Remembering Geoffrey Tozer
By Colin McPhillamy
I met Geoffrey Tozer for the first time in person in October 2003 when we performed together in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. We worked together twice more, in 2004 in New York City, and in 2009 in Kangaroo Valley, NSW. He became a dear friend.
I admired him as a unique and world class musical talent. His abilities at the piano were prodigious. In his prime he was capable of the most exquisite playing. His knowledge of the repertoire was enormous and his famous ability in improvisation extended to being able to mimic one composer with the left hand and another with the right simultaneously.
When we gave a concert in New York, several of the piano keys were sticky. Geoffrey was able to transpose the music as he played so as to avoid the bad keys. His encore of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody brought the house down – and I appreciated his showman’s instinct when he framed the encore with the words, “I wonder if the piano can take it?” The audience expected something spectacular and he gave it to them.
He was a graceful and generous colleague. Performing partnerships, and particularly duos, work well when each knows how to pass the focus to the other, how to support the other when necessary, and how to allow the other to do their work well. Geoffrey’s extraordinary sensitivity gave him the most delicate touch in this way. Together we worked on pieces for piano and speech. I thrilled at the way he was able to make a musical phrase hang in the air cueing the voice… It was a happy partnership and we hoped to explore many such pieces.
As we know, there is no shortage of actors in the world. It is a commodity over supplied by nature, but people of Geoffrey’s ability come along only so often. I count myself a good actor, and have worked with many such. But for me an actor, to share the stage with an exceptional classical musician, one who had touched greatness in his work, was a rare privilege.
As a person I found him to be the soul of refinement. He had exquisite taste in all branches of life, and a sense of humor that was sometimes piquant, sometimes jovial. He was naturally kind and had a courtesy about him that seemed to belong to another age. Geoffrey was some four or five years older than me, and we met when we were both in our fifth decade of life. By that time of course, life’s roller coaster has taken you high up and low down. I didn’t know all of Geoffrey’s history but what I did know makes me think along these lines:
I understood that his work had taken him to many places all over the world, yet for one so world-travelled, he was not in any sense a worldly man, au contraire, he was a walking innocent. I am sure this was a contributing factor in the tragedy of his too-early departure. Walking the earth giving performances, being a stranger in strange lands, can be a lonely thing. It’s tough enough if you’re part of a company, but a soloist on tour is a solitary challenge indeed.
In any artistic career, there must be a sound business component in place for the artist to flourish. The puzzle was that although Geoffrey remained highly popular with the general public right up until his last illness, he lacked the necessary management and commercial protection. Finally it is our great loss that he was taken advantage of more than once in his career, he often gave his services at literally a fraction of their worth. It is doubly our loss to have been deprived of the work he might have done. It is also the case that his story was misunderstood and misrepresented, and this was a sore trial which he bore with dignity.
I believe the misfortune he suffered in worldly terms, particularly after he had tasted the highest levels of acclaim and success, was too much for his delicate soul. Geoffrey had a delicacy about him. Physically though, his body was more along the lines of a gentleman apple farmer. His custom of taking long walks in all weathers gave his face a ruddy complexion that was a challenge to the best portrait photographers. He carried a little more girth than is generally advised by doctors.
He was a unique mix. As in the most interesting people he showed qualities which were parallel and non-intersecting. He was erudite yet innocent; generous yet opinionated; exquisite of taste yet unfashionable in his dress. He was the finest pianist I have ever heard, yet he could not write an invoice – it is tragic that he had to. Two characteristics I found especially charming, his distinctive voice which took its spring from his early childhood in the Indian subcontinent, and his eyes which sparkled frequently in merriment, but sometimes fiercely. One could glimpse there a flash of the finer place from which he came.
I am grateful that I knew him. I was honored to call him my friend. For our abrasive world maybe he was too fine, too talented, too complex to live long.