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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2008

Frances Renzi s talent on the piano has taken her to the top

BY SALLY VALLONGO
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Frances Renzi is known for elegant interpretations of a range of musical styles. Frances Renzi is known for elegant interpretations of a range of musical styles.
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If Frances Renzi had become a professional driver, her race would be Le Mans in France.

Had she chosen the culinary arts, the restaurant she devised would rival Le Bernardin in New York.

And if Renzi had taken a path toward writing, she d be an oft-published poet.

Not that she ever considered any of those career options.

It s always been music, she says, her low, clear voice warmed by a subtle drawl courtesy of her Texas roots.

Music offered her everything the other choices did, rolled into one: the heart-pounding thrill of public performance, the personal attention to every ingredient in a musical work, and the creative freedom to turn strings of notes into memorable lines.

It s all I ever wanted to do. I never gave a lot of thought to anything else, says the slim keyboard artist who has helped put Toledo on the national music map.

I ve always been drawn to music that sings, that has sonorities. You have this sound you know you want and you learn how to make the piano sing.

Frances Renzi of Sylvania is a nationally know keyboard artist. Frances Renzi of Sylvania is a nationally know keyboard artist.
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Known for her elegant, lyrical interpretations of an eclectic selection of styles French Impressionism, German Romanticism, Mozart, and 20th-century music by Ned Rorem, Paul Schoenfield, and Vincent Persichetti, among others, Renzi is capable of a chameleon-like shift of color and texture within a single recital.

Ms. Renzi produced seemingly effortless virtuoso playing that made one gasp at times, gushed a Washington paper in a review of her performance there.

What s more, her work in chamber music has established Renzi as not only the go-to person in northwest Ohio but nationally as well.

If I were to put all of the pianists I ve heard into groups of five, Frances would unquestionably be in the top group, said Paul Schoenfield, a distinguished composer and former colleague of Renzi at the University of Toledo.

Whenever an occasion arises where a pianist for a particular performance or recording is needed, she is always the first one I contact.

The art of practice

Bringing music to life has occupied the best part of Renzi s time and energy for 61 years.

Happily today, after a lengthy career reaching from Fort Worth through New York City to Toledo, the pianist says she still feels keen anticipation each day she sits down to the nine-foot Steinway Concert Grand that dominates her contemporary Sylvania living room.

And that s every day unless she is out of town.

The best start for her day is three hours at the ivories, learning new music, perfecting familiar works, singing through her fingers.

I make a schedule for myself and I follow that, she says. I set goals. I use discipline.

No one has to tell her to practice. Never did.

This is what retirement looks like for a scintillating pianist who continues to find challenge and satisfaction translating what she hears in her mind to the 88 black and white keys.

She left the University of Toledo in 2000, after 28 years as faculty performer, coach, and teacher. A founding member of the popular chamber ensemble, UT s former Toledo Trio (Renzi, violinist William Terwilliger, cellist Marc Moskovitz), she also was and is willing and eager to accompany other soloists. Last weekend she accompanied local singer Judy Dye and friends at two evenings of music at Murphy s Place.

Accompanying Renzi s love of performing is the challenge of sharing what she knows with up-and-coming pianists. She has helped shape a new generation of keyboard artists.

I m proud of a lot of the students I ve had, says the tall, reed-slim woman with a quiet smile.

Frances taught her students how to really listen to themselves, in order to always play with a beautiful sound. I will never forget her great attention to every single detail in the music to make it the best interpretation possible, says Helen Marlais, a pianist and pedagogue with an international reputation on the faculty of Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

She taught me the importance of voicing the melody wherever it was in a piece. She taught her students to pay attention to the pedal and the sound and control one could achieve from learning how to use it properly how much or how little to use it full, half, quarter, or flutter pedal, and when to use it. I realized from her that using the pedal correctly is an art form unto itself!

Always interesting

She mentions Helen Marlais and Tony Pattin among others, both of whom now teach and perform professionally, and Toledoans Barbara Foote and Mary Lib Kendrick, who continue Renzi s work with their own students. There are former Renzi pupils in Taiwan and China as well.

