Nearly four years ago in October 2013, news of Anton Kuerti’s stroke mid-performance in Miami sent shock waves throughout the international classical music community. Since the event, his family had been keeping information on the concert pianist’s road to recovery closely guarded.
Next week, Toronto Summer Music will be lifting the suspense in A Tribute to Anton Kuerti, a concert which the honoree himself is expected to attend. It is probably the most-anticipated event in this year’s festival, one which Jonathan Crow tasked upon himself to organise in his inaugural term as TSM Artistic Director.
“Anton is someone who greatly inspired me as a young artist—I heard him regularly on CBC Radio as a child, and had the opportunity to work with and learn from him several times as a young professional,” Crow shared in a statement with Musical Toronto. “When I’m thinking of great Canadian artists, performers and role models he is one of the first people who comes to mind.”
Crow invited Canadian concert pianist Jane Coop to star in the August 3rd tribute, for which she was granted carte blanche for the evening’s programme. “I chose a programme that I thought he would like,” Coop revealed to Musical Toronto in a video interview. “So I think he’ll be happy.”
This will be Coop’s TSM debut, and she will be in good company with Laura Pudwell, Barry Shiffman, Douglas McNabney and Joseph Johnson joining her on stage. She is also expecting to feel Kuerti’s presence in the hall: “As far as I know (and I’m pretty sure about that), he’s coming to the concert. Which will make me very nervous.”
Toronto holds a central place for both Kuerti and Coop in their musical careers. In addition, Kuerti had a direct, indelible influence on Coop’s formative years: she worked closely with him at the University of Toronto, first as his student during her undergraduate piano studies, then as his teaching assistant from 1975 to 1979. Stepping in to teach Kuerti’s students while he was away on tour, she would eventually embark on her own teaching career that spans the B.C. coast to the New England shoreline.
“[The stroke] was a devastating blow to somebody who was at the top of his game,” Coop intones. The question on everybody’s mind is, how has Kuerti’s condition been since the incident? Coop is one of the few who have accessed the pianist’s inner circle during his ongoing rehabilitation: “He’s still in recovery mode—he’s getting better. I’ve gone to his house; we’ve read some four-hand stuff and he’s been playing on his own. […] I don’t think it’s been a big secret, but he’s been living a pretty private life, because he’s trying to concentrate on things that will help him in his recovery.”
Can we expect that Kuerti will be able to return to the concert stage? “At the moment, no, but one never knows what the end result will be.” Has Kuerti himself expressed hopes to resume public performance? “He’s just taking it one day at a time at the moment. He’s still thinking about music and spending time at the piano, but he’s not in a position to make that call, and neither is anyone else. So unfortunately, I can’t make a solid prediction—I know that everybody would love to hear that ‘yes or no,’ but I can’t [make that call].”
This isn’t the first significant setback in Kuerti’s personal life: just over 10 years ago, he lost his wife Kristine Bogyo to cancer. “That was a tough thing. After [Bogyo] died, it was a tough blow for him but he kind of leapt to the fore with his own work and was playing more than ever, just to keep himself busy, because that’s what he does.”
Catherine Berthiaume has been a steadfast source of support to Kuerti since before the health episode. In light of the tribute concert, Berthiaume conveyed her partner’s thoughts to Musical Toronto on his behalf: “As a very proud Canadian wherever he goes for more than 50 years now, Anton is delighted that the TSMF thought of him as an artist to honour for the sesquicentennial.”
Time will tell the extent of Kuerti’s recovery. In the short term, the tribute concert will be a momentous occasion to honour a living legend whose colleagues, in the words of Jane Coop, considered him “the most underrated pianist in the world.”
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