Saturday, September 1, 2007

1972-1976: Teaching in Minneapolis

1972 Brad Momsen, Young Artist Soloist, MMTA Honors Concert - Chopin - b-flat Scherzo

From Brad Momsen: I had studied with Don Betts at Macalester College during my 7th and 8th grade school years, then with a private teacher in St. Paul, the very "German" Minka Bartels for three years. She sent me to Philip for my senior year claiming she brought me as far as she was able. Minka was wonderful and very passionate about music. Most of my lessons ended up being in broken German / Dutch and she stood in the crook of the grand piano singing while I played.

Going to Philip was an amazing change. First, there was that "secret" entrance to 1000 University where one felt you slipped out of the urban cityscape into some strangely fantastical bohemian world - at least for a high school senior from St. Paul (we're talking 1971-72 here). I remember him always dressed in a rumpled white shirt and skinny black tie (or am I dreaming?) I remember the chair he sat in across the room with beverage of choice in hand. Then there was the shock that after the first time I played for Philip, his few words, succinct and precisely chosen, were in English. I'm sure I looked like a deer frozen in headlights.

What he did for me in a year was really amazing in retrospect. Though I attributed much of my advancement in performance to him, I never fully realized at the time how he did it. He knew exactly how to hone into my strengths and address my weaknesses. Lessons were split between technique building and coaching. His passion for music was authentic and always rooted in the music. That spring I won my division in MMTA and had the opportunity to perform in Northrop Auditorium. When I had signed up for a summer music camp at the U of MN, he steered me toward Paul Freed, who became my teacher during my undergraduate and graduate years. I understood perfectly where Paul's philosophy of teaching and the integrity of music was coming from having benefited from a brief, but all too important tenure with Philip.

I kept up with Philip through Paul for a while, but sadly, did not maintain a relationship with him for long. I was extremely fortunate to spend a year with Philip. I knew at the time he was a respected teacher and mentor, but never really understood or appreciated his standing among teachers. As you know, he was a person that never needed to draw attention to his credentials. I don't recall much was revealed about his own career and life other than his travels to France when I studied with him.

1972 MTNA State Winners

1972 Paul Halvorson, MTNA State Audition Winner, High School Division, Jan. 16th. Competed at MTNA Regional Competition in Denver, CO, Feb. 6th. As state winner performed with St. Paul Youth Orchestra on April 26th - Mozart Piano Concerto #23, 1st Movement. Scheduled performance at MMTA Young Artists Concert (June 18th) was scratched from program after printed: Prokofieff - Suggestion Diabolique

1972 Paul Halvorson Concerto Performance

1972 Frank Trnka, MTNA State Audition Winner, College Division, Jan. 16th. Competed at MTNA Regional Competition in Denver, CO, Feb. 6th. As state winner performed with St. Paul Civic Orchestra on Dec. 10th - Mozart Piano Concerto K. 595. Scheduled performance at MMTA Young Artists Concert (June 18th) was scratched from program after printed: Debussy - Isle Joyeuse

1972 Frank Trnka Concerto Performance

1973 April 27: Wendy Williams, Schubert Club - Scholarship Winners Program - Mozart - Sonata, K. 333

1973 June 10: Wendy Williams, Young Artist Soloist, MMTA Honors Concert - Chopin - c-sharp Scherzo;

Wendy Williams, Minnesota Music Teachers' Association Concert, June 10, 1973

1974 Dale Korogi, MMTA Young Artists Concert - Brahms - Rhapsodie 119 #4

Dale Korogi, Minneapolis Music Teachers' Forum Scholarship Winner, 1975

1975 Dale Korogi, MMTA Young Artists Concert - performed, piece not listed; MMTF Honors Concert -Frances Oliver Scholarship

From Dale Korogi: I was delighted to receive your note about Mr. Lillestol. Like you, certainly, I think about him so, so often, very grateful for his influence in my life. I believe I started with Philip in the fall of '71 and stayed with him until the fall of '77 when I went to the College of St. Thomas. I did all the usual MMTA, Forum, Schubert Club, Thursday Musical recitals and competitions. I don't recall what I won or didn't win, but I did play a concerto with the Lake Harriet orchestra one summer which, I think, was for winning or coming in second for the MMTA syllabus exam.

