Concert Pianist Marilyn Neeley, 69; Dean of Catholic's Music School

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

Marilyn Neeley, 69, an internationally acclaimed concert pianist who directed piano and chamber music studies at Catholic University and was a former dean of its music school, died of pneumonia May 30 at Holy Cross Hospital after surgery for cancer. She lived in Hyattsville.

A prodigy who made her concert debut at New York's Town Hall when she was 8 years old, Ms. Neeley appeared with more than 100 symphony orchestras and won prizes in some of the world's most prestigious piano competitions.

She had been a professor of piano at Catholic since 1987 and was a member of the university's Rome Trio, which includes violinist Jody Gatwood and cellist Michael Mermagen. Her performance with the trio in March was praised in The Washington Post for its "lyricism and rhythmic vitality."

For many years, Ms. Neeley also appeared in duo concerts with her husband, violinist Robert Gerle. In 1970, they recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano for public television. Their recordings received a special Emmy Award.

A pianist of "able technique" and "blistering drive," according to Washington Post reviews, Ms. Neeley was most comfortable in the repertoire of the Romantic period, said her son, Andrew Gerle, a musical theater composer in New York. She also had an affinity for French music, the works of Mozart and Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor. In 1992, she recorded a CD of solo piano music by Mozart, Brahms, Debussy and Liszt.

"She was an exacting teacher and exacting with herself," said Jean M. Barr, a professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., who performed with and gave master classes with Ms. Neeley. "She was dramatic and had wonderful technique and imagination."

Ms. Neeley appeared as a soloist with the Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Baltimore symphony orchestras. A Baltimore Sun critic once wrote that she was "at home in the company of the great pianists of our day."

Ms. Neeley was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of a judge, and was giving recitals by age 6. When she made her New York Town Hall debut two years later, performing music by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, she was featured in an article in Life magazine.

She graduated from the University of Southern California in 1960 and received a master's degree from USC in 1967 -- not in music, she liked to point out, but in philosophy and religion.

"She knew a great deal about many things," Barr said. "She was quick-witted and extremely observant and had a remarkably dry, stiletto-like sense of humor."

In 1958, Ms. Neeley and cellist Joanna de Keyser won the Geneva International Music Competition for chamber music. She won a prize at the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962 and was a finalist in the Leventritt Foundation piano competition the same year. In 1963, she was named "Woman of the Year in Music" by the Los Angeles Times after she substituted at the last minute for an ailing Glenn Gould in a performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Ms. Neeley interrupted her concert career in the mid-1960s to teach at the Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy, a mission school in Camden, S.C., for the descendants of slaves. She taught at Ohio State University from 1968 to 1972 and at the University of Maryland Baltimore County from 1972 to 1984.

Ms. Neeley then spent two years at Florida State University and a year as artist-in-residence at the Cairo Conservatory of Music before joining Catholic's faculty. She taught about 20 piano students at a time and also directed CU's graduate program in chamber music.

"She really had a passion for teaching and helping people," said Thomas Mastroianni, a concert pianist and emeritus professor at Catholic. "If someone wasn't toeing the mark, she would speak up in no uncertain terms. But she wasn't a taskmaster -- she was an example for her students."

Ms. Neeley's concert schedule took her from Moscow to Seoul to Zurich to New York's Carnegie Hall, and she spent many summers on the piano faculty of the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. She enjoyed performing in small chamber ensembles and, for the past 10 years, often appeared in two-piano concerts with her son.

Ms. Neeley's husband, who taught at Catholic and UMBC and was musical director of the Washington Sinfonia and Friday Morning Music Club, died in 2005.

Her son, whose musical play "Meet John Doe" had a recent run at Ford's Theatre, is her sole survivor.

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