I’m remembering Thelma Hunter today, listening to her CD, Reflections: The Music of my Life. She’s slithering through the sometimes twisted dream-figurations of Chopin’s hypnotic Berceuse, motoring in high gear to Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Rejoice, Beloved Christians, scorching the keys with Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. Reflections was recorded in 2007, when Thelma was 83. (A few copies of the Schubert Club CD are still available here.) Thelma Hunter (1924-2015) played this music throughout her career, which included study with Busoni’s disciple Egon Petri at Cornell and with Cecile Genhart at the Eastman School, and countless solo, orchestral and chamber music performances here in the Twin Cities. I heard her play the Beethoven Variations two years ago, and her prowess was undiminished.
I knew Thelma for (only) 25 years, a glancing acquaintance compared to you, perhaps, who may have known her as a member of the University of Minnesota faculty in the 1950s, or as a devoted Schubert Club Board member, or as one of the visionary Minnesota Commissioning Club, or as part of the congenial musical circle called Friday Club. Family friends knew her as the mother of six sons and a devoted wife to Dr. Sam Hunter. I was one of the many aspiring composers to whom Thelma was generous and encouraging. I never heard Thelma dis a composer or a piece of music. If she had reservations, she might say with concern, “I’ll have to hear it again.” I saw her last at the Piano e-Competition at the UM in June. She was dazzled by the young talent there, as judges would have been dazzled by her talent some 70 years before.
She’s playing Chopin’s B-flat minor Scherzo now, a work of dynamic moods that requires stamina as well as nimble fingers and an ear for sonorities delicate as well as massive. Her tone is ever sure. And her sense of architecture is telling. Thelma really knew how to make a grand sound… and how to make a grand sound. The tone in Debussy’s Cathedrale is full and rich; the tall chords don’t just speak: they ring, they resound. A pianist needs good fingers, of course. Also ears and a painterly sense of perspective, to make the lines clear. She needs a sense of fantasy and humor, the storyteller’s stock-in-trade. Thelma possessed all these. But above all a pianist needs a voice to tell the story. Small of stature, Thelma’s speaking voice was modest. I never heard her raise her voice. But the tone she drew from the piano was always noble, as deep and clear as the water in those Norwegian fjords known to her forebears.
Percy Grainger’s Country Gardens is clattering away with its infectious, edgy humor. “Violently,” the composer directs the performer; “wrenched, but short.” I wish I had been in the audience when teen-aged Thelma played Grieg’s Concerto at the Ernest Williams Music Camp with Grainger conducting. But I know that Thelma would like to be remembered not as the prodigy but as the mature woman and musician. A couple of years ago, I met her in Landmark Center—she fairly bounded up to me. “I’ve just had my picture taken for my obituary!” she said, with some excitement. “I don’t want one of those photos of a young girl no one knows. I want my friends to remember me as I am.”
Thelma, we remember you. We will always remember you. You touched us with your lovely smiling face, your quiet grace, your generosity, your keen interest in the the terrestrial as well as the celestial. And you touched us over and over with your love for your art, an art you enriched note by note, phrase by singing phrase, in the rich, polyphonic song that was your life.
Read Thelma Hunter’s obituary here.