April 24, 2019

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Keys to a long life

Celebrated Winnipeg pianist and teacher looks back on career highlights as she turns 100

She’s performed for British royalty and radio, rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s greatest classical luminaries, taught scores of aspiring musicians since the age of 12 and once tickled the ivories for silent movies as a teenager growing up in the city’s West End.

Winnipeg’s grande dame and beloved musical matriarch, pianist and teacher Thelma Wilson, celebrates her 100th birthday on April 12. Members of her equally accomplished clan that include four children, nine grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren are flocking here from across Canada, the U.S., Europe and Iceland to help mark the auspicious occasion.

“I don’t know, but since there’s so much to-do about my 100th birthday, I’m beginning to think it’s rather important,” the humble musician with a dignified, regal bearing, says at a local seniors’ residence where she has lived for the past two-and-a-half years.

Music has been a leitmotif running throughout her life for nearly a century, her treasured grand piano only an arm’s length or two away in her living room.

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She’s performed for British royalty and radio, rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s greatest classical luminaries, taught scores of aspiring musicians since the age of 12 and once tickled the ivories for silent movies as a teenager growing up in the city’s West End.

Winnipeg’s grande dame and beloved musical matriarch, pianist and teacher Thelma Wilson, celebrates her 100th birthday on April 12. Members of her equally accomplished clan that include four children, nine grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren are flocking here from across Canada, the U.S., Europe and Iceland to help mark the auspicious occasion.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Thelma Wilson, who turns 100 this month, is regarded as the matriarch of Winnipeg's music community. </p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Thelma Wilson, who turns 100 this month, is regarded as the matriarch of Winnipeg's music community.

"I don’t know, but since there’s so much to-do about my 100th birthday, I’m beginning to think it’s rather important," the humble musician with a dignified, regal bearing, says at a local seniors’ residence where she has lived for the past two-and-a-half years.

Music has been a leitmotif running throughout her life for nearly a century, her treasured grand piano only an arm’s length or two away in her living room.

In fact, Wilson, who retired only seven years ago, launched into an excerpt from Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), flawlessly performed from memory during this interview — surely the most poignant performance of this entire season.

"All my life, I have wanted to play the piano, and it’s always been a big part of my life," says Wilson, her mind still sharp as a tack.

"I would rather play piano than read a book, and still play as much as I can although my hands are beginning to get older," she adds with a laugh.

“I would rather play piano than read a book, and still play as much as I can although my hands are beginning to get older."

Born on April 12, 1919 to the children of Icelandic pioneers who first settled in Manitoba’s "New Iceland" Interlake district during the early 1890s, Wilson began piano lessons at age five with her mother Helga (nee Kjernested), and briefly violin with her father Bjorn Guttormson, ultimately choosing the keyboard instrument because her mother was "more fun."

After her parents realized that their eldest of four children — Wilson’s sole remaining sibling, kid brother Norman, 95, lives in Saskatchewan — possessed natural talent, the young girl continued lessons with Louis McDowell, the renowned local teacher and graduate of Germany’s Leipzig Conservatory, diligently practising her weekly assignment of pieces by her favourite composers, including Chopin, Beethoven, Bach and Liszt for up to four hours a day.

Her lifelong love for teaching started at 12 when she began accepting her own pupils — many of them older than their pre-teenaged teacher — and charged a princely sum of 25 cents a lesson.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Thelma and husband Kerr Wilson at their 50th wedding anniversary in 1991.</p>

SUPPLIED

Thelma and husband Kerr Wilson at their 50th wedding anniversary in 1991.

Wilson quickly became a collaborative pianist of note, accompanying school choirs at General Wolfe School and later Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute during their regular concerts, as well as the annual Manitoba Music Competition Festival, forerunner of the Winnipeg Music Festival, also birthed in 1919.

Success came early after her choir earned the festival’s top award, leading to an invitation to perform at the Winnipeg Civic Auditorium — original playground for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for 40 years — during its gala opener in 1931.

Now a member of the Winnipeg Music Teachers’ Association, Wilson received a "thrilling opportunity" through that organization to meet world-renowned artists gracing the auditorium stage for its "Celebrity Concert Series," including such notables as Myra Hess, Arthur Rubinstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Percy Grainger, Marian Anderson, Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz.

She met her future husband, lyric baritone J. Kerr Wilson, while accompanying Gilbert & Sullivan productions at her school. Kerr, originally a violinist, had begun to sing principal roles in the annual shows, with Thelma quickly becoming his regular collaborative pianist for his various performances at festivals, recitals and auditions.

