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NEC Mourns Death of Pianist Jacob Maxin

Distinguished Pianist served on Faculty from 1968--2002.

NEC Mourns Death of Jacob Maxin

Influential Teacher “Had Reputation as Best Pianist in Boston Who Almost Never Played in Public”

Pianist Jacob (Jack) Maxin, once described as “the greatest of unknown pianists,” who taught on the NEC faculty from 1968 to 2002, has died. He was 83 and had been living in a nursing home in Needham Heights. Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he died December 16 of complications of the flu. He was a much loved teacher and a performer of great virtuosity and probing insight, who nonetheless played very little in public. Connoisseurs, however, eagerly anticipated his infrequent concerts and counted among their most memorable experiences his performances in 1971 and 1991of Busoni’s fiendishly difficult Fantasia contrapuntistica, his Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Gunther Schuller conducting the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, and several First Monday at Jordan Hall programs in which he played music of Mendelssohn, Poulenc, Webern, Saint Saëns, Schoenberg/Steuermann, and Chopin. He will be remembered by friends, colleagues, and former students in a memorial tribute March 3 at 12 pm in Brown Hall.

Born in 1929 in Philadelphia the youngest of five children, Maxin received his early musical training at the Settlement Music School and Swarthmore College with Irma Wolpe, and at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music before moving on to the Juilliard School, where he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees studying with Edward Steuermann (in photo), who also taught his longtime friend, NEC Distinguished Artist-in- Residence Russell Sherman. Other influential teachers included composers Stefan Wolpe, Robert Ward, Ralph Shapey, and Vincent Persichetti. In his early years, Maxin performed often both in the United States and abroad. As a Youth Contest winner, he appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in 1954. He made his Town Hall debut in 1961, performed as pianist for cellist Leonard Rose (1957—1963), and toured with actor Claude Raines.

The pianist was also a member of several chamber groups including the Javedo Trio and Aeolian Chamber Players and made numerous solo tours. He participated in and won the title of Laureate in the second International George Enescu Competition held in 1961 in Bucharest, Rumania. He was a finalist in August, 1963, at the First International Clara Haskil Competition, Lucerne, Switzerland. And he was chosen for a coveted appearance in November 1963 on the Young Artists Series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His recordings include the works of Gail Kubik and Stefan Wolpe.

Before coming to NEC, Maxin taught at Juilliard, on the summer faculty at Brandeis University, at the University of Colorado, Pomona College, and Bowdoin College. Interestingly, at Juilliard, he took on several of Steuermann’s students after Steuermann’s death so those young musicians could finish their degrees. Among his most notable students at NEC was the highly regarded collaborative pianist Warren Jones (in photo right) and Margaret Lioi, CEO of Chamber Music America.

Always adventurous in choosing repertory, Maxin was attuned to the idioms of contemporary music from an early age. Writing about the music of his mentor/teacher Stefan Wolpe, he said: “The difference of Stefan's music, the color of it, the vitality, the blazing non-legatos and staccatos, the excitement of it ... that was what struck me the most in my youngest years. Not the harmonies, because my ears immediately responded to modern harmonies the minute I heard contemporary music. It didn't make one iota less my love and completely being encapsulated by Beethoven and Schubert. One of the things that Irma was constantly saying was that through contemporary music one understood the classics. It's very true, and I teach that to my students.”

Maxin’s spirit of adventure, his extraordinary virtuoso technique, and his composer’s insight into musical structure and logic added up to performances of memorable potency. Sherman points to the Busoni Fantasia and also to Wolpe’s Battle Piece, both works—“a half- hour long, tortuous, impossible to play”—that few musicians dared to undertake. “That was a quality of Jack’s, that heroic intensity on behalf of the great and unknown.”

Writing in the Boston Globe in 1971 after Maxin’s performance of the Busoni work, music critic Michael Steinberg commented: “The Fantasia is also insanely difficult, as a whole because of the demands it makes on the pianist’s concentration and, in almost any of its details, because Busoni writes enough notes to keep four hands comfortably busy.  You look at the printed page and you can’t believe what you see; you listen and can’t quite believe that either. But there it was and Maxin, making it all sound and look easy, produced all those extraordinary sonorities and elucidated all that polyphony, knowing just how the piece should go and never dropping a thread of it. A stupendous interpretive and pianistic feat!”

Calling Maxin “staggeringly gifted,” Sherman observed that his friend had a “small hand”—a physical characteristic that might be thought to limit a player’s virtuosity. “Yet, it gave him a flexibility and tensile strength that were remarkable and amazing.”

Wha-Kyung Byun, also a longtime piano faculty member and Sherman’s wife, remembered Maxin’s “amazing, compelling sound and touch.” What’s more, she said, he had a “phenomenal knowledge of repertory and performances. He knew every single performance of a work and not just piano works. He collected Golden Era recordings and remembered every single detail.” Gabriel Chodos, who was chair of the piano faculty for 25 years, pronounced Maxin "omniscient." He "knew everything about the piano, about piano playing, about performances, and performers. He knew everything about film. He went to the opera and knew everything about opera. He was very well read. He was just a fount of knowledge." But it wasn't just his knowledge that impressed. "There was also his sensitive understanding. We sat through many auditions together and I always trusted his instincts."

