Lowe Down

Mary Anthony Cox and Morris Rowell — the Northeast Kingdom’s royal family of music — at their East Craftsbury home.

When Mary Anthony Cox died last week, a chapter in Vermont’s music history closed. Although less known in her own state than in the international music world, the pianist, pedagogue and co-founder of the Craftsbury Chamber Players left an indelible mark on the music of Vermont.

I encountered the inimitable Mary Anthony when I first heard the Craftsbury Chamber Players in the late 1970s, but didn’t meet her until the mid ‘80s, when I began covering the music scene for The Times Argus. Talking with her at concerts, we immediately found ourselves kindred spirits. And I discovered her fascinating story.

Although no one would ever mistake this southern belle for a Vermonter, Mary Anthony was Northeast Kingdom music royalty. She had married East Craftsbury farmer and businessman Morris Rowell (1932-2017) in 1974, and consequently was the stepmother of violinist Mary Rowell and cellist Frances Rowell (among five), now two of Vermont’s most important musicians and core of today’s Craftsbury Chamber Players.

It came as no surprise that Mary Anthony was on the faculty of Juilliard in New York. She was teaching ear-training full time at the legendary conservatory, but commuting home by plane each weekend. It turned out that she was a legend there. Any time I brought her name up to top American musicians, they remembered her well — with a mix of reverence and trepidation.

Found in Juilliard’s “Rate My Professor” listings was this pithy commentary: “Wow. A methodical pedagogue, a thoughtful performer, a terrifying authoritarian, and a genuinely compassionate person — I think!”

In his tribute to Mary Anthony on the Juilliard website, renowned American composer Daron Hagen, once one of her students, told the story of how she helped him decide against graduate school, for which he was forever grateful. These comments are particularly apt:

“Never defy an ear-training instructor; never play a trick on a psychiatrist; and never attempt to force potty-training on a toddler — you will lose, and they will win,” Hagen wrote. “Wise Mary Anthony laughed last and long: I ended up having to continue practicing ear training for another nine years to teach it properly as one of my duties on the faculty of Bard College. …

“She was both terrifying and excellent, formidable and compassionate. She was one of the good ones. I loved her, and I shall miss her,” Hagen said.

However, that’s not how I knew Mary Anthony. First and foremost, I knew her as a pianist. Although not a flashy virtuoso, she played with a deep musical understanding and fine craftsmanship. That attention to detail seemed natural when I discovered she studied with the great French pianist Robert Casadesus, my favorite of all time. (I shared many of my recordings with her.)

As artistic director of the Craftsbury Chamber Players, Mary Anthony proved one of the canniest programmers I have run across. She pretty much followed a formula: first a traditional short work, then a contemporary or seldom heard work — always excellent — closing with a major masterpiece. Sometimes I was thrilled, but always completely satisfied.

But most of all, I remember Mary Anthony as a friend. Our discussions about music were intense and pleasurable. Of course, we almost always agreed!

My last memories of Mary Anthony were less happy, as during the last few years, she was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Still, I remember well the last time I saw her. At a Rowell family party, I found her staring blankly ahead. She did acknowledge me but wasn’t quite sure who I was. But when I began talking about the musicians she knew in her youth, Mary Anthony lit up and became loquacious.

She launched into one of her favorite stories — and mine. During World War II, Mary Anthony was one of Casadesus’ students staying with him in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, near Tanglewood. One afternoon, Casadesus and the French violinist Zino Francescatti, fortuitously living next door, decided to play through sonatas together, and their students were invited.

It was the first time these two greats had ever played together, and they went on to perform and record together frequently. The young Mary Anthony and her fellow students were there to share that first moment.

As my teachers and mentors, Marcel, Louis and Blanche Moyse were colleagues and friends of Casadesus and Francescatti, I felt a personal connection to this memory. To the end, Mary Anthony and I would share that almost forgotten world.

I, too, loved Mary Anthony, and I shall miss her.

Jim Lowe is music critic and arts editor of The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.

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