Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Concert pianist debuted at age 6

Emma Endres-Kountz, 91, a concert pianist, music educator, and founder of what became the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, died of heart failure Sunday in a Sylvania nursing home.

She studied with international music stars, played with the great symphonies of Europe and America, and founded musical societies and schools in Toledo and Chicago.

She premiered Igor Stravinksy serenades in New York and recorded with top string quartets. Serge Rachmaninoff gave her a Steinway piano he rebuilt himself.

“She was an artistic visionary, a great musical coach, a mother and grandmother and teacher,” said Toledo Symphony Executive Vice President Kathleen Carroll.

Emma Endres was born in Kentucky, one of eight children of an Alsatian-born organist and a painter. Two of her sisters also became world-class musicians.

At age 6, she debuted in a concert of Bach, Schumann, and Mozart. At age 9, she performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1932, she left her hometown of Madison, Wis., for Juilliard Graduate School; in 1937, she began studies outside Paris with some of the great pianists and composers of the era.

“I have this amazing ear. That's what astounded everyone at the university,” she told The Blade last year. Richard Casadesus, one of her teachers, said she was “one of the finest American pianists of our time.”

Ms. Endres made her European debut in 1938, then took a job as director of music at the Toledo Museum of Art. She debuted in Town Hall, New York City, in 1939, after leaving Europe for good; even so, throughout her life she sprinkled her speech with French phrases. She married Toledo businessman Frederick Kountz, another globetrotting intellectual, in 1940. The couple settled in Toledo and had three children, one of whom died in infancy.

Mrs. Endres-Kountz found Toledo “culturally depressed.” In 1943, she and several friends founded the Friends of Music, to present chamber music and youth choral concerts.

By 1945, it had grown into the Toledo Orchestra and chorus, the beginning of the modern Toledo Symphony Orchestra.

“She had the idea, the vision of how good an orchestra could be in this community,” Ms. Carroll said. “She didn't settle for an orchestra as good as it could be. She was only interested in quality. She wanted to start an orchestra that was great.”

Peter Kountz, her youngest son, recalls life in the family's Old West End home as a musical fantasy, as most of the musical luminaries passing through town would stay with the family.

“My father was the Toledo Times music critic; my mother practiced three or four hours a day, and taught at Mary Manse College. On Sundays, musicians came from Cleveland or Detroit, and they'd play chamber music in the living room,” he said.

Mrs. Endres-Kountz taught master classes in piano for 13 years, and continued her concert career, performing with string quartets and symphonies throughout the United States and Europe. In 1957, the sudden death of their 15-year-old son prompted the Kountzes to start anew.

“It was a matter of grieving for the rest of our lives, or giving ourselves to young people,” Mrs. Endres-Kountz said.

Mr. Kountz took a job at a small Chicago college. Mrs. Endres-Kountz, overwhelmed with the misery at a huge public housing project in South Chicago, volunteered. She started teaching music appreciation to the children there, and formed a chorus. She found several children with perfect pitch, but no musical education.

“Without music and art, you can't teach the whole child,” she said at the time. “The imagination is stifled and the joy is squeezed out.”

The program gave rise to MERIT, a music education program she co-founded in 1979 with a friend she met in the Chicago Symphony docent program. The women raised about $70,000, held auditions, and started with Saturday morning classes for 150 inner-city children. “This was her greatest achievement,” her son said. “She was most proud of MERIT.”

Today, the school has a $2.3 million budget, 85 faculty, and serves 3,500 students each year.

“Her influence is profound,” said school director Duffy Adelson. “She insisted on perfection. She wouldn't let anyone give anything less than their best. She was demanding but loving. And kids really need to have reasonable demands set on them. We still try to set the bar as high as Emma did.”

The Kountzes returned to Toledo in 1983 to care for ailing relatives. Mr. Kountz died in 1989. The years since were taken up with coaching piano performers, attending daily Mass, and visiting friends, their son said

A memorial Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Chapel of Ursuline Academy. The family requests memorials to the Ursuline Sisters. Coyle Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

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