Masuko Ushioda, violin; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Laurence Lesser, cello; Jacob Maxin, piano perform Mendelssohn's Quintet in F Minor. Recorded live in Jordan Hall, Boston, March 4, 2002

Although his artistry was profound, Maxin experienced difficulty operating in the world, negotiating everyday practicalities. “He was the most innocent of souls, totally devoted to music and following his own star,” Sherman recalled. “That star carried him along many different paths that made it difficult to conform to daily or academic schedules. He was a figure who could not be pinned down. He was a dreamer, but that dream world was of the greatest beauty."

Pianist Steven Snitzer ’79 M.M. recounted how Maxin would not let him schedule a class two hours after his lesson time. Why? “Because he was never on time for lessons and once he got started the lesson could go on for two and a half hours.”

As frustrating as this could be, these sessions were usually extremely gratifying. “The interpretation came from the notes themselves, their shapes, their meaning. Poetry, ecstasy, the full range of dramatic and experiential possibility – one was expected to address all these at every moment,” Snitzer recounted. “He would direct me explicitly, step by step, until each passage was musically and expressively clear. Often it was not so much a technical issue, but rather a matter of hearing/listening with the ideal sonority in mind.”

“He was a wonderful teacher,” said NEC Registrar Robert Winkley ’88 M.M. “He was always very present helping me think through technical issues and different interpretive concepts. He was a genuinely complimentary person. When he had gotten out of you what he wanted, he was always there with praise. It was never like, ‘Oh, finally!’” As a player, he was “the ultimate economist. There was never a wasted motion. Some players are about lots of gesture. Jack had everything physical planned out. And he recommended that for me too. He would say about fingering, ‘You can try it this way, or this way, or this way. But you should choose the fingering that gives you the best sound, the best approach, and is the easiest for you.” Because he knew the piano repertory extensively, Maxin was also a wonderful resource in helping students “come up with interesting recital programs, Winkley said.

“He once said piano lessons were so much better than sessions with a psychiatrist because with piano lessons you also got fingerings,” said Susan Hadfield ’79 M.M. “He used to talk about pedagogical genealogy—that Jack studied with Eduard Steuermann. Steuermann studied with Ferruccio Busoni who had studied with Reinecke who had studied with Mendelssohn and Schumann. Quite a legacy. If Jack said he loved a piece, and then, ‘Maybe you'd like to play it,’ I knew he was giving me a tremendous gift.”

Never married, a loner by nature, and absorbed in his own personal artistic universe, Maxin was increasingly isolated in his later years, said Snitzer, who remained a close friend. Yet, he had been close to his siblings and their children. A niece, Harriet, recalled that “Jackie was my favorite uncle. He could always make me laugh.” That sense of humor was also one of the things that endeared Maxin to his NEC colleagues, Chodos said. "He was always ready with a quip. He was a very funny guy."

“I wish the world had done better by him and let him exercise his gift in a way that would have moved people to their core,” Sherman said. “He needed the world to adjust to him. He had not much gift for adjustment.”

No funeral is planned for the pianist in accordance with his wishes. Snitzer hopes to arrange a memorial tribute in the future that would involve former students convening and playing in honor of their teacher.

For further information, check the NEC Website.

Click here to read the Boston Globe's obituary from January 25, 2013.


Recognized nationally and internationally as a leader among music schools, New England Conservatory in Boston, MA offers rigorous training in an intimate, nurturing community to 720 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral music students from around the world. Its faculty of 225 boasts internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars. Its alumni go on to fill orchestra chairs, concert hall stages, jazz clubs, recording studios, and arts management positions worldwide. Nearly half of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is composed of NEC trained musicians and faculty. The oldest independent school of music in the United States, NEC was founded in 1867 by Eben Tourjee. Its curriculum is remarkable for its wide range of styles and traditions. On the college level, it features training in classical, jazz, contemporary improvisation, world and early music. Through its Preparatory School, School of Continuing Education, and Community Programs and Partnerships Program, it provides training and performance opportunities for children, pre-college students, adults, and seniors.  Through its outreach projects, it allows young musicians to engage with non-traditional audiences in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes—thereby bringing pleasure to new listeners and enlarging the universe for classical music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation.

NEC presents more than 900 free concerts each year, many of them in Jordan Hall, its world- renowned, century-old, beautifully restored concert hall. These programs range from solo recitals to chamber music to orchestral programs to jazz, contemporary improvisation, and opera scenes. Every year, NEC’s opera studies department also presents two fully staged opera productions at the Cutler Majestic Theatre or Paramount Theatre in Boston.

NEC is co-founder and educational partner of From the Top, a weekly radio program that celebrates outstanding young classical musicians from the entire country. With its broadcast home in Jordan Hall, the show is now carried by National Public Radio and is heard on 250 stations throughout the United States.

Contact: Ellen Pfeifer
Senior Communications Specialist
New England Conservatory
290 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115