Pianist Luis Batlle, Music, Laughter, and Onion Sandwiches
Today the rain is pouring down through a dense fog, making it a fittingly sad day to reminisce about my remarkable friend, and piano teacher Luis Batlle.
His full name, which he rarely used was Cesar Luis Batlle Ibanez, b. Oct 19, 1930 (pronounced as Bah-zhay)
His Early Years and Political Background
Luis was a member of one of Uruguay's leading political families, indeed his Father (Luis Conrado Battle Berres), and his Brother (Jorge Batlle Ibanez) and a great uncle, served as presidents of that distant country. As a child, Luis's health was frail, and because he enjoyed music and singing, his mother, who came from a musical family, borrowed a piano from an uncle to give young Luis's life a focus. His brother Jorge said, "One day, he sat down at the piano and never got up."
Luis had much fine early music instruction, I remember well how he could sing even the most complex of musical piano passages at full tempo in Solfege. In particular, he studied early on under Polish pianist and teacher Wilhelm Kolischer in his native Uruguay. Kolischer established a conservatory in Montevideo in 1925 which in time grew to over 400 students. In 1949 Kolischer toured abroad, where he performed four highly successful concerts of Chopin's music, the purpose was to raise the necessary funds to establish a Fryderyk Chopin scholarship at the conservatory. In 1951 the first contest held was won by a 21 year old Luis Batlle Ibanez.
Contest Winner & Paris
With the Chopin Foundation contest title and prize money in hand, Luis moved to Paris for three years to study with the eminent French pianist and composer, Yves Nat; who's talents composers Gabriel Faure and Camille Saint-Saens held in high regard.
Philadelphia Curtis Institute and Rudolf Serkin
Mr. Serkin in his later years
In 1956 Luis moved to Philadelphia, here he both heard, and was introduced to the legendary Rudolf Serkin. Luis was invited to attend the Marlboro Music Festival and went on to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia with Mr. Serkin. A special bond of friendship and respect was formed between Mr. Serkin and Luis in those early years that would last for decades to come. (Luis had such a high regard for Rudolf Serkin, there was never a time that I heard Luis refer to him except as "Mr. Serkin".)
Luis Batlle at the piano, at the Marlboro Festival 1963
In the 1960's Luis would return home to Uruguay to become the director of the Kolischer Conservatory in Montavedio, marry and raise a family of four children. Luis continued to travel between Uruguay and Marlboro Vermont almost every year thereafter. In 1978 after a divorce, he moved permanently to the United States with his children. At this time he became co-director of Mr. Serkin's Institute for Young Performing Musicians in Guilford, Vermont, here Luis began to teach part-time at Boston University, and also at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Ma. (It was at this time that I first met Luis.) Luis had long become Mr. Serkin's assistant teacher, in fact Luis was young Peter Serkin's first teacher. In 1980 Luis joined the faculty of Marlboro College, and also met a new friend on the faculty Geraldine Pittman who would soon become his new wife.
Pianist, Peter Serkin, student of Luis Batlle
A highly prized teacher and musician, Luis was a juror of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1974 and the Bach Competition in Washington, D.C. in 1976. Luis was so quiet, so humble you would never know that he mentored such greats as: Cecile Licad, Murray Perahia, Peter Orth and Ignat Solzhenitsyn. Luis carried a passionate love of music closely within his heart. In the studio Luis could dazzle one with a display of technical prowess, and then evoke sounds of such deep inner beauty from the piano that it would leave you breathless. On one occasion, I remember watching Luis play where he began to weep tears as he demonstrated for me how to play the E Major Etude #41 by Cramer; it was in these intimate settings where his deep musicianship and love of music would pour out.
"I love to play" says Luis. "After all, that is contact with the most beautiful thing on earth. At heart, however, I am a teacher. I am a gossiper. I want everyone to know what I know."
Strangely, Rick Seifert thinks that the second half of this internet quote might more correctly have been expressed as "At heart, however, I am NOT a teacher, I am a gossiper...I want everyone to know what I know." In either case both statements have a sense of fun and truth about them that was uniquely Luis.
The Great Pablo Casals at the Marlboro Festival
The name Batlle is forever interconnected with the Marlboro Festival. Here Luis gave over 399 performances between 1956 and 2008 more than anyone else in the festival’s history. Pianist Murry Perahia wrote “you will always hold a special place in my heart…from when I first came to Marlboro, I thought of you as a close friend and, as such, one I looked to for advice and direction.”
The music of Beethoven was a total passion for Luis, and he indeed performed all 32 of the famed sonatas, played from memory; and this was done on more than one occasion. I have read that he gave lectures as he played these works in a series of eight concerts in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the Marlboro College. Luis was a true scholar, I remember when he came to conduct a master class, that he had written out by hand, a list of every Dynamic and Tempo markings ever used by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven; sourced from every keyboard work known. This list shows the enormous degree of expression that Beethoven in particular insisted be a part of his music.
