Margaret Baxtresser: A life in tune
Click here to read Margaret Baxtresser’s
obituary from the Beacon Journal on June 9th.
Click here to to view the program from Margaret’s memorial service.
Click here to read ‘Margaret Baxtresser:
A passion for music and life’.
Click here to read ‘Mourning a nurturing friend in music ed’.
Akron’s first lady of fine music makes family, career and her town all high notes
By Elaine Guregian
Beacon Journal music writer
If Akron had an official music ambassador, Margaret Baxtresser would be
it. Behind the scenes as well as onstage, the pianist has diplomatically
but firmly helped shape Akron’s classical music community for the last
Time and again since she moved here in 1966, she has gathered musicians
and supporters in her West Akron home. Recitals, receptions and polite
tugs at the press to report on the arts have all been part of her
unwavering advocacy for classical music.
Her urge to mobilize people and to share her broad experience have made
her a force behind Akron music organizations such as the Akron Symphony
Orchestra and Tuesday Musical. Most of all, Baxtresser has passed on her
seemingly inexhaustible energy for making music and for spreading the
word, both to students and to people she sees as potential listeners.
Said her oldest daughter, Jeanne Baxtresser, who has been the principal
flutist of the Montreal Symphony, the Toronto Symphony and the New York
“Her passion for music is just astonishing. She goes every day to the
piano and plays. It’s something that’s just like breathing for her.
“I’ve not seen a lot of musicians who have it to that extent. It’s a
Kent State University piano students learned from Baxtresser’s
experience as a concert pianist with international credentials and
insight into what it means to be a performer, not just a pianist. People
throughout the community have been drawn to her recitals, chamber music
concerts and solo appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra and Akron
When musicians who are considering moving to Akron ask for advice,
Barbara Feld puts them in touch with Baxtresser. “Margaret seems to be
the entree into the musical world, whether she decides to open her home
so people can meet the new person or just invites the new person to
lunch. There’s nobody else in town who does that,” said Feld, the
concert manager of Tuesday Musical.
It’s Baxtresser’s savvy about people and how things run behind the
scenes that sets her apart from the many other devoted musicians and
classical music supporters in town.
A couple of years ago, when the Akron Summit County Public Library
started talking about a new building, Baxtresser organized meetings at
her house so performers and presenters could talk about what they wanted
from the much-needed medium-sized auditorium. Then they got organized so
their concerns would be heard. It was fitting that when the library
reopened, Baxtresser planned the music for the event.
You may have seen Margaret Baxtresser at concert intermissions. She’s
the woman with the sparkling cocoa-brown eyes who is leaning in and
gazing intently at whomever she’s talking to. She seems to forget to
breathe, she listens so carefully, but the seriousness is broken often
with her trademark laugh, an explosive “Ha!” followed by an extended,
Looking over the life of this woman who has opened her arms to the
community takes a person in many directions. There’s the teaching, the
concerts, the recent and impassioned involvement with the Hanoi
Conservatory in Vietnam. Always at the center is Baxtresser’s family,
beginning with her late husband, Earl, an avid amateur pianist with whom
she played four-hands arrangements of symphonies, and continuing with
her four children, Jeanne, Suzanne, Earl and Robert, and two foster
daughters, Mary Davenport and Jane Davenport.
The former Margaret Barthel and her brother, Lee, grew up in Detroit
with a music-loving father whose education ended with the fourth grade,
and a Canadian mother who went to business school but stayed home after
Music was always in the house. When she was a baby, Margaret’s family
used to set her up by the music rack on their upright piano, where she
would keep time with her feet. At 4, Baxtresser was taken to her first
piano lesson by her mother.
Baxtresser recounts a family tale: “I don’t know what happened during
the lesson, but I went out of the lesson and I was mad! I was stamping
my feet. My mother said, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ I said, ‘I had a
lesson and I don’t know how to play the piano yet!’ ” Baxtresser hooted
at the story, seated now at a round kitchen table in her home.
Of all the advice she can give, one thing she can’t offer is suggestions
for how to get a child to practice. She didn’t have to be prodded.
“Music drew me. Whatever I was preparing for my lesson, I wanted to do
it. I wasn’t goody two-shoes about practicing (but) whatever I did had
to come from myself,” she said. That inner drive led to her concert
debut with the Detroit Symphony at age 13. Later she won a Walter W.
Naumburg Foundation Award, an honor she shares with such distinguished
musicians as soprano Dawn Upshaw, pianist Stephen Hough, violinist Nadja
Salerno-Sonnenberg and cellist Truls Mork.
Moving to Pennsylvania and then to Minnesota for her husband’s job with
Goodyear, Baxtresser limited her concert appearances to balance family
life. Her children knew without being told that music was a necessity in
their house. When the children were young, she practiced while they
napped or after they fell asleep at night; later, she did it while they
were at school.
“I’ll tell you a funny story about Jeannie. I was practicing, I was
going to play with the Minneapolis Symphony. I was practicing the Grieg
Concerto. It was one o’clock in the morning. I heard this plaintive
little cry from upstairs. It was Jeannie, and she said, ‘Mother, it’s
all right now, go on!’ I had been playing the same thing over and
over,” Baxtresser said.
