The Spokane Symphony celebrates May Day on Saturday with one of the closing concerts of this season’s classics series.
Wait. Make that Margie May Day.
The reason for the celebration is the upcoming 90th birthday of Margaret Saunders Ott – “Margie May” to her many friends, but “Mrs. Ott” to her hundreds of students from a nearly 80-year piano teaching career.
Ott is a longtime symphony supporter and an icon in Spokane’s musical life. Music Director Eckart Preu had planned to call this weekend’s program “Entangled in Passion” until he realized that Ott would be celebrating her 90th birthday in July, when the symphony was taking a summer break.
“But for a woman whose passion about music has been so strong, this is the right concert to honor her,” Preu says. “She combines a deep note of beautiful human warmth with an uncompromising devotion to music and to teaching.”
This weekend’s main program, which repeats Sunday afternoon, includes “The Bacchanal” (sometimes called “The Venusburg Music”) from Richard Wagner’s opera “Tannhauser,” Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Don Juan” and Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor.
An addition to the previously scheduled lineup on Saturday is the orchestral version of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s wordless song, “Vocalise.”
“Whenever I visit Mrs. Ott we connect with each other by playing piano duets or music for two pianos,” said Preu. “Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vocalise’ is always one of the pieces on her piano’s music rack, so we’ve played it on almost every visit with her.
“It is so beautiful with just the touch of nostalgia I think will be perfect for this concert.”
In addition to the symphony’s performance, Saturday’s concert will be preceded by a recital of the original piano solo version of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
More than a dozen of Ott’s former students – including internationally known concert pianist Stephen Drury – will act as a musical relay team playing each of the work’s movements.
Ott was born in the once-thriving small town of Mt. Hope, near Fairfield. She began studying with local teachers at age 6, and by the time she was 11 Ott was already teaching other students.
After attending Cheney Normal (now Eastern Washington University), the University of Washington and Mills College in California, Ott moved to New York, where she entered the newly founded Juilliard Graduate School of Music.
Returning to Spokane during World War II with her new husband, Franklin Ott, she established herself as one of the country’s finest piano teachers. She was the longtime head of the piano department at Whitworth and gave innumerable workshops and master classes in the United States and Asia.
Ott opened the third season of the Spokane Philharmonic (the symphony’s predecessor) in 1947 and has been heard in numerous solo recitals and chamber music performances throughout her career.
Among her many recognitions, Ott was named Teacher of the Year by the 24,000-member Music Teachers National Association in 2003.
Greg Presley, a former Ott student who organized and will participate in Saturday’s pre-concert performance, estimates she has taught around 1,000 pianists during her career.
“What struck me,” he says, “is the high proportion of her students that have gone on to professional careers in music as teachers, performers, composers and in arts management.”
They include such prominent names as Drury, composer- arranger-recording artist Philip Aaberg and the head of the International Piano Archive, Donald Manildi.
“Margie May Ott has had many more students than she can count who have carried her influence far beyond Spokane. But there is only one of her and so many, many students, she cannot imagine just how far her influence has spread,” Preu said.
“We in the symphony are proud to be able to honor such a woman.”
In a 2003 interview, Ott expressed her philosophy of teaching: “I love teaching because I love people. Teaching students to play the piano empowers them and gives them something that changes their world.”