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Dr. Basil Peter Toutorsky, Classical Composer & Pianist

Dr. Basil Peter Toutorsky, Classical Composer & Pianist
John Wesley Reed Jr. By

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The Toutorsky Mansion is a five-story, 18-room house located at 1720 16th Street, NW in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. As of 2012, it is the location of the embassy of the Republic of the Congo.

The 12,000-square-foot (1,100 m2) mansion was completed in 1894 for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Henry Billings Brown, who paid $25,000 in 1891 to buy the land from the Riggs family, and spent $40,000 on its construction.

The house was designed by architect William Henry Miller, the first graduate of Cornell University's School of Architecture, who modeled the exterior on 16th-century Flemish buildings, and the interior using a mixture of Gothic, Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Colonial elements.

The house contains eight fireplaces and a main staircase featuring hand-carved griffins. "With its stepped and scroll-edged gables, insistent rows of windows, dark red brick, and strong horizontal stone courses, it is a rare iteration of Renaissance Flemish architecture in a city whose architectural ancestry is overwhelmingly English and French," according to the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C.

Among the furnishings were collections of dolls; swans; World War I medals, decorations and uniforms; stuffed wild animals; Persian carpets and tapestries; heavy antique furniture; and 21 pianos; including a Bechstein concert grand on which Franz Liszt had played.

The house is a contributing property to the 16th Street Historic District and cannot be demolished or significantly altered without permission from the city's Historic Preservation Review Board.

A grand, still-standing mansion on 16th Street in Dupont Circle was in the news this week as ANC 2B voted against the Republic of the Congo's request to designate it as an embassy chancery. After reading about the current state of the building, naturally as before, I was curious about its past.

The mansion was built in 1894 for U.S. Supreme Court justice Henry Billings Brown. Designed by William Henry Miller, the mansion has 18 rooms, 12,000 square feet, and a main staircase with hand-carved griffins. Brown lived in the house until he died in 1913. Following his death, the house changed hands many times. From 1924 to 1927 it served as the home to the Persian Delegation to the United States. In 1942, the Zionist Organization of America purchased the mansion and it served as the organization's headquarters until 1947.

The home is called the Toutorsky mansion because Basil Peter Toutorsky, a concert pianist, purchased the property in 1947. Toutorksy was Russian-born with quite a life: he survived the explosion of the battleship Empress Maria in 1916 and fought for the White Russians who tried to overthrow the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He came to the United States in 1923, and bought the house with his wife, Mexican opera singer Maria Ignacia Howard Toutorsky.

Together, they opened the Toutorsky Academy of Music and ran it out of their residence for nearly four decades. Toutorsky, who died at the age of 93 in 1989, bequeathed the house to Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Johns Hopkins rented rooms in the mansion to students for $1 a month. The university eventually sold the mansion for $808,000 in 1990 and used the money to endow a piano studio and a scholarship fund named for Toutorsky. The buyer renovated the house and used it for various fundraising events and rented it out from time to time.

In 2001, Humberto Gonzalez bought the property for $2.2 million.

Dr. Basil Peter Toutorsky and Maria Ignacia Howard Toutorsky became an important part of my life. I started playing the piano at the age of three. At the age of 23, I relocated to Washington, DC in aspiration as a composer, arranger, and pianist. Piano was always important to me, at the age of eight I would practice in the dark crypt-like basement of Dreamland Park Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, NC; where my late father once pastored.

There was this old upright piano that was at least four feet taller than I; and the creepy external sounds that scared me into leaving the premises, sometimes leaving my music. Over the course of several years of piano progress, and asking for a piano in our home, my parents acquired a Wurlitzer spinet piano in 1969 that is in my home today.

Upon arriving in Washington, DC, I was directed to Professor Basil Toutorsky. Under him, I learned the Russian approach to music theory, classical piano repertoire, composers of Toutorsky's acquaintance such as Rachmaninoff, and Listz. Before leaving Russia, Professor Basil Toutorsky was a renowned pianist and friend of both Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin. He was also one of the nicest persons I had and have ever met. Standing over 7 feet tall with a resemblance to Boris Karloff, he took me under his wing for four years until he became too frail to teach. The architecture of the house on 16th street made it a landmark in Washington. Inside, there were twenty-two grand pianos, placed two-by-two with keyboards that ran from one end to each other. Some were covered together as matched pairs in room after room. We spent many hours playing four-hand pieces together, either on one piano, sitting side by side or on two pianos where we could see each other over the music desks.

By osmosis, this early routine of playing with Professor Toutorsky gave me a deep sense of music and rhythm. He taught me laborious hand and finger exercises that gave me strength and independence.

I played a lot of technical exercises: Czerny, Cramer and lots of scales: chromatic through the circle of fifths, natural, in parallel and contrary motion. I later learned that the finger exercises were known as The Leschetizky Method. At times, he would disclose stories of composers he had acquaintances with, and demonstrated their technique, style, and personalities. Mrs. Toutorsky would not allow me to leave without giving me a gift from Russia. Nor would Dr. Toutorsky allow me to leave without sincere encouragement, grace, and love for playing the piano.

Theodor Leszetycki, a Polish pianist, professor and composer, was born on the estate of the family of Count Potocki in Łańcut. His Jewish father was a gifted pianist and music teacher of Viennese birth. His mother Therèse von Ulmann, a gifted singer of German origin. His father gave him his first piano lessons and then took him to Vienna to study with Czerny. At age eleven, he performed a Czerny piano concerto in Lemberg near Łańcut, with Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, conducting; the son of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At the age of fourteen, he started to tutor his first pupils. By the age of eighteen he was a well-known virtuoso in Vienna and beyond. His composition teacher was Simon Sechter, subsequently the teacher of Anton Bruckner, who also gave Schubert one lesson in counterpoint a few weeks before his untimely death.

Until his death he espoused a philosophy of music-making and life, captured in one of his most famous sayings (translated from the German): No art without life, no life without art. Leschetizky composed over a hundred characteristic piano pieces, two operas: Die Brüder von San Marco and Die Erste Falte, thirteen songs and a one-movement piano concerto. Opus numbers were given to 49 works.

To this day, I owe the development of my technical ability, ear training and musicality to Professor Basil Toutorsky. For my final recital, it was the first time I played a few notes on a nine-foot Bosendorfer grand piano. The tone of the Bosendorfer's bass notes made a lasting impression on me.

Later, I compared its tone to many of the instruments that I played, looking for that elusive and rare depth of sound. He also planned my first recital to be given at his home. As a momento, he wrote three pieces explicitly in commemoration for me as a pupil. It is with grate gratitude to this quiet man who gave me so much technical and musical training so compassionately. His contributions to music are yet to be discovered. Many are not aware of the Leschetizky Method. However, Dr. Basil Peter Toutorsky cared for me and me for him.

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