The next Wassermann Music Festival at Utah State University will be missing a special guest.
Irving Wassermann, a longtime USU professor who was best known for founding the music festival that bears his name, died this week at the age of 99 in Salt Lake City, according to his family.
A spring concert, in place of a funeral, is in the works, said daughter Ann Wassermann in an interview with the paper Friday.
“When your father is able to live to 99 and has a peaceful passing, you can’t have regrets,” she said. “He had an amazing life. The outpouring from friends and students has been remarkable.”
Born Izydor Wassermann in 1914 Poland, the first piano performance teacher at USU started the bi-annual Wassermann Music Festival in 1980 — providing pianists the opportunity to work with guest artists in lecture and master class settings and to study piano literature, piano pedagogy and performance techniques (it wasn’t until Wassermann retired as music department head that USU renamed the festival to honor him). Over the years, people have come from throughout the West and as far away as Armenia, Italy, Korea, Russia and Spain to attend the festival.
Dennis Hirst, a USU professor, said he remembers meeting with Wassermann when he took the helm as director of the festival in 1997.
“I asked him some of the reasons he had in setting up the festival. He said, ‘I had great opportunities (studying with composers). When I came to Logan, I realized we didn’t have the same kind of access,’” Hirst recalls. “So he (Wassermann) set about trying to bring this caliber of art experience to Cache Valley.”
Hirst said the festival is “one of the most critical parts” in a USU music student’s education.
“To have guest artists from such a variety of backgrounds — to play and talk — it augments the (university) experience immeasurably,” Hirst said. “It gives them a sense of being part of the world, instead of just getting the education from a couple music instructors. These young people need to have their musical possibilities broadened.”
As a young man, Wassermann left for Vienna to study music with the masters after graduating from law school to satisfy his father.
Wassermann came to the U.S. in 1938, staying in New York for a year before he became sick. The doctor said the humid climate didn’t agree with him and suggested he move to a drier area. He had a friend who attended USU and went to visit in 1940.
After getting married in Logan and serving in World War II, he taught private music lessons in Logan for 16 years before being hired as the school’s first piano performance instructor.
Gary Amano, a USU piano professor, started taking lessons from Wassermann at the age of 12.
“He had personality that drew people in, and he made you love music and what you were doing,” Amano said. “One of the most important qualities of a teacher of young people is to make them develop a love for it.”
Amano said Wassermann was never in a bad mood and had a singular philosophy when it came to tickling the ivories.
“He always encouraged us to convey in the music our emotions,” he said. “It was easy to understand. He was very explicit in all of his lessons.”
Ann was taught piano from her dad — but admits she wasn’t the best student.
“He thought to be a teacher was the very highest calling a person could follow,” Ann said. “It has always amazed me through the years that he and Mom would get Christmas cards from students he hadn’t seen in 30 years.”
Even when Amano became a USU professor, he still referred to his teacher as “Mr. Wassermann.”
“He would always have a story about everything in his life,” Amano said. “He would begin by saying, ‘I will never forget’ — and you knew he never forgot.”
From 1973, Wassermann remained in the department position for seven years before retiring in 1980. Among Wassermann’s regrets, according to a 2008 Herald Journal interview, is retiring four years before he had to, after being told it would be more favorable financially.
Ann said her dad never forgot that he came a long way from Europe to be a resident in Cache Valley.
“He never had one negative thing to say about Logan or the people; he really was very fortunate to end up in Logan, so far from his home,” she said. “I know he’d want people of Logan and all of his students to know that.”