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Tampa piano teacher preserves the passion of Spanish composers Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados


"I call it the odyssey.''

That's how Olga Llano Kuehl-White describes her 20-year effort to research and edit accurate editions, with performance and interpretive suggestions for students and teachers, of the piano music of Spanish composers Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados.

Editing music is a "mind-bendingly tedious'' task, says Kuehl-White, whose long career has ranged from being a concert pianist to teaching at universities. Part of an old-line Spanish family from the heyday of Ybor City, she is a revered piano teacher, giving lessons in the studio of her South Tampa home.

Her immersion in the works of Albeniz and Granados has given her an almost mystical sense of kinship with the composers, who were titans of Spanish music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Both of these men spoke to me,'' she says, demonstrating how to play some of their music on a grand piano in her studio one afternoon last month. During an Albeniz piece called En la Playa (On the Beach), she slowed the tempo for a harmonic effect that, she said, was the composer's cry of anguish over the death of his daughter.

"It's something very private, very intimate,'' she says. "It makes you feel very human. Music is so much stronger than words.''

In November, Kuehl-White had her first edition, Albeniz's Espana, a suite of six piano pieces, published by Alfred Music Publishing. It was dedicated to the memory of the Spanish icon, pianist Alicia de Larrocha, "my teacher, mentor and dear friend.''

It was de Larrocha who encouraged Kuehl-White to take on the project of researching and editing Spanish scores, but the great pianist died on Sept. 25, 2009, and never saw the published Espana.

"Last June (2009), I was ready to take it to Alicia, but by then she was too ill,'' Kuehl-White says. "I waited too long.''

In 1967, Olga Kuehl — her name then, when she was married to her first husband, Warren Kuehl, head of the history department at the University of Akron who died of cancer in 1987 — traveled to Barcelona to take lessons with de Larrocha. Later that year, she was to give an all-Spanish recital at Carnegie Hall, and was eager to learn from the great pianist.

When it comes to Spanish music, de Larrocha virtually defines the idiom, though she was diminutive for a pianist, only 4 feet 9, with small hands. Starting at age 3, she learned to play piano under Frank Marshall, a teacher in Barcelona who had ties to both Albeniz and Granados.

De Larrocha went on to become Spain's musical ambassador to the world. Her soulful recordings of Albeniz's Iberia and Granados' Goyescas are classics, and she championed the music of other Spanish composers, such as Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Turina and Federico Mompou. She was also prized for her performances of Mozart, Schumann and other standard repertoire.

For three days, Kuehl-White, who grew up speaking Spanish at home, studied with de Larrocha, who told her that she had "it (the music) in my blood,'' she says.

"What Alicia had that no other pianist had was the sound that she got — la sonoridad del piano, the sonority of the piano,'' Kuehl-White says. "She would talk about the secrets of the pedal, and said that pedaling is everything, the soul of the piano. She was able to communicate the color, the rhythm and the passion of Spanish music.''

With the sound of de Larrocha's commanding performance of Spanish music in her ear, Kuehl-White can be tough on other pianists. Recently, she heard a new CD by Lang Lang, the prodigious Chinese virtuoso. A live recording of a recital in Vienna by Lang, it includes the three pieces from Book 1 of Iberia, and she was baffled by the dreamy approach he took in the opening one, Evocacion.

"Uh, oh, I don't think he's got it,'' she says, listening to the CD on a boom box on her kitchen table. "It sounds weak, timid, too mushy. In Spanish music, it's as if we're telling a story, and you have to drop all reserve and inhibition. This is too nebulous. One thing Spanish music can't be is namby-pamby.''

Once Lang got into the next two pieces from Iberia, she thought his interpretation improved. "Now he's showing some spirit,'' she says. "As a pianist, he's grandiloquent, but his Albeniz needs more drama.''

• • •

In 1967, Kuehl-White's Carnegie Hall performance went well — she has a framed poster for it in her studio, and a New York Times review praised her for "touching the music at its heart'' — and her lessons with de Larrocha blossomed into a friendship.

Through the years, de Larrocha often got together with Kuehl-White on the pianist's American tours. Kuehl-White usually saw her friend and mentor when she visited Spain, as she has done 13 times. After de Larrocha's husband died in 1982, the pianist spent a week at her friend's home in Ohio.

"I really spoiled her,'' Kuehl-White says of de Larrocha, a shy woman who considered touring to be a necessary evil. "I cooked all the Spanish soups she liked. She always wanted steak and pastries. I did what I could to free her up so she could go to the piano. She was just immersed in music all hours of the day.''

One of the things de Larrocha frequently complained about was how the published scores of much Spanish music were riddled with errors — wrong notes, confusing tempo markings, missing accents and so forth. Kuehl-White has a scholarly bent, with a doctorate in piano performance from the Cincinnati Conservatory. Around 1990 she promised de Larrocha that she would embark on a project to produce some definitive scores of important Spanish works.

"I had no idea how long this was going to take,'' says Kuehl-White, who has stacks of file folders bulging with old scores of Spanish music covered in penciled corrections, many in red pencil by de Larrocha. Over the years, she pored over as many editions as she could find in libraries. For example, she acquired a photocopy of the first 1890 printing of Espana from the British Library.

"These Spanish publications are filled with engraver's errors,'' she says. "It nearly drove me crazy. Sometimes I thought I was going to lose my mind over a dot'' to indicate a staccato note.

"People would be surprised how inaccurate scores can be,'' says Nancy Bachus, an editor of piano works for Alfred who lives in Ohio, where Kuehl-White taught at the University of Akron, Kent State University and the College of Wooster. "It shocked me when I got into publishing. It's almost impossible to print one page of music without errors, even with multiple editors going over it.''

