Pianist Irene Alexander Passes Away Aged 94
Making music was Irene Alexander’s inspiration as well as lifeline. It allowed her to forge ahead, say friends and family, through a string of misfortunes that would have felled an ordinary mortal.
In 2005, the Chicago pianist and piano teacher performed for Hurricane Katrina survivors at a veterans home in Washington, before slipping over to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to play for wounded troops. She ended the day playing for Navy veterans in Bethesda, Md. She was 85 and legally blind at the time.
More recently, she gave hundreds of miniconcerts in nursing homes, senior centers and schools each year in the Chicago area, despite dealing with macular degeneration and crippling arthritis that twisted her fingers and forced her to rethink her playing technique. She accepted no fee for any of these appearances.
Alexander, 94, died early Monday at The Imperial nursing home on Fullerton Avenue in Chicago, where she had been receiving hospice care for several weeks, according to a son, Mark Alexander. Cause of death was heart failure, he said.
“As a kid, I remember my mother practicing the piano for eight hours a day, every day,” he said. “What I admired most about her was her overall strength of personality and character, and certainly her commitment to playing the piano and giving something back to people.”
As a young girl, Alexander (nee Levy) played piano for the piano virtuoso and composer Sergei Rachmaninov, who patted her on the head approvingly afterward, she recalled in an interview with the Tribune in 2011. She also played for the visiting Queen of Romania. Following her conservatory studies, she embarked on a concert career that produced engagements in New York, Israel and China, in addition to Orchestra Hall.
In recent years she was a frequent guest at the residence of Cardinal Francis George, a close friend for whom she always enjoyed playing.
If adversity plagued Alexander throughout her life, she refused to be held back by it.
She survived bulbar polio as a child and breast cancer as an adult. In 1988, she was hit by a taxi while crossing the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. The accident crushed both legs, and she thought she would never play the piano again.
But, after months of physical therapy, she was back on her feet, walking with a cane and caressing the piano keys once more. She spoke of resuming her concert career but settled for playing and organizing classical events in Chicago, along with private piano teaching.
“Irene had fortitude like nobody’s business,” said Richard Tribble, a longtime Chicago friend of the pianist’s. “No matter the situation, she would always rise to it, saying, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine.’ She was the most optimistic person in the world.”
Growing up in Chicago and northwest Indiana, and a Chicago resident virtually her entire life, Alexander began playing the piano before age 3.
Her musical gift eventually led to her acceptance as a student of the famed Chicago pianist-pedagogues Heniot Levy (no relation) at the American Conservatory of Music, and Rudolph Ganz at Chicago Musical College.
During the 1960s and ’70s she worked at City Hall as an assistant to 45th Ward Ald. Edwin P. Fifielski, who retired in 1979 and died in 1985. She also served as an arts consultant to the Mayor’s Office of Special Events during the administration of Mayor Richard J. Daley. She took credit for persuading city officials to allot a portion of revenues from the hotel and motel tax to fund the fine and performing arts of Chicago.
In 2005, then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel introduced into the Congressional Record a statement recognizing Alexander as “one of Chicago’s most generous and talented citizens … a source of inspiration for many.”
Alexander was married twice, first to Joel Cohen and later to Morris Alexander, both deceased.
Besides her son Mark, survivors include another son, Michael Alexander, also of Chicago; and cousins Jan Rolston of California, and Andrea Rolston of Washington state.