Robert Turner, 87; Piano Prodigy, Influential Teacher, Accompanist


Robert E. Turner, professional pianist and teacher who soloed with the NBC Orchestra at the age of 14, accompanied such stars as Ezio Pinza and coached three generations of students to win scores of competitions and establish international careers of their own, has died. He was 87.

Turner died Nov. 28 at UCLA Medical Center of pancreatic cancer, said his son, Robert W. Turner, of Culver City.

“Robert Turner has been the most important piano teacher in the Western United States for over 40 years. He is a legend in Southern California,” said Hans Boepple, a former Turner student who is chairman of the department of music at Santa Clara University. “His students have won more state, national and international piano competitions than those of any other teacher in the West, and dozens of his former students have become professional performers and teachers, including many who sit on university faculties.”

Turner, who held a master teacher’s certificate, the highest rating of the Music Teachers’ National Assn., maintained his teaching studio in Santa Monica from 1946 until his death. Among those he coached in chamber music as well as piano competitions were violinist Glenn Dicterow, cellist Nathaniel Rosen, and pianists Christopher Gilles, Gwhyneth Chen and Robert Thies. More than 20 of his former students have given solo performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


Tyrone Walker, who studied piano with Turner for seven years, recalled him as a gentle person but one who had the ability to get his students to achieve their full potential.

“Turner taught each student differently, and that is why they all played differently,” Walker said Wednesday.

“But he had basic requirements of the students. He demanded the pianist have an expert knowledge of the score, that he met all the technical requirements to play it. And Turner worked very hard with each student to develop technique. He demanded the pianist have respect for, and a knowledge of, the composer’s intentions. And he expected a finished level of performance from each student, whatever the student’s achievement.”

Years before he was a teacher, Turner was a performer. And from 1949 to 1967 he wrote the program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


Born in San Francisco, Turner studied piano from an early age and at 12 debuted professionally before a convention of the California Federation of Music Clubs. He won prizes in competitions and played for the National Federation of Music Clubs convention in Philadelphia. By the age of 14, he was on the radio performing with the NBC Orchestra.

As a teenager, he performed regularly on the radio and with orchestras on both coasts. He also toured the country with a chamber music group managed by Columbia Artists.

At 16, Turner won a fellowship to study at Juilliard Graduate School with Josef Lhevinne and his wife, Rosina, who taught Van Cliburn.

After Rosina Lhevinne died at the age of 96 in 1976, Turner described her in an article for The Times Magazine.

“The thing she found most difficult to tolerate was mediocrity,” he wrote. “She despised equally the things she saw as producing mediocrity--lack of talent and immoral living. . . . Her conception of ‘talent’ was a lofty one. Nothing less than a gift which others labeled ‘colossal’ would appear to her to be a talent at all.”

Turner apparently passed muster.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in composition at Princeton, studying with Roger Sessions, and studied conducting at the Curtis Institute with Fritz Reiner.

After a stint in military intelligence during World War II, Turner ended his service on the faculty of Biarritz American University in France, teaching soldiers who were waiting to return home after V-E Day.


He also gave concerts, introducing France to Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata and performing with French baritone Gerard Souzay.

Establishing himself as a teacher did not curtail Turner’s professional appearances. He made his New York recital debut in 1947.

Turner continued to present recitals across the country and accompanied such artists as opera singer Pinza, violinists Szymon Goldberg, Tossy Spivakovsky and Camilla Wicks, cellist Joseph Schuster and singers Jarmila Novotna and Salvatore Baccaloni.

In 1969, Turner founded the Repertoire Chamber Orchestra to showcase young Los Angeles-area soloists. As music director and conductor through 1981, he presented more than 50 concerts in such venues as Occidental College, UCLA and what is now the Norton Simon Museum. In addition to giving private lessons, Turner taught at UCLA, USC, UC San Diego and the University of Washington.

In April, a concert in Turner’s honor was given at the Herbert Zipper Hall of the Colburn School of Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles, featuring 13 of his most outstanding students.

He has been selected to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award of the California Assn. of Professional Music Teachers, which will be presented posthumously.

Turner is survived by his wife of 54 years, the Rev. Jane C. Turner, retired associate rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Los Angeles; two more sons, James of Sunland and Mark of Eugene, Ore.; a daughter, Susan Turner of Ventura; and four grandchildren.

The family has asked that memorial donations be made to the MTAC-WLA Robert Turner Scholarship Fund for Chamber Music and Piano Concerto Performance, in care of Deborah How, 843 Yale St., Santa Monica, CA 90403, or to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network 23751 Madison St., Torrance, CA 90505.