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Cliburn Piano Winner And TCU Professor José Feghali Has Died

Max Faulkner
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
José Feghali played Van Cliburn Memorial Concert at Sundance Square Plaza in Fort Worth in February."

José Feghali, a pianist and TCU professor who won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in the 1980s, has died. He was 53. 

Brazilian-born Feghali was 24 when he won both the gold medal and the chamber music prize at the 1985 Cliburn.

Feghali launched an extensive performing career, appearing with such orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony and virtually every major orchestra in the United States. TCU says he appeared in more than 1,000 performances. He also performed, produced or engineered more than 50 audio recordings.

Feghali was found dead in his Fort Worth bedroom around 5 p.m. Tuesday. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s initial report called the death a suicide. Fort Worth police say they are investigating. 

Richard Rodzinski, the former head of the Van Cliburn who retired in 2009, remained close friends with Feghali. He says the pianist wrestled with depression for years.

But Tamás Ungár, a fellow music faculty member at TCU, says that as recently as last week, Feghali had been making plans to perform in a June concert.

“And he was very animated and was looking forward to it very much,” Unger said. “So there was, I just never had any, no, no indication whatsoever. It’s just a huge mystery and a huge shock.”

Performing since he was a child

Feghali gave his first public performance when he was 5 in Rio de Janeiro. At 8, he appeared with the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra.

When he was 15, he left Brazil to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In the early rounds in the ’85 Cliburn competition, Feghali pulled a muscle and was prescribed a muscle relaxant. He recalled what happened next for the 2012 TV documentary, “The Cliburn: 50 Years of Gold.”

“I got a violent allergic reaction,” Feghali said. “It made me very dizzy and I had red spots and rashes all over my body. So for two days I couldn’t practice. And it made it very, very difficult, of course. So I actually called the director and said I think I’d better pull out of the finals.”

He was told “no.” Feghali persevered – and won.

'A brilliant pianist'

Feghali eventually returned to Fort Worth and in 1990 became an artist-in-residence and a professor of piano at TCU. He also remained active with the Cliburn as a board member. Earlier this year, he participated in the Memorial Anniversary Concert for Van Cliburn held in Sundance Square.

“It’s a kind of a reunion of the Cliburn family, you could say,” Feghali said. “To have everybody together like this is a wonderful thing.”

Feghali was actually a man of many talents: He was also the TCU music school’s coordinator of internet technologies.

Angela Fabry is director of Performing Arts International; she was Feghali’s agent and friend.

Fabry says Feghali was so proficient with computers and audio recording, he corrected the code in Microsoft’s music software.

“And Microsoft actually invited him to their next conference to speak,” she said. “He was that good. He was just amazing.”

The TCU School of Music posted on its Facebook page: “His passion for music and for teaching was infectious, as was his curiosity and thirst for knowledge about virtually all subjects. José was a brilliant pianist with a brilliant mind.” 

Jose Quesada called Feghali's death shock. Quesada, a graduate student and a TCU adjunct faculty member, said Feghali was one of the most important teachers he had at TCU.

“I was very close to him and he was very kind with me,” Quesada said. “That’s what I miss. He was a great pianist and a great person. He was very passionate. He was very kind with his students. ... It’s very sad news.”

Feghali is survived by his mother who lives in Brazil.

A memorial service for Feghali is planned for early next year, the TCU music school says.

Photo by Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram 

Learn more

2009: 'Privileged' to perform 'absolutely incredible' works

In 2009, Feghali talked with KERA's Art&Seek about how to deal with pre-concert jitters.

“I think that in general if one is not nervous at all, that’s not a good thing," Feghali said. "Because you need that kind of edge, you need that kind of adrenaline pumping a little bit to get you into a real performance mode.”

KERA's Stephen Becker reported in 2009:

Feghali says he has one piece of advice that applies to everyone from Cliburn competitors to actors in a school play. And that is: focus on the positive act of connecting with an audience rather than worrying over potential mistakes. "We are privileged to be performing works that are absolutely incredible and written by geniuses,"Feghalisaid. "That kind of respect and love for the music should come first and foremost. And right before the performance, I think that is a kind of mental state and spiritual state that one should have.”

'He gave a majestic performance'

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports:

He often performed at Cliburn functions and with other Cliburn medalists. Feghali was scheduled to perform at a concert honoring retired Cliburn jury chairman John Giordano in April at Bass Hall. Earlier this year, Feghali opened an outdoor concert in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square commemorating the first anniversary of the death of Van Cliburn with a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. "He gave a majestic performance whose subtleties in dynamics came across despite some distractions in the surrounding area and the amplified sound." Star-Telegram classical music critic Olin Chism wrote in his review of the concert held on a chilly February day.

More coverage

From The Dallas Morning News

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Video of Feghali through the years

Feghali talks about the Cliburn competition in a 2012 documentary that aired on KERA-TV.

Four Cliburn winners, including Feghali, play together on two pianos.

Feghali performs "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Feghali plays at WRR's Classic Cafe in One Arts Plaza.

Watch Feghali perform "Odéon" by Ernesto Nazareth and "O Polichinelo" by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Feghali talks in 2012 at the Cliburn 50th Anniversary Gala.

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.
Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.