoni Competition of 1962. He could have easily pursued the career of a touring virtuoso. But he chose instead to make Baltimore his home base, to the good fortune of the many generations of pianists who have thrived under his tutelage, fellow musicians who have shared in his wonderful chamber collaborations, and audiences in the Baltimore – Washington area where his name is well-known. I was as inspired by his many recitals (encompassing the whole of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Debussy’s Préludes and Études, Chopin’s Scherzi, Ballades and Préludes, the complete Sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, the Variation works of Brahms, and transcriptions of every stripe imaginable), as I was by his magnificent pedagogy. On stage his technical wizardry and personal passion just sizzled.
It was Busoni’s philosophy of the piano that hovered over my decade of lessons — the piano as instrument for the greatest possible realization of the composer’s intentions and poetic message. Whether executing the manifold Baroque ornamentations of a Bach Suite, untangling technical knots in Liszt’s Études, or coloring the pointillistic imagery of Debussy’s Préludes, Mr. Reyes always kept my sights focused on the discovery and ultimate sharing of the composers’ emotions with my audience. It mattered not whether that was an audience of one, in my teacher’s studio, or an audience of thousands in a large concert hall. I learned that music is a communicative art of the utmost obligation and importance.
He is the most cosmopolitan of men, and it is that aspect of his personality that I recall fondly, when recounting the time of my studies. In the course of our frequent and long lessons, his office phone would ring, to be answered in any number of languages with which Rey was fluent — English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Tagalog, Greek (he seemed to have a good working knowledge of Russian, Japanese and other tongues as well) — his conversations ever laced with bounteous good humor and an infectious laugh. From his appreciation of all the worlds’ countries and cultures, Reynaldo instilled in me a profound admiration for the sheer vastness of the human experience. And in turn I acquired a similar thirst for the bountiful literature written for our instrument, the piano, which only continues to grow without end.
It is hard for any child to speak of their own parents without sentimental attachment, and so it is for myself with Reynaldo Reyes. My own remarks given at his retirement concert can be read below, and they contain some cherished personal narratives. I hope you enjoy them, and join me in saluting a remarkable musician of wondrous scope, vision, energy and spiritual inspiration. Fifty years and counting, Reynaldo Reyes… the Cosmo Man.