The duo made beautiful music together, continuing to harmonize their lives as they embarked on their first weekly recital program for a local radio station. The couple wed on Oct. 11, 1941, rented their first home, and bought a grand piano "on time" with their banked wages from the radio show, building a life together steeped in music.

Two of their four children, acclaimed Canadian cellist Eric Wilson, a co-founder of the Emerson String Quartet and longtime cello professor at the University of British Columbia, and Kerrine Wilson, a local pianist, organist and teacher, recall growing up in their Kingston Row home teeming with laughter.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Wilson with a photo of her son Eric Wilson, a cello professor at UBC who co-founded the Emerson String Quartet.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wilson with a photo of her son Eric Wilson, a cello professor at UBC who co-founded the Emerson String Quartet.

"Every room was full of music," Kerrine recalls.

"It was like a conservatory of sound," Eric says over the phone from Vancouver.

“Music is something that you don’t put into a child. If it is there, you just draw it out."

Eric, Kerrine and Victoria, B.C.-based violinist son Carlisle, a former Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra member and conductor for the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra formed their own chamber group, The Wilson Trio, and would fine-tune their repertoire in their bedrooms while their mother taught downstairs and their father polished his latest ballad in the living room.

Youngest son Mark continued to hone his own artistic skills as a visual artist, now living in Iceland with his family as a businessman.

One of Wilson’s fondest memories is being invited to give a command performance for a youthful Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during their 1959 visit to Winnipeg’s Government House, receiving a call out of the blue from the wife of then-lieutenant governor John Steward McDiarmid, with the request that would rattle the nerves of even the most seasoned artist.

JEFF DE BOOY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>Thelma Wilson, Icelandic Festival volunteer.</p>

JEFF DE BOOY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

Thelma Wilson, Icelandic Festival volunteer.

However, Wilson, ever a consummate professional, reveals her greatest concern was not the actual recital itself, but learning how to curtsy properly in front of the monarch — ultimately mastering the skill in time for their performance of Sir Edward German’s The English Rose from Merrie England.

"All ladies should curtsy before the Queen, and I was so afraid I would fall," she says. "But I didn’t fall. I wasn’t afraid of playing the piano because that was like being at home."

However, the tale doesn’t end there. As the event came to an end, Wilson recounts how the Queen went upstairs to retrieve her fur stole.

Wilson’s charismatic Irish husband, who died June 11, 2006, had become so infused by the spirit of the moment that he bounded after the Royal, planting himself squarely at the foot of the staircase and belting out an a cappella version of Will Ye No Come Back Again as the Queen’s personal troubadour.

Another memorable highlight for Wilson was accompanying Eric during the 1971 Geneva International Competition in Switzerland, where they won a bronze medal in a competition of 65 chamber groups from all over the globe — a personal thrill for Wilson, who says performing extensively with her son throughout the years felt wholly "natural."

But teaching has always been closest to her heart, inspiring multiple generations of students, including her own grandchildren and great-grandchildren into her early 90s.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Thelma Wilson (right) and her daughter, Kerrine Wilson. </p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Thelma Wilson (right) and her daughter, Kerrine Wilson.

"What I enjoyed most was working with the individual, because I always considered the person first, and then the music," she explains. "Music is something that you don’t put into a child. If it is there, you just draw it out."

"I like to quote Beethoven. He said, 'One who loves music will never be unhappy.’ And I believe that.”

However, what Wilson is most proud of is her vibrant family, often referred to in local circles as a "dynasty," with Wilson its revered elder and matriarch.

In addition to watching her own children grow into noteworthy established artists, she takes great delight following her granddaughter, New York City-based conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson’s stellar career, who graduated (as did Eric) from the Juilliard School in New York City and travels the world to lead orchestras, including the WSO in January 2018.

Another granddaughter, Tiffany Wilson, teaches locally and serves as president for the Canadian Federation of Music Teachers Association, a high-profile position that Wilson also held between 1975-79.

Now poised to begin her next grand chapter as a centenarian — and still going strong — Wilson doesn’t miss a beat when asked what music has meant to her personally.

"It’s been my life, and also my husband, and my children’s lives. It’s been part of our daily living," she responds. "And you know, I like to quote Beethoven. He said, 'One who loves music will never be unhappy.’ And I believe that."

 

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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