When I was 9 or 10 I was still taking Suzuki lessons and attending the group sessions every Monday night at San Diego State University, which had one of the first (and most successful) Suzuki programs ever established in the United States. Spoiler- this isn’t an essay about that crazy guy who hates Suzuki people. Anyway, there was this little girl in our class named Mika. She always came with her mom, an impeccably polite and delicate Japanese woman married to a university professor. I still remember Mika because she played really well at about the age of 6 or so, like prodigy material. One week she didn’t show up.
Turns out Mika’s mom came home one night and found her husband in the closed garage with the car running. She and Mika moved away shortly after that, and I never saw them again. This was my first direct proximity to suicide, and unfortunately not the last. I thought of Mika again last week when I heard about José Feghali’s tragic death.
I played as concertmaster of the Ft. Worth Symphony/Ch. orchestra from 1992-95 and taught at Texas Christian University during that period. José played several times with both orchestras, and our paths often crossed over the years both before and after my time there. I’d known of José since 1985, when he won the Cliburn and Barry Douglas won the silver. The following year Barry won the Tchaikovsky Competition; I was also lucky enough to get a prize there, along with William Wolfram and David Kim (part of the small American contingent that year). I remember a lot of talk that summer about the Cliburn and José, and the pros and cons of winning something like the Cliburn, which even at that time had a very mixed history regarding the career durability of its top prizewinners. It’s important to keep in mind that this was still an era in which top competitions had a fair amount of career gravity- a Gold at the Cliburn (or Tchaikovsky) generated an tremendous amount of attention, and the winner essentially had about three seasons of maybe 150 major dates lined up before the next contestants would cycle in and the focus would shift to them. So there was often a sort of countdown for anyone that won a top prize; I remember thinking at the time that not everyone seemed to realize what was coming when the competition ended.
I didn’t know José personally at that point, but over the next 7 or 8 seasons after his Cliburn win, to me he appeared to be doing remarkably well for someone thrown into that sort of world. I’d see the occasional peaks and valleys in the press regarding his playing, career trajectory, etc. but that didn’t seem unusual. Imagine being in your 20s and going from 30 scattered dates a year (or so) to playing every major hall in the country the following season. No genuine artist is going to be at the top of their game every night under those circumstances- that’s one of many reasons nobody takes competitions all that seriously anymore. But maybe that’s for another column……
By the time I met him in 1992, he still seemed to be playing a fair amount; maybe not the biggest dates in the world, but certainly he was sustaining a viable career as a soloist. We’d occasionally share the stage, and I often heard him from the audience- he was a serious pianist, full of commitment, expression, and virtuosity. We weren’t close friends, but I thoroughly enjoyed his warm and gracious character in our limited personal interactions. I saw him less frequently after 1995 but was very much aware of his growing reputation as a teacher and mentor. In the past few years I’d heard rumors of some personal and emotional struggles but attributed that to typical professional gossip. Turns out it wasn’t, as this thoughtful essay from Jim Denton explains (thanks to Norman LeBrecht for this post).
Over the years I’ve had my own experiences with the debilitating and sometimes paralyzing effects of clinical depression. Even with that sort of insight, nothing ever prepares you for this sort of tragedy. I have very fond memories of him as a person and artist, and send my deepest condolences to his colleagues and family.