Abbey Simon, an internationally renowned pianist who taught at the University of Houston for decades, died Dec. 18 at his home in Geneva, Switzerland. He was 99.
Simon, who would have turned 100 on Jan. 8, remained involved with the Moores School of Music and the International Piano Festival, which he founded in 1984 and which is known for bringing world-class talent to Houston each spring.
Colleagues and friends from the Moores School of Music remembered both his talent and his personality – “his talent and his wry humor,” as composer and Moores School professor David Ashley White put it – as word of his death spread.
Simon, born in New York City and raised in the Bronx, began playing at age 3. He made his professional debut in the 1940s after winning the Walter Naumburg International Piano Competition. He had lived in Geneva for decades, although he also maintained an apartment in Houston.
Andrew Davis, dean of the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, said Simon continued to maintain his relationships with colleagues in Houston. He visited Simon in Geneva in August and had spoken to him by phone just weeks before his death.
“He loved his students like his own family,” Davis said, “and he loved teaching, I think as much as he loved performing. It was really what kept him going for so many years.”
He was already known as a dazzling performer when he began teaching at UH in 1977, where he held the title of Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of Music. He became one of the most recorded classical artists of all time, and critics raved about his speed, power, accuracy and intricate interplay in his renditions of Romantic classics.
He continued to perform internationally, earning glowing accolades from critics. “The shouts of joy … were meant for the pianist Abbey Simon, a modest musician who turns the piano into a well of sound … Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto glittered like a multi-colored glass ball,” one critic wrote for the Vienna Observer.
His right wrist and two fingers on his right hand were broken in a car accident in Houston in 2016, but Simon persevered through physical therapy in his quest to return to playing. Among other honors, he received the Naumburg Award, National Federation of Music Clubs award, National School Orchestra Association Award and a Ford Foundation Award.
“I’m a very lucky man,” he once told a writer for UH, “because I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do all my life.”