By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Pianist Richard Fields was the first person to record an album completely devoted to the music of composer William Grant Still.
Mr. Fields, a champion of music by African-American composers and associate professor of piano at the University of Cincinnati since 1991, was found dead in his home on Christmas Eve. The pianist, who had a history of cardiac problems and diabetes, was 57.
At 2 p.m. today, his friends and colleagues will perform a memorial tribute in Werner Recital Hall at College-Conservatory of Music.
"I can't say enough about Richard, because he was the first one to do an all-William Grant Still recording with Orion, around 1975," says Judith Anne Still, daughter of the composer, who became a life-long friend. "He actually, I believe, paid for it."
It helped promote the family's publishing company of Still's music, because, she says, "No commercial company would record a black classical composer's music."
Contribution to CCM
His humor, style and superb musicianship will be missed, says CCM dean Douglas Lowry.
"Richard Fields made an enormous contribution to the musical life at CCM, as well as to the music world in general," he says. "He was a particularly strong exponent of American composers, most particularly those whose artistry, in his opinion, deserved more of a spotlight than they had gotten."
At the time of his death, Mr. Fields was preparing to make some landmark recordings of Still's music for Naxos Records. He was also the leading organizer of a William Grant Still International Festival to be held in Little Rock, Ark.
Organizers hope to mount the festival in honor of Mr. Fields in 2005, says Sherman Banks, of Little Rock's Convention and Visitors' Bureau.
Mr. Fields performed as soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony (Washington, D.C.), the Atlanta Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta.
He recorded for Orion, CRS and Centaur labels. In 1995, he recorded Still's Kaintuck' and Dismal Swamp with the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra (Centaur), now neglected works that were commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Goossens.
His major recital appearances included the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Allied Arts Series, the Cleveland Orchestra's chamber music series in Severance Hall and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He also appeared in New York's Lincoln Center and in Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall.
"When he came to Cincinnati, the star was shining," says CCM faculty member Sandra Rivers. Mr. Fields was devoted to his students, and lined up visiting artists, such as his friend, the concert pianist Alexander Toradze, to come to CCM to give master classes.
He played in "the old school" style of pianism, and is remembered for his performances of Liszt, Ms. Rivers says. His New York recital debut in 1988 was highly praised by The New York Times. He won many prizes, including the Viotti International Piano Competition in Italy.
"After (pianists) Andre Watts and Leon Bates, he was one of the bright spots for a big future," said Eugene Pridonoff, CCM professor of piano, who called Mr. Fields' playing "beautiful, communicative and truly like the old-world pianists."
Composer Donald Dillard of Lansdowne, Pa., a longtime friend, composed three works for Mr. Fields. Mr. Fields premiered one of them, "Childhood Scenes" at the Kennedy Center in Washington. He played another, "Toccata, March and Rondo" for two pianos, in Carnegie Recital Hall with New York pianist Seta Karakashian, a Juilliard colleague and close friend.
His playing was powerful and individual, the composer said.
"He managed to get meaning out of the music that other performers don't seem to find," Mr. Dillard says. "He was knowledgeable about the works that he performed, so this came out in his performances."
Dedicated to his music
"I was always very impressed by his dedication to the music that he was playing, and by his dedication to his students and friends," says concert pianist Frederic Chiu, another friend. "He seemed to be a very concerned, connected kind of person, which is very rare among pianists and teachers."
On Thursday, Mr. Chiu will conduct a master class in memory of Mr. Fields, 4-6 p.m. in Werner Hall, open to the public.
Former student Jessica Madsen praised Mr. Fields' insights as a teacher, as well as his sense of humor. She said he would often illustrate to his students by playing at another piano, and then rippling off a few jazz licks, for fun.
"He came to classical music late; he played in jazz clubs when he was younger," she says. "That gave him an insight into hearing things differently."
Mr. Fields, whose full name was Walter Richard Fields, was born in Oakland, Calif. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from New York's Juilliard School, where he studied with Irwin Freundlich.
Mr. Fields is survived by a cousin, Maryellen Wilson of Evanston, Ill. Memorial contributions may be made out to UC Foundation/CCM, with "In Memory of Richard Fields" in the memo line, and sent to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, P.O. Box 210003, Cincinnati, OH 45221-0003.
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