Remembering Adolph Baller the way he'd want--with music

Publication Date: Friday Nov 7, 1997

Remembering Adolph Baller the way he'd want--with music

Daughter and his many admirers are staging a musical tribute next week to the Stanford pianist who was tortured by the Nazis

by Kendra Smith

The late Adolph Baller's teaching ability and skill at the piano has made him legendary in both local and international music circles. As one of the founding members of the Alma Trio, an accompanist for Yehudi Menuhin for two decades and a 30-year member of Stanford University's faculty, Baller is well-known as a Peninsula musical great.

But another part of his life story is just as fabled.

In the spring of 1938 in Vienna, Nazi troops beat the Polish pianist after discovering he was Jewish.

"The Nazis took my father in--he was walking down the street--and tortured him very seriously," said Nina Baller Lobban, Baller's daughter and a longtime Palo Alto resident.

As a tribute to Baller, who died in 1994, the Stanford Music Guild will play a concert Wednesday, Nov. 12. The concert, arranged with Lobban's help, will feature four of the great pianist's former students.

Among the bruises and cuts Baller suffered at the hands of the Nazis was one injury disastrous for a pianist with a burgeoning career: a broken finger. The incident might have abruptly ended Baller's musical progress had it not been for the efforts of his future wife, Edith.

On doctor's orders, Edith attentively massaged his finger back to health--casts would have left Baller's finger permanently stiff. Polish citizenship enabled the couple to escape to Hungary, then New York City.

"They literally arrived (in America) with $5 in their pockets. It was with the help of relatives and friends that they were introduced to important people in music," Lobban said.

Those important people included violinist Menuhin, who Baller accompanied at performances for World War II troops.

In the 1950s, the Ballers moved to Palo Alto and Baller focused more on teaching. Though it meant he was busy, taking eight to 10 students a day was a pleasure for him, Lobban said. Gifted students "from the world over" sought Baller out for lessons, she added. Baller aided these students in developing and perfecting their playing.

"He tried to help students let it come out of their hearts and souls, not literally every note, but what the composition as a whole spoke about," Lobban said.

Wednesday's concert will be at 8 p.m. in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. The four Baller former students who will play are Sean Botkin, Ju-Ying Song, Arthur Tollefson and Gregory Smith.

Smith remembers his three years of study with Baller as "a unique experience."

"When (Baller) took you as a student, he didn't take you as just a teacher, but as a mentor," Smith said, adding that an audition for Baller required piano playing as well as a personal interview to see if personalities matched. Lessons were at Baller's home, where Edith brought warm milk and Baller provided German cookies at the end of each session.

Smith, who is a lawyer but continues to study piano, hopes that he and other students will pass on the musical traditions learned from Baller. Smith said the musician "brought a pipeline to 19th century Vienna into the Silicon Valley."

Baller's study in Vienna as a child prodigy--he memorized all 32 Beethoven sonatas by the age of 17--forever influenced his musical tastes, Lobban said. The musician is noted for preferring the work of Viennese classics and romantics to modern compositions.

Smith said Baller liked to jokingly compose on-the-spot contemporary pieces. Sitting dramatically at the piano, he would bang out various notes and run scales for a full minute, culminating in a grand bow.

"The funny thing was it did sound an awful lot like contemporary songs," Smith said, laughing.

Pieces selected for next week's tribute vary from Bartok to Debussy to Chopin. Botkin and Song are beginning careers as concert artists and teachers, and Tollefson has been performing for four decades. Tickets are $20, available from both the Music Guild and Tressider Box Office. For more information, call 723-1780. 

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