A little over a half-decade ago, Salt Lake City attorney Chase Kimball went on a car trip to Logan to see Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman perform.
While the concert was spectacular, what made the night one of the highlights of Kimball’s life was his companion in the car: Paul Pollei.
“It was just a joy to spend two hours, there and back, with him,” said Kimball, a longtime member of the board of directors for the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation.
Pollei — a warm, generous man with an encyclopedic knowledge of classical piano music, and founder and director of the internationally known and Salt Lake City-based Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition — died Thursday after a long illness.
He was 77.
“He was doggedly dedicated,” said Ardean Watts, former associate conductor of the Utah Symphony. “He did a great deal for music in the state because of his leadership. I have nothing but admiration for him.”
Pollei, born and raised in Salt Lake City, was a brilliant champion of piano competitions, a much sought-after judge and an acclaimed teacher of lectures, lessons and master classes, but he will be remembered most for his tireless devotion to one of the world’s pre-eminent piano competitions.
“His lasting legacy is, without question, the Gina Bachauer Foundation, which went through many changes,” Watts said. “He has left it in good hands.”
The Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition began in 1976 as the Brigham Young University Summer Piano Festival and International Competition, under Pollei’s stewardship. In 1980, the competition, renamed after a Greek pianist who was a favorite for Utah Symphony audiences, moved to Salt Lake City, where it has been held ever since.
Over the competition’s 37 years, approximately 1,500 pianists from more than 40 countries have competed, more than $430,000 prize money has been awarded, and countless careers have been launched.
Kary Billings, chairman and acting executive director of the Foundation, said another aspect of Pollei’s legacy was that he pioneered many changes in the way competitions were handled, which resulted in changes instituted throughout the world. These included allowing musicians to choose what they performed (rather than having all competitors play the same piece), and allowing the contestants to play two or three times (rather than just once) before they were eliminated. Pollei was also an early proponent of adding a young musician component to the proceedings, Billings said, and the youth competitions began in 1987 for pianists ages 8 to 18.
Pollei was a graduate of the University of Utah, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and Florida State University. Following four decades of teaching, in 2001 he retired from Brigham Young University, where he was a member of the piano faculty.
During his time at BYU, Pollei was a founding member of the American Piano Quartet, devoted to research, performance and re-publication of music for pianists. He often wrote about the issues of piano pedagogy and piano training for international professional journals, and was active in the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy, the Music Teachers National Association and the World Federation of International Music Competitions.
He also served as a founding member of and advisor to the music faculty at The Waterford School in Sandy, and has served on the advisory boards of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and the United Nations International Education Board.
In 2009, Pollei was honored as a Music Teachers National Association Foundation Fellow.
Earlier this year, Pollei retired from his position as artistic director of the Gina Bachauer Foundation. His successor was Douglas Humpherys, who in 1976 was the first gold-medal winner of the what would become the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition and is now on the faculty of the Eastman School.
Humpherys said Friday his hope was to follow through what Pollei has shepherded. “I think the way he would want to be remembered would be as a great ambassador of music,” said Humpherys.
In February, when he succeeded Pollei, Humpherys told The Tribune, “He brought the world of pianists to Salt Lake City.”
Pollei’s wife of 52 years, Elsie Norene Barrus Pollei, died on May 2.
Pollei’s funeral will be held Thursday at Edgemont 21st Ward, 2900 North Timpview Drive, Provo.
The viewing will be the night before at Berg Mortuary, 185 East Center Street, Provo from 6 to 8 p.m. There will also be a viewing at the church on Thursday from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m.