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Remembrances of Katja Georgieff (1926-2021)

Katja with her piano teacher Leo Sirota at the St. Louis Institute of Music (photograph shared by Nicole Gordon)

Message from Peter Henderson

We hope to see you at my Tribute Recital for Katja on Sunday, April 24, 2022, at 3:00 p.m. CST, in the Maryville University Auditorium. My own written appreciation of Katja was posted on Maryville University’s blog, MPress. Please feel free to read it there.

Remembering Katja Georgieff, by Cynthia Briggs

Any time I think of Katja I picture a ball of energy, smiling most of the time, but always full of ideas, plans, inquiries, thoughts, reflections and more. While we were co-faculty members for only a year, she continued to be part of life at Maryville, planning Music at Maryville and often stopping by to check in on the music therapy program or just to say hello. I quickly deduced that musicianship made up her core. I gained credibility with Katja when she learned that I had studied piano with Audrey Hammann, a St. Louis pianist whom she respected.

Just a few months before the pandemic began, I was invited to dine with Katja and Rosalie Duvall, the director of the music therapy program who preceded me. It was a dinner full of conversation, speculation, information, possible gossip, inquiries regarding shared friendships and more. A non-stop conversation that I am so grateful for, though I didn’t know at the time how fortunate I was to get to spend the evening with Katja and Rosalie. I feel so privileged to have had Katja as a colleague.

Cynthia Briggs
Professor Emeritus, Music Therapy
Maryville University

Katja, by Mariam Simonyan

I met Katja in 1998 shortly after I started working at Maryville. Jackie Plunkett, former HR director, introduced us and Katja was eager to meet me since I spoke Russian. We later found out that we share Armenian heritage and much more. Very soon Katja became a good friend and part of my family.

It is hard for me to talk about Katja in past sense, she is very much alive in the hearts and memories of everyone that had the privilege to know her. My life is so much better, fuller and brighter because of Katja. Her enthusiasm, endless curiosity about people, world history, music, art and positive outlook on life is what I miss every day. She was ageless and could relate to anyone from great-grandkids to people well in their nineties. Although, she referred to them as “old people” and preferred to hang out with younger folks. Katja was young at heart and for her, age only mattered because her body was showing signs of it, but her mind was sharp and she was full of life and ready for the next adventure.

I look forward to the concert on April 24 to listen to the music Katja loved so much and to feel her presence in the Auditorium she performed so many times.

Mariam Simonyan
Associate Director of Financial Aid, Operational Excellence
Maryville University

On not saying good-bye to Katja, by Nicole Gordon

Katja was my piano teacher.

She had been a student of my grandfather, Leo Sirota, at the St. Louis Institute of Music, for many years. So our family visited St. Louis from New York every summer when my brother and I were growing up. In that way I came to know the Georgieff family: Stoyan, Katja, Michael, and Nic, but the last time I saw Katja until recently would have been in about 1965, almost sixty years earlier. Still, I had warm recollections of her.

Fortuitously, about four years ago a musicologist doing research on my grandfather asked whether I knew of any of Sirota’s students whom he could interview. I was able to track Katja down and arranged a three-way interview, and when it was over, Katja invited my husband Roger and me to visit her in St. Louis, which we did.

In the meantime, after having studied piano to a reasonable degree through high school, I had abandoned playing for about fifty years. But around the time I became reconnected with Katja, I had started up again in a modest way.

When we met, it was a love-at-first-sight episode. We had so much to discuss about things Russian, things Austro-Hungarian, Vienna, marzipan, Italy, Yugoslavia, detective stories, Tolstoy’s views on Wagner, Pushkin’s poetry, my grandparents, Katja’s strong views on absolutely everything, including her amazing attachment to her white Lexus sports car (that actually had to be squeezed into the garage), and naturally music, music, music. It was for me like opening up an entirely new world that had to do with my family’s history and background, but was also in particular an education and re-education on the piano by a master teacher. It was serious, intense, and fun, dotted with Katja’s wicked wit.

My fateful reconnection with Katja as a grown up necessarily began with her question, would I play for her? I was to be sure intimidated, but told her I had been working on some Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, and Brahms. I asked what she would like to me to play. She said, “play what you are most comfortable with.”

So first I played a Bach prelude. When it ended there was a silence, and then she said, “You play the Bach as though you were living in the nineteenth century. It is not played that way now, and I would not play it that way, but it is beautiful and convincing and you should keep it as it is.”

I could not have been more astonished and pleased.

But then I played the fugue, and after a longer silence, she said, “you may think that sounds nice, but it is not ‘Bach.'” My balloon was burst, but she was encouraging, and not long after, we established a way for me to have lessons though we were a thousand miles apart.

I would come to St. Louis about once every eight weeks and live with her for three blissful days. We would sit at the piano and work together for hours and hours, measure by measure, phrase by phrase. What I learned, and the intensity of the time we spent together, live in my memory as among the very happiest experiences I have ever had.

My way of not saying any false goodbye has been to listen over and over again to Lensky’s Aria (from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin) sung by Sergei Lemeshev in 1937 (we agreed that it was the best performance of the best aria in the best opera of all time) and to countless versions of “Morgen!” by Richard Strauss, among her favorite pieces.

And my way of staying connected to her is to practice the piano and to recollect particularly my adventure with her working on a particular Brahms Intermezzo to a level that satisfied her (“Brava!”) and which she took on with me because I loved it so, and she had never taught it, so it felt very much like something special we did together.

I cannot say goodbye to Katja, who gave me so much, whom I loved so deeply, for whom I will always grieve so deeply, and to whom I dare hope I brought some measure of pleasure.

To close on music she loved, sad and hopeful,

Eugene Onegin: “Kyda, kyda, kyda vi ydalilise…”

And “Morgen!”: “Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen…“

Nicole (“Nicky”) Gordon
Katja’s piano student and friend

Katja, by Ana Simonyan

It is still difficult to believe that the world lost an extraordinary human being in 2021; a timeless and beautiful woman who embodied humility, gratitude, joy, acceptance, light, intelligence, creativity, and generosity. I am overwhelmingly thankful for all the time I spent with Katja, and for the opportunity to have known her in this life.

Katja was truly exceptional and so special to all that knew her. I have never known anyone so capable of effortlessly and meaningfully connecting with others across generations, cultures, time, and distance. I sincerely admire how Katja believed in the beauty of the small things in life. She loved so big and made other people love themselves more deeply as a result. I hope one day I can be half the person, teacher, mother, and friend that she was. I feel extremely grateful that I was a special person for whom she shared her wisdom, smile, laughter, kindness, love of literature and music, talent, and memories. Katja’s life was full and she made mine even fuller. I will miss her always.

Ana Simonyan
Katja’s friend