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“Powerful, highly skilled orator of the keyboard” reflects on a magnificent career

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At six, Robert Herschel Silverman gave his first piano recital.  At 14, he made his debut with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

At 23, he was on track to become an engineer, but charted a new course and embarked on a career to become a distinguished pianist. “It was really, really late.  It’s not the way to do it,” Silverman told the Globe & Mail’s Marsha Lederman.

Born on May 25, 1938 to Jewish parents from the Ukraine and Romania in Montreal, Silverman is one of Canada’s premiere pianists. Music.ubc.ca describes him as having “reached a level of musical and technical authority that can only be accomplished after years of deep commitment to the instrument and its vast literature.“

Lederman reported, “when he was just four, after seeing how he was drawn to classical music programs on the radio, he was signed up (by his parents) for piano lessons.  By his second lesson, Silverman could identify notes by ear. He could read sheet music before he could read words.  But even as he continued with his lessons through high school and university he never considered a career in piano.”

Robert Silverman earned undergraduate Arts and Music degrees in the 1960’s, graduating from Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University, then studying with Dorothy Morton (the daughter of Silverman’s childhood piano teacher) at McGill, and with Cecile Genhart at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.  He also studied at the Vienna Academy of Music on a Canada Council grant. 

Silverman won the top prize for piano at the Jeunesses musicals of Canada National Competition and played at Expo ‘67 on two occasions.  His success at the Allied Arts Piano Competition earned him a recital debut in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in 1970.  He made his New York debut at Lincoln Center just before he turned 40, in 1978, where the New York Times described him as “a polished and thoroughly finished technician and an extremely articulate (virtuoso).” 

Over the years, Silverman has performed in concert halls around the world, and with orchestras led by John Eliot Gardiner, Neeme Jarvi, Kiril Kondrashin, Zdenek Macal, Seiji Ozawa and Gerard Schwarz. He has appeared with every major Canadian orchestra and performed with the BBC (London) Symphony, the Boston Pops, the Chicago Symphony, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and the Sydney Symphony. 

The Canadian Encyclopedia noted that “after Silverman’s London recital, the Music and Musicians critic Bryce Morrison described him as ‘a player of formidable strength and mastery …his tonal resources are wonderfully rich and full…. Silverman’s magisterial command of both technique and idiom could hardly have been more convincing… here is a powerful, highly skilled orator of the keyboard, attributes not to be taken lightly in an age of so much impersonal expertise.’”

In his thirties, he began to teach more. He was artist-in-residence at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY; he also taught at the University of California in Santa Barbara from 1969-70 and at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 1970-73 before moving to Vancouver to join University of British Columbia as Professor of Music (Piano) in 1973, Silverman was the Director of UBC’s School of Music from 1991-95 and in 2004 received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from UBC, celebrating his 30-year tenure.   

In 2002, he was the artist-in-residence at the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto. “My relationship was informal with no written contract.  I received an honorarium for one or two seasonal concerts. That association meant a lot to me; I was glad of the opportunity to maintain a visible presence in Toronto’s music life and to help the then Director of the Music Program, Adrienne Cohen, in her indefatigable efforts to enhance and enlarge classical music’s role at the Centre.   Although I’m not observant from a religious standpoint, I have always been keenly aware of my Jewish heritage and was pleased to be affiliated with an organization whose various programs were attuned to the Jewish community in its traditional sense,” he said.

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Retiring as UBC’s Professor Emeritus of Music in 2003, Silverman added, “I grew up at a time when a huge percentage of famous performers on the North American circuit were Jewish – Horowitz, Rubinstein, Bernstein, Reiner, Heifetz, Menuhin, as examples.  Ditto for the (then) up-and coming ones – Fleisher, Graffman and the late Michael Rabin. My talent is something I was born with but my musicality was largely shaped by their warm manner of phrasing and their attention to tonal beauty. Those are the qualities I have held dear my entire life and continue to strive in my playing to this day.”

Returning to his Montreal roots in 2008, he initiated the Dorothy Morton Visiting Artist series at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, and performed on its 10th anniversary. With his wife, they endowed The Robert and Ellen Silverman Piano Concerto Competition, held every two years.

Silverman discography’s numbers 30+ CD’s and 12 LP’s.  “His recording of Liszt’s piano music received a Grand Prix du Disque from the Liszt Society of Budapest while his widely-acclaimed 10CD recording of all 32 Beethoven sonatas was short-listed for a Juno Award.  His 7-CD album of all the Mozart Sonatas was released in 2010,” reported music.ubc.ca.  He told me that “probably my finest live televised performance is that of Rachmaninoff Concerto #3.” He received an Order of Canada award in 2013.

In retirement and Vancouver-based, he devotes himself full time to concerts and recordings and is heard frequently on the CBC English and Radio-Canada networks.  Silverman is a Steinway artist and has recorded for CBC Records, EMI, Marquis Classics, OrpheumMasters and Stereophile. He maintains a large Internet following where many of his recordings, including the recently-recorded Variations by Schumann and Brahms, can be found.

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, the Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communication.  He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary (Photo)

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

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Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

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