Since retirement, Renzi has continued to accept up to 20 performing gigs each year.

That s just enough, Renzi allows. I always have something interesting coming up.

A popular soloist and chamber musician with the Toledo Symphony since 1975, Renzi also appears around North America, Taiwan, and China. She records on record labels including Centaur, Musical Heritage Society, and Decca/Argo with the flutist Martha Aarons, clarinetist Arthur Campbell, violinist Lev Polyakin, and violist Robert Vernon.

Her recording of chamber music by Paul Schoenfield ( Caf Music ) was nominated for a Grammy. She has been featured on national broadcasts including National Public Radio s Performance Today.

And Renzi still teaches privately, in her home studio replete with two 6-foot, 1-inch Yamaha grands.

Like any glittering career, Renzi s started simply enough.

Born in Texarkana, young Frances Lumpkin moved with her family to Fort Worth. Music was in the house then; her mother and grandmother were accomplished pianists who took their child s interest to heart. At age 7, she recalls, Mother bought me a Wurlitzer spinet and I started lessons.

Music became the focus of her ambitions from then on, although academics never suffered. She played piano in the high school orchestra and bells in the marching band. As a junior, Frances won a Fort Worth competition for young artists.

In 1958, the same year fellow Texan Van Cliburn stunned the world by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, Frances graduated from high school and entered the University of North Texas in Denton.

I knew by then, these are the kind of people I wanted to be around, Renzi says of her fellow students musicians all.

After graduating in 1962 with a bachelor s degree in music, the bright-eyed Miss Lumpkin packed her scores and headed for the Big Apple and Juilliard School of Music.

There, she studied with pianists Beveridge Webster and Rosina Lhevinne the latter Van Cliburn s teacher, too and earned a master s degree in music.

From each specialist Renzi says she drew distinct yet complementary lessons.

Lhevinne had such an ear for the beauty of the tone of the piano and she loved 19th-century repertoire, says Renzi. Webster wasn t interested in technique but theory and artistry. We did lots of contemporary works.

Serendipity

A quick study, she brought a spirit as big as Texas on her jump into the New York music scene, finding work performing and accompanying. Her impressive sight-reading skills made Renzi a great fit as rehearsal and performance accompanist for the New York City Ballet, where she worked with choreographer Jerome Robbins under the leadership of George Balanchine.

It was tough and wonderful, Renzi says today of the experience playing Brahms, Stravinsky, and Bach for the dancers.

Frances Renzi is an excellent pianist and a highly qualified musician, wrote Balanchine. I found her work exceptional.

On a fellowship she also worked with Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, and other top conductors as accompanist for the Juilliard Chorus.

Then, after nine bustling years, her husband, Eugene Renzi, accepted a job with Teledyne in Toledo and Frances found herself uprooted.

Toledo, Ohio? she recalls a New York friend exclaiming, as if Renzi were on a maiden voyage into the unknown. But what she found here in 1971 was great serendipity, for the Toledo music scene was active with symphony series, operas, dance, and a bustling academic music scene at local universities.

Renzi wasted no time making her presence felt.

She joined the University of Toledo faculty in 1972, working for then chairman Art Winsor. By 1975 she had made her solo debut with the Toledo Symphony under then director Serge Fournier.

Since then she has performed with the symphony more than two dozen times, including 16 concertos. Renzi will appear this October with the symphony in a Mozart and More concert.

When Renzi and her first husband split in 1978, she kept the name on which she d built her burgeoning career. Later, she met James Mason, a symphony and UT faculty bassoonist. They clicked and were married in 1992.

It s a musical marriage, Renzi says of their life together. He understands my needs and I understand his.

Together they travel each summer to New Hampshire for a month-long music festival, to Mexico, on cruises, as well as to Renzi s appearances around the country.

Today, she maintains the same devotion to careful practice and diligent memorization that carried her to this place. It s always both ability and luck, she says. When opportunity knocks, everyone knows Renzi will be ready.

Contact Sally Vallongo at: svallongo@theblade.com.



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