Oration | Address to Convocation
Pianist Anton Kuerti is one of today's most famous artists. He has recorded all the Beethoven concertos and sonatas, the Schubert sonatas, and works by many other composers. He is widely regarded as one of the truly great pianists.
Born in Austria, Dr. Kuerti grew up in the U.S. and has lived in Canada for the last 30 years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Rudolf Serkin. At the age of 11 he performed the Grieg concerto with Arthur Fiedler and was still a student when he won the famous Leventritt Award.
Dr. Kuerti was a professor at the University of Toronto for many years, but now devotes himself entirely to performing, composing and giving master classes. Among the many distinctions he has received are honorary doctorates from several institutions, including York University and the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Toronto Arts Award, and an
appointment as Officer of the Order of Canada.
Dr. Kuerti has toured 31 countries, including Japan, Russia and most of Europe, and has performed with most major North American orchestras and conductors. His vast repertoire includes some 50 concertos, including one he composed himself. His newest releases are a CD of two piano sonatas by Carl Czerny and a two-CD set of the Brahms piano concerti.
In Canada, Dr. Kuerti has appeared in about 115 communities from coast to coast and has played with every professional orchestra, including the Toronto Symphony. As a chamber musician, he has performed with such artists as Gidon Kremer, Yo-Yo Ma, Janos Starker, Barry Tuckwell, and the Cleveland, Guarneri, and Tokyo String quartets.
Dr. Kuerti was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree at the 10 a.m. session of convocation held on May 30.
Oration honouring Anton Kuerti
Dr. Annette Stavely, Deputy Public Orator
Ancient civilizations knew that musicians were a valuable resource to be nurtured and cherished. For without music, people are as "dull as night" and their affections as "dark as Erebus." Yet while all "art may aspire to the condition of music," it was the poets who celebrated musicians, in particular the musician and mariner, Orpheus, whom Jason took on board the good ship Argo, as he set sail in quest of the Golden Fleece.
Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music, plants and flowers
Ever sprung, as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Jason knew that Orpheus was just the man to provide the sweet music for "killing care and grief of heart" and keeping his fractious crew in line.
So, as a counterpoint to the "winter of our discontent" that dumped 650 centimetres of snow on us, the Senate of Memorial University, no less attuned to the people's spiritual health than the Greeks and the Elizabethans, has made a glorious spring by summoning to our shores another legendary musician and mariner, Anton Kuerti, one of the foremost musicians of our age, whose consummate, awe-inspiring performances have unfrozen our spirits, revitalized our capacity for life and our belief that we'll have a lasting spring, as long as we have music in our society.
Mr. Chancellor, the man we invite to become part of Memorial's crew in the quest for the golden attainments of intellectual and artistic supremacy, in fact, is much more ingenious and more widely travelled than the Argonauts. All Orpheus had to do was take his lute along on the boat with Jason and the boys and cruise around the Mediterranean. By contrast, in the 1980s, Anton Kuerti had to fit his Yamaha piano into a weather-beaten old van and travel miles along the Trans-Canada Highway to bring the solace and inspiration of music to his recalcitrant compatriots. Yet the effect was the same. Orpheus inspired the Argonauts to more enduring pleasures and Anton Kuerti strove to make the music of the masters accessible to all Canadians. Anton's performances in over 110 communities in Canada and in more than 31countries around the world communicated the soul of music and the ideas and personalities of the composers. Not only his interpretations of Beethoven and Czerny but also his Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Glazounow and Schubert were proof of his extraordinary musical powers. Critics, far beyond the boundaries of the Classical World, in the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Antipodes, praised the intense and intellectual nature of his performances, the high technical and spiritual order of his playing, and the innate sensitivity and compelling energy of his interpretations.
In the course of his odyssey, Anton inspired other musicians to reach for that perfection he embodied. He played with all the major orchestras and conductors, most notably last year with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra. Always accessible, and generous, Anton Kuerti has set a standard of excellence and perfection that others emulate. Always, Anton Kuerti has put the art of music before the Siren's seductive call for profit.
In this, he is an inspiration for today's graduates. Though his prodigious talent was in evidence early - when he was four-and-a-half he asked his nursery school teacher to let him play the piano, by the age of 11 he had played the Grieg Piano Concerto with Arthur Fiedler, and, while still a teenager, won the prestigious Leventritt Award - he reminds young artists that his distinguished career is achieved through the self-discipline of constant work and the compelling desire to express in music the enduring part of the human spirit, those golden realms of the imagination which are priceless and which even the poets have difficulty defining. It was the musician, Mendelssohn, who said "the feelings in music are too precise to be rendered in words."
Mr. Chancellor, not only is Anton Kuerti praised for the glory of his music, and the passion and sincerity of his art, but also he is that rare contemporary artist who is genuinely committed to humanitarian causes. Proceeds from his concerts and his CDs help fund Oxfam projects in the Sudan, he is a member of Amnesty International and the Canadian Committee of Scientists and Scholars. Like his mentor Beethoven, he recognizes both humanity's struggle in adversity and its quest for freedom and social harmony. He speaks eloquently and urgently of the threats to humanity - the nuclear arms race, poverty, illiteracy, environmental pollution and mismanagement. Like Orpheus, he has also journeyed into the underworld - of federal politics, bravely seeking political office in order to redress these wrongs.