Wendy Williams, Minneapolis Music Teachers' Forum Scholarship Winner, 1975

1975 Wendy Williams, MMTF Honors Concert - Jeanette Casey Scholarship

From Wendy (Williams) Zaske - September 2016: My studies with Mr. Lillestol began in 1964 - at age 6, ponytailed and precocious, I was then his youngest student. With my mom being the quintessential “stage mother” who would sit through every session, I sensed that he wasn’t quite sure what to make of us! To lighten the mood, I began exiting lessons to the left, crawling underneath the piano. This touch of silliness broke the ice - and we soon fell into a workable synergy that would continue for the next twelve years.

I still recall the scent of old wood in the entryway; a courtyard dotted with cats and colorful hippies beckoning through dusty sheers in the bay windows. The studio itself smelled of lavender (and the much-appreciated ham-on-rye sandwiches my mom would bring). I still recall thinking that Mr. Lillestol was quite unusual - humming absentmindedly as he played, or referring to certain pieces as “old war horses.” But he seemed to have an almost mystical passion for music which, he said, began when he first heard the “perfectly logical juxtaposition of notes” in a Mozart Sonata on the farm in North Dakota.

Despite his virtuosity, he was humble and unpretentious; content to live simply. He hesitated to appear on stage or in public, and until I discovered this blog, I had no idea of his background as a world-class performer! I do recall a couple of instances when he’d mysteriously disappear to the West Coast without explanation, adding a new dimension to his eccentricity.

He was dedicated, exacting, and somewhat cantankerous. Instructions scribbled in my lesson books were graphic: “digging out” melodies, “shaping” phrases, or “breathing” between them (peppered with underscored admonitions such as “Cut your nails!” or “E min. scale and arp. - last chance!”). We’d often devote an entire lesson to a single passage, trying to achieve the ideal tone, and I resigned myself to hours of practice at home. Preaching the value of specialization, he warned me against the evils of becoming a “social butterfly” - this when I was only 10 or 11 years old.

“Think of how much you love Poland!” he’d bellow as I practiced Chopin. “Too often,” he’d observe, “it gets so you can’t see the forest for the trees.” He explained that the structure of music is only a vehicle through which a mood is conveyed - and the transmission of this mood by the stroke of the fingers constitutes true mastery of a piece. He defined art as “the distillation of human experience and emotion translated into the medium,” and although these concepts were a bit overwhelming for a teen, I found them intriguing.

Obviously pained when I arrived unprepared, he was delighted when I finally perfected a passage to his satisfaction. Achieving the expression he demanded was a maddeningly abstract endeavor - until I finally managed to merge the feeling in my head with the feeling of the keys, hoping beyond hope that I could replicate it at the upcoming contest or recital.

I was satisfied with my MMTA Young Artist solo at Northrop, and proud to be part of the Schubert Club Awards program that was broadcast on KSJN (both in 1973). But perhaps my most enjoyable performance was for a lone MMTF judge at Gustavus Adolphus in 1975. The serene setting, a picture window overlooking a pond, was perfect for Debussy’s Poissons d’or… and more significant than the scholarship, I think, was finally experiencing the ethereal state of mind that Mr. Lillestol so thoroughly understood.

Since then, I’ve been drawn to other forms of art and entertainment (becoming, I suppose, that dreaded “social butterfly!”). But I have no regrets - those 12 years taught me about patience, perseverence, and the pursuit of excellence. They taught me to compete only against my own best performances, not those of others. And they allowed apprenticeship with a genius who believed in perfection, marched to the beat of his own drummer, and inspired his students to do no less.

Many thanks to Frank Trnka and the others who put together this wonderful blog. Their effort alone speaks volumes about the kind of influence Mr. Lillestol had on so many talented people.

Thomas Valente, Minneapolis Music Teachers' Forum Scholarship Winner, 1976

1976 Thomas Valente, MMTA Young Artists Concert - Liszt - Les jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este, MMTF Honors Concert - Frances Oliver Scholarship, Liszt - Fountains of Villa D'este


  1. Thanks for posting this educational mini-bio.

  2. Janice,

    Are you a former student or family member? Would be interested in how you knew Philip.