Eleanor Sokoloff, 106, the celebrated piano professor who taught at the Curtis Institute of Music for an astonishing eight-plus decades and whose own four-hand recitals with her husband were once a Philadelphia tradition, died Sunday, July 12, at Pennsylvania Hospital of natural causes.
Mrs. Sokoloff taught at Curtis longer than any other professor in the conservatory’s history, and more than anyone else, she was its gracious — if sharp-witted — personification.
“She was always here,” said former Curtis director Gary Graffman, exaggerating, but only slightly. The school, venerable as it is and often seen as the country’s great manifestation of old-world conservatory training, was seven years old when Mrs. Sokoloff first arrived as a student.
She was still teaching at Curtis during the last school year and had planned to resume this fall, pandemic or no.
“She was an institution within the institution,” said Curtis president and CEO Roberto Díaz. “She just experienced it all, she knew it all, she remembered it all. There was really nobody at Curtis, certainly not teaching at Curtis, that she had not had some contact with from very early on. She could talk about the school and its evolution with an authority that no one else could. It’s a huge, huge loss for all of us — our one contact to the very beginning of the school.”
During her long tenure, she amassed an impressive list of students, more than 75 of whom went on to perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Among Mrs. Sokoloff’s pupils were Craig Sheppard, Lambert Orkis, and wunderkind Susan Starr. Curtis resident pianist Meng-Chieh Liu studied with her, as did Leon McCawley, Charles Abramovic, and Randall Hodgkinson.
In 2003, she took a shine to Kit Armstrong, a slight figure who came to her studio at age 12, already a serious pianist and budding composer with a David Letterman appearance under his belt.
One of her students, Daniel Hsu, was the only pianist to win three awards in the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, including the bronze. She complained bitterly because, having followed his performances online, she said he deserved the gold.
With a tightly spun bun fastened atop her head, dramatically highlighted eyebrows, and unfailingly smart outfits, Mrs. Sokoloff made a visible presence for herself around Rittenhouse Square, where she could be seen walking or dining — seasonally accessorized with a legendary leopard skin hat or another trimmed with nautical rope.
She was outspoken, sometimes bluntly so, though her opinions on a spectrum of subjects from progress on gay and lesbian rights (which she applauded) to contemporary music (which she often did not) were usually softened by a puckish chuckle.
Her death leaves Curtis, a school that worships the past, without the most direct connection to its own history. Nearly every Wednesday afternoon at the traditional tea in Curtis’ luxuriously wood-paneled main building, she sat before a samovar, one of two hosts to pour tea for students, faculty and guests.
Mrs. Sokoloff came to study at Curtis in 1931 — in music-history terms, a few years before Berg wrote his landmark Violin Concerto or Bartok penned the Concerto for Orchestra. She met her husband, pianist Vladimir “Billy” Sokoloff, at the school, and they formed a popular two-piano team. She first taught supplementary piano (piano instruction for non-piano majors), from 1936-1949, and then became a full member of the piano faculty.
She undeniably stood for tradition, but not necessarily the good old days. She was vocal on the ways in which female pianists have long been marginalized. When the wrecking ball came for the house she once occupied for 35 years to make way for the future Kimmel Center, she wasn’t heartbroken. “This is going to be a big improvement,” she quipped.
She often supported change and evolution at Curtis. At a 100th birthday celebration at the school, Sokoloff was praised by Graffman as being “free of nostalgia for the good old days” while still embodying the highest of golden-age standards.
As the only full-time teacher on the Curtis piano faculty, Mrs. Sokoloff frequently took over lessons for bigger-name faculty-pianists when they were called out of town to perform or after one had lost patience with an uncooperative prodigy. She tended to work with younger students, those under 16 years old for whom two lessons a week might be required.
“She stresses the fundamentals of piano playing and builds on top of that, as good teachers should,” the late Curtis cellist Orlando Cole told The Inquirer in 2011. “She’s had innumerable fine players — I mean really world-class pianists — and they start with her and go on to other teachers who get credit for it. You know. That’s the way.”
Born Eleanor Blum in Cleveland, daughter of a barber, she was raised in Miami and Washington, and came to Philadelphia after studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Ruth Edwards. At Curtis, she studied piano with David Saperton and chamber music with Louis Bailly.
The piano team of Brodsky and Triggs was brought in to teach two-piano repertoire to Mrs. Sokoloff and the fellow student who would become her husband. Vladimir Sokoloff was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s pianist from 1938 to 1950, and performed with violinist Efrem Zimbalist, soprano Marcella Sembrich, and violist William Primrose.
He died in 1997. Soon after her husband’s death, Mrs. Sokoloff went out and bought an exercise machine. It was a top-of-the-line model with all the bells and whistles, which made her elder daughter, Kathy Sokoloff, curious.
“I said, ‘Mom, why did you have to buy such a fancy machine?’”
Her mother said: “Because it came with a 25-year warranty.”
She was 83 at the time.
Kathy Sokoloff says her mother had so many students that she couldn’t remember them all. Not even a famous jazz artist.
“One day the doorbell rang and mother said, ‘May I help you?’ A man said, ‘Hello, my name is Keith Jarrett, and I wanted to say hello.’
“And she said, ‘Who?’
“Apparently my mother had taught him, but she didn’t remember.”
In addition to daughter Katharine, a former violin prodigy and retired director of development at the Settlement Music School, Mrs. Sokoloff is survived by daughter Laurie Sokoloff, a retired piccolo player and flutist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial will be planned for a later date. Donations in her name may be made to the Curtis Institute of Music, 1726 Locust St. Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.