The happy face of a tragic Cliburn winner

We have been talking to various friends of José Feghali, the 1985 Van Cliburn gold medallist who took his own life last week.

The person who was closer to him than any other was Jim Denton, a cellist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Jim and José shared an apartment with a third musician in 1982-83 and remained good friends. They released a joint recording only last year. Here’s Jim’s story:

José accompanied me (in London) at all my lessons with William Pleeth, which is how he learned the cello repertoire. I was back in Houston in 1985, when I found out he was in the semifinals of the Van Cliburn. I drove up to Ft. Worth (my home town) to hear him play an absolutely stunning Schumann Carnival! I believe he played Tchaikovsky in the Finals. I sat right next to him at the awards ceremony, which is on film from a TV special. They got down to the Bronze, which my friend, Barry Douglas, took and José’s name had not been called yet. Then when the Silver went to Philippe Bianconi, José and I hugged each other because he had won! Then there was an intermission and he played the 1st mvt. of Tchaikovsky. After the concert, José and I went to the reception together. I spoke in depth with Barry, who would win the Tchaikovsky Competition the following year.

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Jim and José, 1988

José and I were at a 1983 Jorge Bolet masterclass in London. Barry Douglas, who was in the audience, asked Bolet a question. José is at the piano playing Rachmaninov 3rd and he’s reached the cadenza. He plays it faster than hands should be allowed to move and Bolet is attempting to get José to slow down. José listens politely and then plays it FASTER! I’ll never forget that day. José and I were still laughing about that 30 years later.

I can’t tell you very much about his musical life because that’s not what we talked about when we were together. We talked about each other’s lives aside from music. Ever since José moved to Fort Worth in 1990 when he became Artist-in-Residence at T.C.U., he also became an extended member of my family. If he was in town, he would always share Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner (or both!) with me, my mother (who had an undergraduate degree in piano), my cousin and my aunt. Just 2½ weeks ago he spent Thanksgiving with my Mom and my cousin, Ben. I couldn’t be there due to Houston Symphony conflicts, but both Mom and Ben said he appeared very happy. José asked Ben for his contact information because he wanted to get together with Ben for lunch sometime before Christmas.

José and I talked on the phone right after that Thanksgiving dinner. I wanted to know how everything went and if he was going to be in town for Christmas or if he was going to Rio. If José was in town when I came to see Mom. José’s brother committed suicide about 4 years ago, so José had been commuting back and forth to Rio a lot to be with his mother during the Christmas holidays. He said he thought he was going to stay in town this year and we were both going to Mom’s and meet Ben for Christmas dinner. He sounded fine on the phone with me. I would’ve thought if something was bothering him, he would have brought it up then. But not a hint.

José knew a LOT about recording. He had engineered and produced his colleague John Owing’s CD “The American Piano” for Koch International; he had produced, edited and mastered his student, Adam Golka’s CD, “Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 1 and Beethoven: ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata” for First Hand Records; and he had mastered the discographies from “Marilyn Horne: The Song Continues” and “Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy”. He also did a lot with the early Cliburn Competition tapes. These are but a few of the many recording projects he had been involved with.

Just a few weeks prior to this time last year – 2013 – I was staying with José in Ft. Worth. We were desperately mastering the recording of our recital together from 25 years ago in Honolulu to get it out before Christmas. We had recorded it back then on VHS (which was the best way to record in stereo at the time) and it had to be digitized and mastered with no editing! José rose to the occasion … no great surprise there!

José’s depression was not exactly a secret to those of us who knew him well. He and I talked about depression at length on numerous occasions. I believe he was under the care of a psychiatrist because we would talk on each of my visits about which antidepressants he had tried – which seemed effective and which weren’t, which ones I had used and which had worked for me. If it was something he hadn’t tried, he’d ask his doctor. But José ALWAYS did his own research about pharmaceuticals … what the side effects were, success rates, etc.

You asked me what José wanted from life? I participated in José’s wedding back in the early ’90s which ended badly for him, along with several relationships afterward. I was widowed almost 8 years ago, so one of the things I know we both wanted was someone to grow old with together. This was very important for him.

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Jim and José, 2009

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  • Thank you so much for sharing this. It is a lovely testimony to a lovely man from someone who knew him well. My condolences to his entire family – not just in Rio, but the family of friends and students he leaves behind.

  • …and thanks so much for this clip of him in his youth! I love the story from this master class! My favorite part is when Bolet says, “You’re kind of taking time and then rush a little…” A perfect description of rubato, I’d say. The deftness in José’s touch and his musicality are so beautiful to hear here – and pretty damn funny, hearing him next to the rather staid and square Bolet. I’m still giggling at “Ok, I won’t argue with that!” Ha ha!

  • I want to take this opportunity to thank, in public, Mr. Norman Lebrecht for giving me the opportunity to let all of his readers get just a little taste of the José I knew and loved for 32 years. He was a pianist with artistic timing that simply can’t be taught, but more importantly, he was a compassionate man who’s intensity of feeling could literally be felt in his presence. The world was a better place for having José in it – every time he stroked the keys on a piano, he touched the souls of those who heard him!

  • Jim, I am very sorry for your loss. Thank you so much for sharing this with the world!
    I did not know Jose personally but heard many beautiful things about him, his playing and his teaching. Norman, thanks for sharing!

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