Fort Worth — On Dec. 9, pianist José Feghali was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head in his Fort Worth home. It was ruled a suicide by the medical examiner. His death comes as a shock to his friends, colleagues, and students. The Brazilian-born Feghali was known as an important teacher at the Texas Christian University School of Music and in the international music community as winner of the 1985 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Classical music writer Zachariah Stoughton, who has worked with Feghali, writes this appreciation for the pianist and educator:
José Feghali was the wrong kind of musician. In every thought he expressed in music, there was a certain meticulousness, an awareness of every technical and emotive detail. This fixation on possibilities, perfection, and the long, impassable path to the exquisite completion of a thought held him captive. He was the type of musician that could stand at a wall of solid brick until through the sheer force of his intellectual energies he passed through it. This was surly an exhausting mode of operation. Watching so many musicians simply avoid the difficult questions of human expression, José would confront the mysteries choosing to focus on musical truth rather than showmanship regardless of any personal limitations. There were concerts he played which were terrifying to see. Terrifying because of his innate knowing at the molecular level what was right and at the same time yielding to the limits of his humanity. This is same place in which we must all find ourselves as musicians. José was daring because he leaped into these musical decisions without regard for his own safety or other’s.
But he should have known that we as an audience are easily satisfied with the easy way. He surely knew that we can be wowed with the vain noisemaking produced by a number of musicians who have steady international performing careers. There are many pianists around who choose not to struggle. Instead they choose the shortest path to proving to an audience that they are indeed a pianist through technical facility or arbitrary coloristic effects. José’s fight was not to demonstrate that he could play the piano; he had already proven that with his win at the 1985 Cliburn Competition. His struggle was with himself and the impossible reconciliation of truth and reality as he saw it.
As a teacher, he elicited a certain fear from those conscious of his thinking. When playing for him, one could see his mind peering through the holes of an interpretation or sizing the weakness in shape of an inner voice. Nothing escaped his observation, and it was clear that his standard was perfection. However, the infectious way in which he turned over every stone made some believe that it was somehow possible to create through alchemy a thing of meaningful beauty. When at his best, he would reveal just enough to make a young musician love the score and the music at the same time.
As a colleague, the clarity and finality with which he could come to a position was both refreshing and challenging. The academic environment in which he existed was necessarily illogical and obtuse as institutions of higher learning tend to be. Although he found himself there, a particularly striking aspect of his interactions with other faculty and staff was the consistency with which he focused on the needs of his students; he was fearless (and sometimes fierce) in the pursuit of anything he felt would be the best for his students. In this regard, he can be seen as unparalleled.
As a person, perhaps it was easy for him to hide behind his articulate, thoughtful, and sometimes brilliantly cutting speech combined with a blinding smile. He possessed and knew how to use a seemingly limitless supply of charm. But there are only a few qualified to speak about the person, and none of us who knew him professionally are really informed enough to speak with any depth. This was the paradox of his personality: At one moment he could expose the soul of his being while simultaneously existing in his own thoughts a million miles away.
James Agee famously wrote in his A Death in the Family that “God doesn’t believe in the easy way.” Indeed, the inner spirit of art is elusive and difficult for both the creator of the art and its appreciator. The common tendency is to take from music only the fruit from lowest branches. We like it when music is easy. José Feghali was the wrong kind of musician for today because he didn’t believe in the easy way. There are measurements of success on which we as a musical society tend to rest. These are easy to use because of their tendency to focus on the quantifiable aspects of music making. Using these to gauge the accomplishment of this musician could result in some confusion. But if there were a way to measure musical honesty, curiosity, and integrity, there would be comparisons to some of the most interesting musical intellects of our time.