Mr. Chancellor, it is yet another sign of your liberal open-mindedness that you are prepared to take on board the good ship, Memorial, a man who not only ran as a candidate for the New Democratic Party but who still continues to devote proceeds from his concerts to that party.
In his art and his life, Anton Kuerti has given expression to the principles of equity and freedom in bringing to his audiences the wonder and the joy of music. In the words of Frederick Schiller's Ode to Joy, Anton Kuerti's "magic power reunites all that custom has divided."
For this we praise and applaud him and confer on him the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa.
Address to convocation
by Dr. Anton Kuerti
My first visit to St. John's was about 30 years ago and, at that time, I used my special talent to make a minor sensation. I am not talking about my musical talents, but my talent to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, to the wrong people in the wrong way. That is four strikes, more than enough to put people out at you. I guess this talent is something one is born with, but I have also cultivated it a fair bit.
I played a benefit recital for a hospital, and the concert was attended by a large number of physicians. However, I got the feeling during the first part of the concert that the kindly doctors must have given away most of their tickets to their patients, especially the ones in the respiratory ward. I call it the tintinnabulation of the audience. Sometimes it is only one or two heroic consumptives who manage to keep their phlegm rattling; other times it sounds like a contagious wave which sweeps around the hall like the audience waves at sporting events.
It would have been quite justifiable to do what the famous conductor George Szell did on a similar occasion: He stopped abruptly, barked at the audience: "I will give you exactly five minutes to clear your throats," and stormed off stage. But I didn't. Only before the last big piece of the evening, one of my favourites, and much of it very soft, I decided to say something. Rather than be overly pompous and serious about it, I thought I would be a little cute. Thinking of all the doctors (or patients) in the hall, I said: there are a few people here tonight who should immediately go home, drink lots of fluids, take two aspirins, and go for a chest X-ray the first thing in the morning. Nobody seemed to think that was a monumentally funny line, but it did have its effect: There was a magical, inspiring silence for the rest of the program.
Not only that, the Orford quartet came to play a few weeks later, and reported that you could hear a pin drop, the audience was so silent.
A year or so later my agent wrote a routine letter suggesting that it might be time for a re-engagement, but she received a hostile reply stating that Anton Kuerti caused severe embarrassment to many members of the audience on his last visit to St. John's, and therefore, no, we shall not want Mr. Kuerti to perform here. Well, actually I was back on stage in St. John's within about 20 years. Now I realize that silence in concert halls is not one of the great burning issues of our day. I just need it in order to do my work properly, just as a surgeon needs sterile instruments and an engineer needs proper calculations to make sure his building is safe. If either of them needs to offend someone in order to ensure the safety of their clients, they'd better not hesitate. Integrity is more important than good manners, and sometimes the two are incompatible. Indeed, integrity sometimes requires betrayal on one level to avoid a more profound betrayal.
Vermont Senator James Jeffords displayed terrible manners and betrayed his party in order not to betray his conscience on environmental, economic, social and military matters that may decide the future of this planet. Dr. Nancy Olivieri betrayed her hospital and the drug maker Apotex in order not to betray the countless patients who might be deceived and damaged, and her basic oath as a doctor, to do no harm. Compared to these and so many other honourable whistleblowers all over the world who have risked their freedom and their lives, begging an audience to keep quiet is hardly a heroic gesture.
In music, the great, heroic whistleblower is Florestan, in Beethoven's thrilling opera Fidelio. Florestan is confined in solitude to a dungeon where no ray of light penetrates, nor any ray of hope that justice might eventually prevail. He sings: "In the springtime of my life, my happiness has fled. I bravely ventured to tell the truth, and these chains are my reward ... my heart's sweet solace is that I have done my duty."
When I heard these words at a performance of Fidelio a year or two ago, I suddenly had a vision of the Israeli nuclear physicist, Mordechai Vanunu. I was not just reminded of him, perceiving the parallel in a detached, intellectual way; it was his plight at this very instant that shook me. Here was another man, alive today, who shouted out the truth to us, and was rewarded by being kidnapped in Italy by the Israeli Mossad and thrown into solitary confinement for 12 years. His words were "I did what I did from deep conviction ... I think I was brave. I was the only individual who ever stood up to the Israeli establishment to say what I believed. I acted out of concern for this society. The most difficult thing was not being able to talk to anyone, I could talk only to the walls and I longed for human contact. The warder would say to me 'You know, the person who was in this cell before you committed suicide.'" What a poignant example of real life imitating art. He is now in his 14th year of confinement.
Vanunu believes that nuclear weapons are an intolerable threat to mankind that dwarfs any evil they are meant to "protect" us from. I am sure he feels the same about American, Russian, Chinese, French - and certainly Arab - nuclear power. Whether one agrees with him or not (and I do, emphatically), this is a point of view that must be heard and debated, not throttled.
So, my fellow graduates, I urge you to keep good manners and good taste in perspective; they are cultivated, civilized and highly desirable, and will get you lots of dinner invitations and perhaps a nice spouse, but they must not be allowed to inhibit you from following your conscience on matters of greater import. On the other hand, I guess they would at least help keep you from coughing at my concerts!
I congratulate you on your achievements, and I congratulate society for having given you the chance to develop your talents. Worldwide, only one out of 100 people get the opportunity you have been given. In a society in which the rich are getting constantly richer, and the poor are getting poorer, please try to remember those other 99 who couldn't go to college. I wish you the best of luck and fulfillment as you start your professional lives.
© Copyright 2002 Memorial University of Newfoundland