Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

‘My spirit is still there’: Philadelphia piano great forced to retire because of Parkinson’s

A previously planned Dec. 9 concert by Bates will now be played for him.

Pianist Leon Bates at the Settlement Music School Germantown branch, where he once studied.
Pianist Leon Bates at the Settlement Music School Germantown branch, where he once studied.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Leon Bates thought maybe it was the coffee.

"In the beginning, I didn't even notice — other people noticed it," he said of the tremors in his hands. As a busy pianist, he explained, he would drink coffee to get through rehearsals and concerts, "so I thought it was catching up with me, and I kind of blew it off as that."

But his balance and memory were giving him trouble, too, and what Bates thought was too much caffeine led to a diagnosis of Parkinson's. The distinguished pianist — born and trained in Philadelphia, and a worldwide presence for decades — has announced that he is retiring from the concert stage.

The Leon Bates concert long planned for Dec. 9 will now be a performance played for him rather than by him. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Bates, and his longtime manager, Joanne Rile, have remade the program, and he will be serenaded in solo, vocal, and chamber works by many of his collaborators.

He may find it hard to sit still.

"It's interesting, when something is playing, a recording or something comes on the radio, and it's something I play in my repertoire, my knee-jerk reaction is to start fingering it and rehearsing it. Even if I am just in a car or a chair, I am responding. So my spirit is still there."

It's understandable. Bates has been performing professionally for nearly a half-century — "an elegant player, with a keen ear for color, and a flair for poetry as persuasive as his bursts of fiery extroversion," as a New York Times critic wrote in a review of a 1980 recital of Chopin, Ravel, and Schubert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It would have been a mistake to say Bates, then 30, was a pianist of promise, the critic concluded. "He has arrived."

And so he had. Bates, now 68, has had an enviable career of solo recitals and chamber music partnerships and of sharing the stage with the major orchestras of Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and in Europe.

Among his strongest memories: He was 20, performing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Eugene Ormandy, and "we were somewhere deep into the second movement and it hit me that I was playing on one of the great stages of the world, playing a marvelous piano, and being accompanied by one of the greatest orchestras and one of the finest conductors, and it all kind of came upon me at once. I realized it doesn't get any better than this. That was an incredible moment."

Careers soar and stall for mysterious reasons, in response to fad or sometimes just dumb luck, and there are perhaps hundreds of pianists who would trade places with Bates for all the success he has had. But one can't help look at his slot, first-tier as it is, and wonder whether he was really afforded all the opportunity he was due. In Bates' generation, he was joined perhaps only by André Watts — another Philadelphia-trained pianist — as a big-name African American classical pianist.

"He had a great career and it was a time when we should have been over the racial thing," says Rile. But were we?

Though he says he never encountered any friction or animosity to speak of, Bates also can't say for sure that he missed out on bookings or projects because of prejudice. "You can't really know that sort of thing," he says.

"I do think race played a part in keeping Leon's career at a lesser level than if he were white," said Rile. Still, many early supporters, like Ormandy, W. Hazaiah Williams at Four Seasons Arts in California, and other presenters booked Bates multiple times and "helped carve a path," Rile said.

All the while, except for three years when he taught at Oberlin, Bates remained a Philadelphian. He was born here, raised here, studied at Settlement Music School's Germantown branch with Irene Beck, and, at Temple, with legendary pianist Natalie Hinderas. He lives in Mount Airy, just a few miles from the Germantown house that was his home from age 8 and where his parents live still.

After his Oberlin stint, he never considered going anywhere else.

"The idea was to go back to Philadelphia."

He had enjoyed a long line of boosters here. Sol Schoenbach, Settlement Music School's executive director, liked him and offered advice. Beck was his teacher at Settlement for the five impressionable years from ages 12 to 17. "She understood so much about concert playing – the right repertoire, the right way to study, how to approach it, how to create good sound," Bates said.

She was the perfect passageway to Hinderas, he said, with whom he studied for six years.

"I think in a lot of ways she was very much a free spirit," he said of the pianist and teacher, who died in 1987 at 60. "She was always interested in what your tone was like, the sound that you produced, the differentiation between melody and counterpoint. Or it might be a technical idea."

He remembers the way she taught him to play the fast repeated triplets in Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso" from Miroirs. "She had a particular technique for pulling her fingers back to control the repetition of that single note," he said.

Bates returned to the Philadelphia Orchestra several more times. With Ormandy, he performed Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3, and he remembers with particular fondness performing with Lorin Maazel and the National Orchestra of France, James DePreist and the New York Philharmonic, and Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Bates said that if he never had the feeling as an African American classical pianist that anyone was trying to thwart him, it had "a lot to do with the sheltering I got from my management, from my piano teachers, and all those people who constantly were telling me how talented I was. Irene Beck would sometimes say, 'Leon, you will be great. But you must practice.' I will never forget that."

Though he won't be playing in public anymore, Bates will continue to do master classes and teach. A devoted bodybuilder, he still goes to the gym every day he can. And he continues to listen — to Strauss tone poems, Beethoven symphonies, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, new music, opera, and jazz.

And to remember. Sometimes, he says, the full impact of a performance doesn't hit him at the time. Rather, he will find himself lying in bed some night a couple of years after the fact, having "the realization of a beautiful moment come to me, and realize how fortunate I was to have had that experience."