KERA’s Eric Aasen contributed to this report.
UPDATE: KERA radio report:
Brazilian-born pianist Jose Feghali, the gold medalist and winner of the chamber music prize at the 1985 7th Van Cliburn Piano Competition, died Tuesday in Fort Worth. He was 53.
He was found dead in his bed Tuesday afternoon. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s initial report said the death was a suicide. Fort Worth police are investigating.
Having won the Cliburn and launched his performing and recording career, Feghali returned to Fort Worth in 1990 becoming an artist-in-residence and a professor of piano at Texas Christian University. He also remained active with the Cliburn as a board member, reviewing artists for the competitions.
“He was a great friend of the Cliburn,” said Carla Thompson, chairwoman of the Cliburn Foundation. “This is a terrible tragedy.”
Former Cliburn head Richard Rodzinski considered Feghali a friend and said he had wrestled with depression for years.
Feghali gave his first public performance at the age of five in Rio de Janiero and appeared with the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra at 8. He left Brazil at 15 to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music — and he won the Cliburn at 24.
“His passion for music and for teaching was infectious, as was his curiosity and thirst for knowledge about virtually all subjects. José was a brilliant pianist with a brilliant mind,” the TCU School of Music posted on its Facebook page.
In The Cliburn: 50 Years of Gold, a documentary that aired on KERA TV, Feghali recalled pulling a muscle in his back during rehearsals for the 7th Van Cliburn Competition. The doctor prescribed a muscle relaxant that gave Feghali an allergic reaction.
“For two days I couldn’t practice and it made it very very difficult, of course, nerves as well, knowing that I”m probably blowing the greatest opportunity so far in my life. I actually called the director and suggested I think I better pull out of the finals I am in no condition to perform. And thanks to him saying no, absolutely, you’re not going to do that.
“The finals was not my best round, but I at least gathered enough courage to go and play it. I was actually trying to put a brave face, because I was really miserable.”
Feghali went on to appear in over 1,000 performances around the world, recorded for several labels and worked as a producer and engineer on more than 50 recordings.
He was actually a man of many talents and interests: He was also the TCU music school’s coordinator of internet technologies and the remastering engineer for the Cliburn’s retrospective series of CDs. Feghali was a perfectionist when it came to audio recordings, said former Cliburn head Rodzinski. He had kind of ear and technical knowledge that most musical artists could only envy.
Angela Fabry is director of Performing Arts International; he was both Feghali’s agent and friend. Fabry said that Feghali was so proficient at computers he corrected some Microsoft code in its music software that prevented it from high-fidelity sound recording. The company invited him to speak at Internet2’s 2009 Performing Arts Conference.
“He was that good,” said Fabry. “He was amazing.”
In 2009, Feghali talked with Art&Seek’s Stephen Becker about how to deal with pre-concert jitters:
“I think that in general if one is not nervous at all, that’s not a good thing,” Feghali said. “Because you need that kind of edge, you need that kind of adrenaline pumping a little bit to get you into a real performance mode.”
Feghali says he has one piece of advice that applies to everyone from Cliburn competitors to actors in a school play. And that is: focus on the positive act of connecting with an audience rather than worrying over potential mistakes.
“We are privileged to be performing works that are absolutely incredible and written by geniuses,” Feghali said. “That kind of respect and love for the music should come first and foremost. And right before the performance, I think that is a kind of mental state and spiritual state that one should have.”
Jose Quesada called Feghali’s death a shock. Quesada, a graduate student and a TCU adjunct faculty member, said Feghali was one of the most important teachers he had at TCU.
“I was very close to him and he was very kind with me,” Quesada said. “That’s what I miss. He was a great pianist and a great person. He was very passionate. He was very kind with his students. … It’s very sad news.”
Feghali is survived by his mother who lives in Brazil. A memorial service for Feghali is planned for early next year, the TCU music school said.
Dallas Morning News Classical Music Critic Scott Cantrell’s report
Fort Worth Star-Telegram report
Feghali recalls almost dropping out of the Van Cliburn Competition finals
Feghali recalls his experience at the Van Cliburn Competition