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Gail Niwa makes her subscription concert debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Schumann’s Piano Concerto on February 9, 1995 (Jim Steere photo)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family mourns the loss of pianist Gail Niwa, who passed away on February 9, 2021, at home in New York City, following a long illness. She was sixty-one.

Born in Chicago in 1959, Gail was the daughter of two professional musicians. Her mother (and first teacher) Eloise was an accomplished pianist and pedagogue, and her father Raymond was a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s violin section from 1951 until 1997. David Niwa, Gail’s brother, also is a skilled violinist with degrees from the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School, and he currently serves as assistant concertmaster of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Together, the Niwa family claims a singular distinction: all four have been soloists with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

At the age of eight, Gail Niwa was a second-place winner (tying with cellist Gary Hoffman) in the CSO’s youth auditions on December 11, 1967, and she subsequently made her debut with the Orchestra on youth concerts on February 19 and April 8, 1968, performing the third movement of Haydn’s Piano Concerto no. 11 in D major with Irwin Hoffman conducting. She later appeared with the Orchestra on special Music is the Message concerts for high school students, performing Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto on March 7, 1972, and Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor (along with David Lackland) on April 8, 1975, both under the baton of Henry Mazer. A graduate of William Howard Taft High School, Niwa was a two-time Chicago City Parks tennis champion.

Gail Niwa and Gary Hoffman receive their youth soloist awards from Louis Sudler, president of the Orchestral Association, and Irwin Hoffman, associate conductor on December 11, 1967

On scholarship to the Juilliard School, Niwa earned bachelor and master’s degrees as a student of Adele Marcus. She was awarded first prize at the 1987 Washington International Competition, which led to her recital debut at the Kennedy Center. In 1991, She became the first woman to win the top prize at the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, receiving not only the gold medal but also the audience and chamber music prizes. This led to her debut at New York’s Alice Tully Hall in October of that year. Recognized as an excellent chamber musician, she received the award for best accompanist at the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition for violinists in Moscow.

She gave recitals in Athens, Miami, Montreal, Seoul, Toronto, and at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and she also performed as soloist with the Augusta, Memphis, San Luis Obispo, Utah, Reno, and Grant Park symphony orchestras, and performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the California Philharmonic. Niwa also appeared with the Highland Park Strings, Kammergild Chamber Players in Saint Louis, the Ocean State Chamber Players, and the Banff Festival Chamber Orchestra, and she was a member of the Partita and Chelsea chamber ensembles in New York. With violinist David Kim, she made recordings for the Musical Heritage Society and Teldec labels, and with CSO bassoon Bruce Grainger on the Centaur label.

On April 4, 1993, Niwa made her Orchestra Hall recital debut on the Allied Arts series, performing the following program:

BACH/Busoni Chaconne from Unaccompanied Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004
CHOPIN Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58
SZYMANOWSKI Shéhérazade and Sérénade de Don Juan from Masques, Op. 34
LYAPUNOV Lezghinka, Transcendental Etude, Op. 11, No. 10

“It was easy to hear why the young Chicago pianist already has racked up so many competition victories,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “She plays with the kind of confident fluency that makes competition juries take notice. . . . Taste, elegance, and musical intelligence were the hallmarks of Niwa’s Chopin sonata [and] the afternoon’s finest playing came in two of Szymanowski’s Masques [that] emerged here in all their exotic coloration, with plenty of intensity and atmosphere.”

On April 25, 1994, Niwa, along with Philip Sabransky—a former student of Eloise Niwa and the son of CSO violin Jerry and founding Chorus member Martha Sabransky—joined the Orchestra at Medinah Temple for recording sessions for Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Together they recorded the finale from Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals with James Levine conducting.

Niwa was back in Orchestra Hall for her subscription concert debut on February 9, 11, and 14, 1995, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as soloist in Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Sir Georg Solti on the podium. “She reveled in Schumann’s lyricism, especially in the concerto’s first movement, lingering over the expressive opening theme, stretching its rhythmic outlines to the limit,” commented Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “The CSO, in turn, provided unusually sumptuous accompaniment [and] the second movement was a relaxed, expansive conversation between soloist and sections of the Orchestra.”

At the University of Southern California, she served as assistant professor of piano and was founder and artistic director of Chamber Music at Great Gorge in northwest New Jersey.

Niwa is survived by her partner Glenn Powell, son Matthew, and brother David (Mariko). There are no immediate plans for services. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in her memory.

the vault

Theodore Thomas


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