Obituary: Piano bar maestro Lorna Michaelson was 'epitome of grace'

  • Article by: JENNIFER BJORHUS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2013 - 5:51 PM

 

Lorna Michaelson’s musical career spanned Bismarck and Beirut, the elegant Beau-Rivage Geneva in Switzerland and grittier haunts such as the old Duff’s bar in Minneapolis.

“Wherever she went, she made people welcome in her home, whether that was this bar or whether it was the corner of the restaurant where the piano was located,” said daughter Julie Iverson of Minneapolis. “Her students loved her.”

Fans have just one album to savor, Michaelson’s sole record “Lorna’s Here!” on Oxboro records. The collection of pop and jazz standards includes some of the tunes she performed most often, including “Lorna’s Here” and “Sunny” as well as “Guess Who I Saw Today.”

Michaelson died of cancer July 20, her daughters by her side at her home in Minneapolis. She was 84.

Michaelson was born Lorna Boutrous in the tiny town of Halliday, N.D.

Her father, a shopkeeper, died when Lorna was a child, leaving her mother, who emigrated from Lebanon, to raise eight children. She supported the family running the grocery store in Bismarck.

At the age of 4, Michaelson started piano lessons and was performing classical pieces in her early teens, her daughter said. She attended both the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and New York’s Mannes College of Music, where she met and fell in love with another student, H. Edward Iverson. They married and ran away to Spain, her daughter said, where they lived on the beach for a while.

Michaelson taught music at the American University in Beirut, and she and Iverson had two daughters together.

They later divorced, and with two children to raise, Michaelson returned to Bismarck and made their home in a small apartment above a hardware store. She opened a dance school and then landed a job playing piano in the bar of the Grand Pacific Hotel, where she shifted musical styles out of necessity.

She soon was playing summer gigs in Minneapolis hotels and eventually moved to Minneapolis and married George Michaelson, who directed operations at Northrop Auditorium. She became a Twin Cities fixture, performing at the Camelot restaurant and Ambassador Resort Motor Hotel as well as a sports bar called Duff’s, where the piano was, for a time, sunken below floor level and surrounded by pillows, her daughter recalled.

Jazz singer Vicky Mountain, chair of the voice department at the MacPhail Center for Music, described the petite Michaelson as “the epitome of grace.”

“In the musician world, she is so well respected,” Mountain said. “She was one of the mainstays of the Twin Cities music scene back in the 1970s and probably before that.”

“She was one of the first people [in the area] to handle teaching nonclassical voices,” Mountain said. “I think her life experience really brought the music out of her in a very special way that was sort of accessible and like magic.”

Michaelson wound up in Geneva after her daughters were grown when she traveled there to accompany a friend auditioning for the opera.

The audition didn’t go so well, but Michaelson ended up with a new career at the luxury Beau-Rivage Geneva hotel, where she starred for two decades.

Michaelson is survived by her daughters, Julie Iverson and Maria Benson, both of Minneapolis; her brother, James Boutrous of Fort Collins, Col.; sister Sylvia Trent of New Jersey, two grandsons and 16 nieces and nephews.

A memorial will be held from 1:30 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 15, with a program from 3:30 to 5 p.m., at Riverview Tower at 1920 S. 1st St. in Minneapolis.

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