In Memory of Bargarewt Baxtresser

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’.
Margaret Baxtresser: A life in tune
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 40 years.
 
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 Philharmonic:
 
“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 physical need.”
 
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 Symphony.
 
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, throaty guffaw.
 
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 she married.
 
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.

Confidence builder
 
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 her.
 
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.

Storied piano
 
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 performance.
 
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 unwind.
 
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,” Baxtresser said.
 
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 e-mail.

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 her support.
 
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.