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Remembering Kendall Feeney: A vital musical force has gone

Pianist Kendall Feeney died March 5 of cancer. (PHOTO COURTESY OF KENDALL FEENEY / COURTESY OF KENDALL FEENEY)
Pianist Kendall Feeney died March 5 of cancer. (PHOTO COURTESY OF KENDALL FEENEY / COURTESY OF KENDALL FEENEY)


Kendall Feeney had it. It is the one word that comes to mind when I think of my experience with Kendall, the performer and the person. I had known her for more than 30 years when she came to Spokane still fresh from a master’s degree at the University of Southern California. The physical and intellectual vigor she brought to her work in the artistic life here astonished me from her first performances as a pianist, as a violist in chamber music, as keyboard player with the symphony, and as a reader and lecturer.

She was, after all, only a “slip of a thing” to use a phrase borrowed from my Texas upbringing. Even as she was slowly yielding to the cancer that took her two weeks ago, Kendall’s vitality remained.

When she played music, lectured, read stories or programmed music for her concerts, there was a seeming source of energy that eluded ordinary performers, no matter how proficient they might be. And I often wondered at the source of Kendall’s “secret” source of energy.

Kendall grew up in a family of performers. Her mother, Carole, was a professional storyteller who told stories to children – to adults, too, but mainly to children in libraries and schools. Her father, Jack, was an actor and musician and a college lecturer who had met her mother acting in a play. They had actors’ sensitivity to the rhythm of words and notes. You could hear that clarity of rhythm when Kendall played as a soloist or with others, when she recited things like Edith Sitwell’s “Façade,” Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” or in the interviews and readings she did on public radio.

Kendall loved games and the choreography of moves both mental and physical on the croquet court or or across the table in pinocle. And she was a fan of movies where scene cuts and the rhythm of shifts between close-up and distant shots play such an important part of effects.

In the week following her death, I heard a re-broadcast of an interview with Verne Windham discussing J.S. Bach’s fugues from his “Well-Tempered Clavier.” Kendall’s observations on the interaction of Bach’s layers of melody were lessons in the way she thought of some theme’s coming to the fore while others recede contribute to the thrust of the music, slow or fast.

Kendall’s classes at Eastern Washington University or her introductions to works played on her concerts were models of how a vital performer shapes the sound of words to show how the music will flow. Even some admirable performers are not very good at spoken program notes. Kendall was an exception.

Many listeners in Spokane knew Kendall best from performances in her 10-year concert series “Zephyr – Chamber Music with an Attitude.” which she founded and directed. Here was a concert series like no other. It explored corners of music of our time ranging from cabaret and ragtime to radical experimental music. Kendall and the colleagues she recruited were able to make unusual and even forbidding musical styles seem right at home to audiences, moving them away from the formally stiff “museum culture” typical of most classical concerts. Her example led other groups to experiment with novel repertoire and modes of presentation.

In addition to Zephyr, Kendall founded a tango-oriented quartet with accordion, strings and piano called Tango Volcado. In addition to performing as principal keyboard player with the Spokane Symphony, she performed with most of Spokane’s other classical music series such as the Northwest Bach Festival, the Cathedral and the Arts series, and the Spokane String Quartet.

During her early career, Kendall had developed muscular problems as a result of the strain of over practicing using damaging technical approaches. She retrained her own technical approach by working with New York teacher Dorothy Taubman. Using Taubman’s method she overcame her own technical problems and assisted with workshops applying the technique in workshops all over the country.

Whether playing Bach or Beethoven, Bartók or Piazzola, Kendall’s musicality and energy gave the music she played a gripping energy level.

She was extraordinary. And Kendall Feeney will be sorely missed as a vital part of Spokane’s artistic life.

Travis Rivers is a retired music professor from Eastern Washington University who wrote about and reviewed classical music for The Spokesman-Review for 32 years.