Bachus, also an editor of Clavier Companion, a magazine for piano teachers, got Kuehl-White in touch with California-based Alfred, the second largest music publisher in the world.

"In our catalog, we're looking for specialized things that would have appeal to piano teachers and their students, and an editor who is willing to crusade for those. That's how Olga fell into this,'' says E.L. Lancaster, senior vice president of Alfred.

"It's really hard to get an authoritative edition, because editors and publishers perpetuate mistakes over the years,'' Lancaster says. "You can labor over a measure or two for days if you really delve into it. You have no way of knowing if something is a mistake or it was the composer's intent. What interested us with Olga was that here was a person who knew this music inside and out and could provide a really nice edition.''

Alfred published Albeniz's Espana, with a painting of a 19th century Spanish market scene on the cover, because it is relatively easy to play — for late intermediate/early advanced piano students — and provides a good introduction to the composer. It includes fingering and pedaling suggestions, which can be useful to teachers and students not familiar with the music.

Priced at $8.95, the edition may sell several thousand copies and remain a staple in the catalog. So far, the biggest purchase has probably been by Kuehl-White herself, who bought 80 copies when it came out.

Kuehl-White has pretty much finished editing several other scores, including Granados' Danzas Españolas (Spanish Dances), a big work Alfred plans to publish next year. "I have spent thousands of hours on that one,'' she says. "I would like to get it out there while I still have time.''

• • •

Kuehl-White is a talkative, energetic, warmly open woman, but she draws the line at revealing her age. "We don't go there,'' she says with a whoop one day. "But you can do the math,'' which suggests she is around 80.

For the past 15 years, she has been married to Jeffrey White, her second husband, an ophthalmologist, retired U.S. Air Force colonel, onetime clarinet player and avid golfer. They built a handsome house overlooking the 18th fairway of Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, next to the estate of Nikki DeBartolo, daughter of Ed DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers.

Kuehl-White is comfortable in Tampa's society circles, since her roots go back to prominent Spanish immigrant families who owned cigar factories in Ybor City, such as Llano (her father's family), Corral, de la Parte (her mother's family) and Llaneza. These names may not mean much to recent arrivals to the bay area as a Sun Belt boom town, but they still count for something in old Tampa.

"I was the pianist in the family. It was always, 'Olga, play Malaguena for us!'?'' she says of gatherings in Ybor City. As a gifted young musician, she was the first person from her mother's family to go to college, Rollins College, class of '49, from which she was awarded a distinguished alumnus award in 1986.

She's a good sport about keeping up with the obligations of a South Tampa matron, happily heading off one Saturday in August to a Bucs preseason game. "I sit there in the stands and go over music I'm working on in my head,'' she says.

• • •

Kuehl-White's passion is teaching piano. She has about 20 students who come to her studio for lessons, from children of 9 or 10 who show some musical promise to teenagers who enter competitions and hope to win college scholarships to adults who once played piano and are taking it up again. She charges $90 an hour.

Unlike many music teachers, she is relentlessly positive and upbeat with her students. "People who studied with her all talk about how she made them feel good about themselves and their playing,'' says Bachus, referring to the years when Kuehl-White lived and taught in Ohio. "She seems to have this ability to imbue people with confidence and the desire to better themselves.''

There is something elemental about the relationship between piano teacher and student. "Piano is where every kid should start,'' says Bruce Yost, choral director at Plant High School, whose son, Charlie, 9, takes a half-hour lesson once a week with Kuehl-White. "It teaches so many of the basic music skills.''

Margaret Theodore, a physician in Tampa, had her daughter take lessons from Kuehl-White 15 or 20 years ago. "I think Dr. Kuehl-White was my savior when my daughter was a rebellious teenager because she kept her interested in music,'' says Theodore, who describes herself as a "thwarted musician.'' Growing up in Haiti and New York City, she studied piano. Now she's playing again at 60, and has a lesson every Monday afternoon.

"It's a marvelous, refreshing, stimulating time for me,'' says Theodore, who recently worked on a section of Espana in her lessons. "I come out of there knowing exactly what I'm going to practice, what I'm going to accomplish that week.''

One of Kuehl-White's prize pupils is Kaitlyn Raterman, 20, now studying piano and composition at the prestigious school of music of Indiana University. She started taking lessons with her as an eighth-grader.

"I had been with four different teachers, and hadn't gotten very far,'' says Raterman, who is studying this fall in Vienna. "I really needed a serious teacher, because I wanted to excel, and I just fell in love with her. It was with her that I became a pianist. Before, I just played. She pushed me because she knew what I was capable of.''

When Raterman is at home in Carrollwood, she'll usually have two lessons a week with Kuehl-White, whose upstairs studio is an airy room full of musical memorabilia and a pair of grand pianos.

"It's really fun to get her on the piano, and we'll play back and forth,'' Raterman says. "She always has stories to tell. She'll think of something that Alicia (de Larrocha) said. She really has become my best friend and biggest fan.''

Kuehl-White says she asks only one thing from a student. "As long as they want to learn, as long as their heart is in the work involved, I will take anyone,'' she says. "I get the greatest vicarious pleasure seeing students glowing with happiness and a sense of self-esteem. That's all that I want. I'm reaping as much as they are.''

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at

if you go

'The Soul of the
Spanish Piano'

Pianist Olga Llano Kuehl-White gives a lecture-recital on music of Isaac Albeniz at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at Plant Hall at the University of Tampa, 401 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Free. (813) 253-6212.

For more

To see Olga Llano Kuehl-White play the piano and talk about her mentor, go to

Tampa piano teacher preserves the passion of Spanish composers Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados 09/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 4, 2010 4:30am]
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