"Ricky" Seifert studies with Luis Batlle ("Ricky" was always pronounced with a large grin, and a heavily accented rolled R)
From 1979-81 I was struggling in my more or less Junior and Senior years at The Boston Conservatory of Music. My friend (pianist) Duane Funderburk at Boston University knew that I was unhappy with aspects of my music studies, and arranged for me to meet and audition for his teacher Luis Batlle at Marlboro. Luis greeted us in a rustic Vermont cabin where he was seated at the piano. I will always remember his distinct smile where he would set his teeth together with a wide grin, but behind the thickish glasses, was a warm and sincere personality. I have little memory of what I played for him that day; but I do remember that he was sincere enough to take me on as a private student for the upcoming school year. Beginning that fall I would secretly head over to the Boston University campus each week for my lessons with Luis. In a matter of months he rebuilt my technique from the ground up via an in-depth study of the Cramer Etudes, requiring three to be memorized for the next week's lesson. He reworked all my recital pieces, especially the Chopin Scherzo No2. in B flat minor. Luis was able to communicate good practice habits and musical concepts with remarkable clarity, and as a result I began to excel during those very important years.
After one of my first sessions with Luis, he insisted that we head across the street for a local delicacy, one of Luis’s favorites “Onion Sandwiches.” As we sat together eating, we were also laughing with tears running down our faces, because of the intensity of the Onions, and, also because of the insane and continuous comedic stories that Luis was sharing. I too joined in with those awful jokes, which I would tell in my broken American High School Spanish with a good Philadelphia accent no less, well within a few minutes I literally had Luis gut laughing to a point where he could almost not breath. Anyone who knew Luis well, will remember his tremendous sense of humor. I try to consume at least one Onion Sandwich every year to commemorate the occasion.
Above: Rick Seifert with Luis Batlle & The Funderburks; at dinner in Mukilteo, WA 2007
Without my studies with Luis I think I would never have gotten through my Senior Recital at the Boston Conservatory of Music, April of 1981. Luis was such a supportive teacher, literally a continuous inspiration to work with. As an aside, I found this Telegram, (the only one I have ever received in my life) - It says that I was booked to play my recital program on the same night in Boston as was the great Murray Perahia, as if it mattered, LOL.
Luis Batlle, Boston University and Area Concerts
Below are a few concert programs I have saved from years ago, from some very memorable performances by Luis. The Schubert Sonatas were sublime; his Beethoven sonatas were a rare treat to hear, and his chamber music performances with the Great Clarinetist Harold Wright were triumphs, some of those chamber performances can still be found on CD.
Luis travels to visit Rick Seifert
A few years after graduation Luis traveled to Seattle to visit me on several occasions after I had moved to the West Coast. In 1984 Luis came to stay with me while he visited a close friend of his, who was undergoing cancer treatments in a Seattle hospital. Luis slept on a tiny cot in my apartment, practiced the piano for hours on end, and cooked heavenly amounts of Carbonara for dinner, a memory to savor, to be certain. It was on this visit that we also attended a performance at Meany Hall at the University of Washington by the great Filipino pianist Cecile Licad, we surprised her after the performance, and it was such fun to see the two of them embrace and chat about old times. (Licad by the way, is a brilliant performer and has a technique of raging fire.)
Licad's 1984 Meany Hall Concert Program included Beethoven Op 10, No 3, Three Chopin works: Scherzo in B flat minor, Nocturne in F Major, Ballade in g minor; closing with the Schumann Carnival; what a great performance.
In 2007 I arranged for Luis to travel to Seattle and present a lecture/masterclass for The Snohomish County Music Teachers Association of Everett, WA. We held a large piano dinner party at my home in Mukilteo that evening, my two sons Paul, and Ben, and my eldest brother Vaughan Seifert where there, along with my friend Jesse. Many fine pianists came and performed on the two new Steinway’s at my studio that night, including pianists Grace Ann Cummings, Jennifer Bowman, Michael Stegner, Dr. William Chapman Nyaho, Duane Funderburk, and a young Matthew Palumbo; it was a very special evening. Luis was suffering from a dreadful cold that weekend, and confided to me that he was ill beyond the cold, and was no longer able to play; but he held on just enough to conduct the masterclass at the Sherman Clay Steinway dealer in Seattle. Luis was suffering then from the early debilitating condition later confirmed as Parkinson's disease.
2007 Snohomish County Music Teachers Association Masterclass program.
2007 February Luis Battle, Janni and Duane Funderberk, Mukilteo, WA
As the mystery of life goes on, we can never know or predict the future, but this piano party would be my last time to see Luis. He never used email, and letters between us were scarce, with only the occasional phone call each year; I had not realized that his health was declining so seriously. Luis died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on May 25, 2016 at the age of 85.
I am happy to have run across these photos from our Piano Party on this rainy day near the anniversary of his death. Luis you were like a musical father to me, thank you for your teaching, your friendship, musical support, Laughter, and love. You are greatly missed and very fondly remembered.
Special Thanks to the writers Jim Lowe of The Rutland Herald and especially to Josh Stilts, of The Brattleboro Reformer for his very fine piece on Luis Batlle.