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The University's One-of-a-Kind Piano Master Retires After 40 Years

by Vinny Reda (June 5, 2006)

Findlay Cockrell

Findlay Cockrell

The beginning of June added some typical post-semester items to pianist Findlay Cockrell's calendar. On Saturday, June 3, he would lend background music to an alumni event held in a tent on the Downtown Campus. Ten days later, his playing venue would be the NanoFab complex, at a dinner held for a group of visiting distinguished Chinese academicians.

As was true for Cockrell in all his 40 years on the faculty of the Department of Music, it was completely second nature for him, upon being asked, to lend elegance and conviviality to University events. The only difference at these latest occasions was his billing. As announced at a dinner in his honor on the evening of June 1, Findlay Cockrell is retiring — for now, he's the University's lame duck virtuoso.

The campus will not be the same. Throughout the history of the Uptown Campus, comforting images have included Cockrell's bespectacled, gangly form striding across the podium or curled over the piano, implausibly long fingers achieving symphony, eyes peering down as if scrutinizing the keyboard for traces of lint. To speak with him was to enjoy his meticulous care with language, spiced by pause and contemplation on even the most casual subjects, and often prefaced by an upraised reaction of eyebrows worthy of the stars of silent film.

Mostly, however, we heard the results of his never-empty satchel of notions for adding beautiful music to our lives.

"As a faculty member for forty years, Findlay has served the University with brilliance and tremendous energy, touching and enhancing the lives of students and colleagues," said Provost Susan Herbst. "His legacy is a compelling one, as he has been a pillar of the arts and humanities at Albany, helping to shape the very nature of artistic endeavor here."

Cockrell joined the faculty of the University in the Fall of 1966 after earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in piano performance from, respectively, Harvard College and the Juilliard School of Music. He gave his New York debut in 1965 under the sponsorship of Concert Artists Guild and Town Hall.

At the University, he immediately became a much sought-after teacher and performer, both on campus and off. The Capital Region became Cockrell's home base for numerous musical enterprises, including his formation and directorship of the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra and the Gershwin Pops Orchestra. His informal noon concerts at The Egg in Albany, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Proctor's Theatre in Schenectady and, on Tuesdays, in UAlbany's Recital Hall, became well-loved fixtures in the region.

Cockrell appeared as concerto soloist with orchestras throughout the U.S., including the Albany, San Francisco, Jackson (Mich.), Plymouth (Mass.) and Schenectady symphonies. Since 1985, he has given chamber music and solo concerts in Barbados, Grenada, and St. Lucia; and, from 1995 to 2004, he performed regularly in Tula, Russia, in connection with the Albany-Tula Alliance.

Campus and Capital Region audiences also became quite used to the unexpected when it came to a Findlay Cockrell performance, including his walking onstage dressed as some of the great classical musical icons, among them Mozart and Beethoven.

"Findlay Cockrell is one of a kind," said Joan Wick-Pelletier, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "A character, to be sure, often clad in a bright patriotic shirt or traveling on campus in style astride his silver scooter — but what character this character has . . . We are lucky to have had him in our ranks for so long. The College of Arts and Sciences will not be quite the same."

Many will remember most how much Findlay Cockrell gave back to the University — a record of service and devotion that earned him the institution's highest honor, the Collins Fellowship, in 1987.

"When it came to brightening University moments, Findlay made himself available tirelessly, always lending elegance and a touch of fun," said President Kermit L. Hall. "Whether it was for inaugurations, donor events, or parties where the University community gathered, for 40 years Findlay Cockrell was the 'go-to guy.'

"In addition, he practiced university/community outreach long before the term became fashionable. While being a true ambassador of music around the world, Findlay Cockrell became an unsurpassed ambassador for the University at Albany."

Cockrell has given of himself for two reasons: he loves to play for people, and he appreciates his place of employment. "I will remember most of all that this university offered me a place to be myself, to do what I do and to develop as I wished — and, there was a lot of support here for what I do."

He retires now, he says, "not simply because 71 is a good age for it and 40 is a nice number of years of service," but for three more logical reasons. "One, financially it's going to work," he said. "Two, you detect a decline in your energy and sharpness that will adversely affect your teaching.

"And three, you also want to retire when you are excited about doing something new in your life, and where you need more time to do it."

His projects include recording — he is now doing the final editing on one solo album devoted to the works of Weber, Schubert and Beethoven — performing in places outside the Capital Region "including the Bay Area of California and Russia," and working to develop some property he and wife Marcia own in California's Napa Valley.

"That is the area of my youth. Marcia and I met there as teenagers, she from St. Helena, I from Berkeley. The property was from Marcia's family, and we're determined to make it inhabitable and to have a little house there — in doing so, we become bi-coastal."

Despite the years, Findlay Cockrell retires from the University with talents and personality intact. "I notice that the University has hired two new pianists," he said. "It's true that the College under Joan Wick-Pelletier has been very good to the arts, so I imagine the net addition of a pianist was going to happen anyway.

"But it still provides me with the opportunity of telling everyone, 'Notice — it took two people to replace me.'"


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