The composer Libby Larsen was an elementary school classmate of
daughters Suzanne and Jeanne. In recent years, she told Baxtresser it
had made a huge impact on her to hear Baxtresser practicing as she
walked past their house to school and home again. “You were the first
woman I knew who wasn’t just a mother,” she said.
Encouraging each of their children to find his or her inner passion was
a priority for Margaret and Earl Baxtresser, said Jeanne. Growing up in
Minneapolis, where the family lived before moving to Akron, Jeanne tried
piano, violin and cello, none of which suited her, before discovering an
affinity for the flute. In many families, parents get discouraged if the
first interest their child explores doesn’t work out. Not in their
family, Jeanne said. Her parents never made her think of those early
setbacks as failures.
As she was growing up, Jeanne said, her mother was a trusted confidante.
“She was a very empathetic mother. I felt I could take anything to her
and she could help me with it.” Because they were so close, she missed
her mother terribly when she left Minnesota for two-week tours,
regardless of the fact that her father and live-in help were there for
At Juilliard, the young flutist swapped stories with other students who
also had musician parents. “In the end, we all recognized what a
tremendous advantage it was” to have had steeped-in-music childhoods,
Jeanne said. It all entered the young musician’s subconscious. “She was
practicing right through her pregnancies. I almost think my music
education began before I was born,” Jeanne said.
Margaret Baxtresser’s home is an easy, comfortable place to talk.
Upstairs in the music room, up to 60 people can gather for recitals or
parties. Meetings of Tuesday Musical, Friends of Music, the Brahms
Allegro Club for children and others have kept the room full. It also
became a place for classical music celebrities to relax after a
At a reception here after one Blossom Music Center concert, the pianist
John Browning held forth at Baxtresser’s 1878 Bechstein piano, on which
the composers Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms are known to have played
in long-ago days.
“(Browning) started and we kept giving him Scotch or whatever he asked
for. He was still playing at three in the morning,” Baxtresser said.
In 1992, the conductor Leonard Slatkin organized a 10-piano extravaganza
at Blossom. Afterward, the pianists headed to Baxtresser’s house to
Two grand pianos sit side by side downstairs for everyday practice.
Personal touches are everywhere in the spacious home. Original art
crowds the walls, and Earl’s African mask collection parades around the
perimeter near the ceiling. Like Baxtresser, the setting is gracious and
accommodating, mannerly but not formal.
“The house is part of who I am, I think. A lot of what I’ve been able
to do is because I have a congenial meeting place for people,”
She and Earl, who died in 1991, chose the house because it was conducive
to hosting musical events. A Beacon Journal article in 1975 noted that
on Oct. 21 that year, she hosted a Tuesday Musical Club meeting at which
she was also the featured performer, and that same evening entertained
after the opening concert of the Akron Symphony season.
Baxtresser continues to perform, playing in the Seneca Trio with
violinist Marcia Ferritto and cellist Diane Mather, who was also her
chamber music colleague in the Cuyahoga Valley Arts Ensemble in the
1970s. Her concern about children not getting a full music education led
her to the Children’s Concert Society, where she donates her time to
create and perform programs in the Akron Public Schools.
“I’m so happy to be able to do that. (The students) don’t know who I
am. I’m a lady that plays the piano. I’m not thinking about my
performance, I’m only thinking about getting through to them,” she
said. She sees the brief period she’s with them as a chance to spark
their interest in classical music.
In an interview, it can be hard to keep Baxtresser on track. A woman
from a generation that didn’t tell their ages (and she doesn’t),
Baxtresser also has that generation’s generous quality of sharing
credit. She keeps switching the conversation to another person or topic
that would make a good story.
Mary Sue Hyatt, a singer, professor and interim director of the Hugh A.
Glauser School of Music at Kent State University, said she has seen
“unfailing generosity” from Baxtresser in their 30 years as
colleagues. “She never calls attention to herself and is always willing
to pull others onstage to take the bow rather than her,” she said in an
A gift to Hanoi
In the past few years, Baxtresser’s interest has turned to Vietnam. On
her first trip in 1994, she was the first American to perform there
after the lifting of the trade embargo. She found in Hanoi a city behind
the times, though eager to catch up. The first time she played with a
group of musicians there, they asked if she could leave her score with
them. Unable to afford to buy it, they wanted to borrow hers so they
could laboriously copy out the parts by hand.
That stuck with her, and on a visit in October, her third to Hanoi, she
officially bequeathed her entire music library to the Hanoi
Conservatory. A scholarship is to be named for Baxtresser to recognize
On Baxtresser’s first visit in 1994, the conservatory was a single
building with broken windows and no heat, where students wore gloves
with the fingers cut out to keep their hands warm when they practiced. A
decade later, the government had built not only a new conservatory but
dormitories and other buildings. This time, the visit was a family
event, with Baxtresser’s brother Lee and his wife along to be honored
for their donations to Hanoi’s Organization for the Preservation of the
Arts. Baxtresser’s daughter Suzanne traveled there as well.
Back home, Baxtresser takes as much personal delight in talking about
the people and improvements in Hanoi as she does in raving about the
newest ticket voucher program for young people at Tuesday Musical or the
new auditorium at Akron’s Main Library. For this gracious woman of
inquisitive mind and caring heart, there is infinite room for her
family, Akron and the rest of the world.
This editorial was reprinted by the Akron Beacon Journal on June 9th, 2005.