Lenore Engdahl learned to play the piano in the 1920s from her mother in their northeast Minneapolis home, and went on to be a well-regarded concert pianist and a lifelong teacher.
The daughter of Swedish immigrants, Engdahl played Carnegie Hall, recorded solo albums for MGM Records, played Liszt’s “Hungarian Fantasy” with the then-Minneapolis Symphony in 1956, taught at the Boston University School of Music until 1983 and gave private lessons into her 90s.
“Some people might just sit down and play a piece but she really delved into the composer and what he wanted to say, and tried to interpret it,” said her daughter, Kris Sessa.
Engdahl died June 19 in her home near Boston. She was 100 years old.
Engdahl took lessons from her mother, Augusta, as a little girl. Her mother would put on her coat and leave the house through the back door, walk around to the front door, ring the doorbell and insist her daughter answer the door and address her as Mrs. Engdahl for the lesson. Afterward, she would leave through the front door, walk back around and enter through the back door and resume her role as mother, said Brad Engdahl, Lenore’s nephew.
If she had to run to the bathroom while she was practicing, Lenore Engdahl used to ask her mother to hold down the key on the piano that she had just played until she returned.
Engdahl’s father Walfrid — a cerebral man who loved the opera and classical music — was a carpenter who’d left Sweden after being blacklisted for being a labor radical.
Engdahl studied at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis before she met Countess Helena Morsztyn, a traveling Polish concert pianist who spent several summers in Minneapolis in the 1920s and 1930s, setting up shop on Lyndale Avenue South to give lessons. Many young Minnesotans studied the piano with her.
Morsztyn took students with her over the years as she toured Europe, and Engdahl won a scholarship to travel with the countess just before World War II broke out. Instead, she ended up studying with Morsztyn in New York. She played Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1942 and the Town Hall on West 43rd Street in 1944.
In New York, Engdahl befriended Marga Richter, a young composer from Wisconsin who also once studied at MacPhail. They met in 1941 when Richter heard Engdahl play a Bach fugue. Richter shyly approached the pianist, Engdahl took her out for ice cream and they became lifelong friends, Engdahl’s nephew said.
Engdahl also met her husband, a Polish sailor named George Kwasniewski, in New York. They were married and had their first son before moving back to Minneapolis after the war. Her performing career slowed in the 1950s as she raised her three children — Eugene, Kristine and Jon — but she occasionally gave recitals in Minneapolis.
The family moved to Seattle in the late 1950s, then Boston, where Engdahl lived until her death. She taught piano at first at Dana Hall School and then at the Boston University School of Music. She and her husband divorced in the late 1970s.
She taught at the university until 1983 and gave private lessons until 2010, when she was 92. Chopin, Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven were her favorite composers.
She played her last recital in her mid-90s, all from memory, at the assisted living center outside of Boston where she lived, Sessa said.
When her age prevented her from playing to her high standards, she gave up the piano.
“She still went to concerts,” Sessa said.
Engdahl is survived by her children and grandchildren. A funeral has been held.