For Elinor Armer, a Piano Festival With a Lifetime of History

Elinor Armer in 2019.

Elinor Armer in 2019.

Presented by the San Francisco International Piano Festival, longtime SFCM faculty member Elinor Armer will be one of two special guests for this Piano Legacy Program.

By Alex Heigl

By any measure, Elinor Armer is a Bay Area icon.

Born in Oakland and raised in Davis, in the Sacramento Valley, Armer has been in the SFCM family since 1969, establishing its Composition Department (now headed by David Conte) in 1985 and chairing it for 11 years. “We sort of grew up together,” she said of her 50-year career at the Conservatory.

This week, her performance at the San Francisco International Piano Festival (SFIPF)—a duo with Lois Brandwynne—showcases another beloved Bay Area figure, and one with whom Armer has had a long association: Science-fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin. Armer is a living tie to generations of Bay Area history: Her great-grandfather was a merchant in San Francisco; her grandfather was a commercial artist who originated the Del Monte logo and did work on the Sun-Maid Raisins; and her father was an engineer who developed stereophonic speakers (even coining the word) while working for Magnavox, which started in Emeryville, in Oakland. Her grandmother, who had lived with the Navajo with her grandfather, wrote and illustrated a series of books about the tribe for children, one of which won, Waterless Mountain, won an early Newberry Medal.

The SFIPF was founded five years ago by SFCM alum Jeffrey LaDeur, who will be performing in the program, as will mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, who is another SFCM alum. LaDeur wanted the program to focus on Armer’s compositions, as well as her longtime collaboration with Brandwynne, though Armer said that she doesn’t really consider their relationship a “collaboration at this point,” having been friends since college when they were studying at Mills College under the same teacher, Alexander Libermann. “Everything I wrote for piano for the last 60 years, I wrote for her,” Armer said, “unless it was a separate commission. She’s played everything I’ve written for piano.” (Brandwynne comes from an impressive musical lineage herself: Her pianist father played with Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne, and her uncle Naftulah Brandwein was a famous klezmer clarinetist.)

Elinor Armer and a student in 2016.
Elinor Armer in 2016.

Part of Armer’s performance on August 24th will also be a tribute to her many years of friendship with Le Guin, widely hailed as one of the most influential figures in 20th-century fiction. Le Guin’s daughter Elisabeth was a student in Armer’s first counterpoint class, and the two kept in touch; Armer and Ursula met at Elisabeth’s wedding. But Armer says the two felt as if they’d known each other already: Her father grew up in the house next door to Ursula’s childhood home.

“I asked her very naively if she’d written any poems, and she sent me several volumes,” Armer recalls of their first collaboration. Le Guin died in 2018, and Armer began getting a tribute recording in shape, which like so many others was stymied by the pandemic. However, the record, To the Western Sea, will be finally seeing the light of day in October and will include a piece using the last poem Le Guin ever wrote, which is what Scharich will be singing this week.

The record’s personnel is another testament to the strength of the bonds Armer has to the Conservatory: Wendy Hillhouse, another SFCM alum—and a voice professor at the school for 13 years—sings on it, as does mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya, whose mother, Alla Gladysheva, is also on SFCM’s faculty. “I don’t think there’s a single musician on the record who hasn’t been affiliated with the Conservatory at one point or another,” Armer added.

"I'm a shining example of how you can build a life by keeping the same collaborators and colleagues over the span of a lifetime,” Armer concludes. “It doesn't mean you can't get out in the world, but that base and that core is something to take root in and grow from."

Tickets for Armer’s performance are available here. Learn more about studying piano or composition at SFCM here.