José Feghali, winner of the 1985 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, was found dead in his Fort Worth home Tuesday.
The Brazilian-born pianist, 53, was discovered at 5 p.m. lying in bed with a gunshot wound to his head, according to a Fort Worth police report. The Tarrant County medical examiner ruled Mr. Feghali’s death a suicide.
Close friends said the musician had struggled with depression for years and was in treatment for the disease. Several said they were shocked and saddened by Mr. Feghali’s death.
Manager Angela Fabry said Mr. Feghali was working on bookings for his 30th anniversary season since winning the Cliburn, which included tours in England and Brazil.
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“He had been very happy and was working on future projects,” Fabry said. Recently, Mr. Feghali had found tape recordings of old performances and planned to digitize them and release them on CD, she said.
Mr. Feghali was actively involved in the Fort Worth music community. He had served as an artist-in-residence at TCU since 1990, where he taught piano. He often performed at Cliburn concerts and with other Cliburn medalists.
“He was a passionate teacher and could take students to levels that no one expected,” said Richard Gipson, director of TCU’s School of Music.
Mr. Feghali had performed more than 1,000 concerts worldwide since his Cliburn win, appearing at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. He performed with the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony.
He was also part of the Cliburn Foundation board’s artistic committee, which brings international musicians to Fort Worth for concert series.
“He was a beautiful performer, a masterful teacher and a brilliant mind,” Cliburn Foundation Chairwoman Carla Thompson said. “He will be greatly missed.”
This year, Mr. Feghali opened an outdoor concert in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square commemorating the first anniversary of the death of Van Cliburn with a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner.
“He gave a majestic performance whose subtleties in dynamics came across despite some distractions in the surrounding area and the amplified sound,” Star-Telegram classical music critic Olin Chism wrote in his review of the concert, held on a chilly February day.
Mr. Feghali was scheduled to perform at a concert honoring retired Cliburn jury Chairman John Giordano in April at Bass Hall.
Giordano recalled that decades ago, he was conducting Brazil’s national symphony orchestra and was asked by the Cliburn Foundation to listen to a teenage pianist and report whether the boy had the potential to be a Cliburn competitor one day. The pianist was José Feghali.
“He was an extraordinarily gifted young man,” Giordano said. “Everything about José was electrifying. He just commanded the keyboard. He was one of those people that when he walked onstage, you knew something special was going to happen.”
Mr. Feghali was born on March 28, 1961. He left Brazil at age 15 to study piano in London with renowned teacher Maria Curcio and then continued his studies at the Royal Academy of Music. He was 24 when he won the gold medal, as well as the chamber music prize, at the seventh Van Cliburn competition.
“I didn’t particularly think I had a chance. I was shocked [when I advanced],” Mr. Feghali said in a 2012 Star-Telegram article reminiscing about his win.
He held a permanent resident green card but wanted to become a U.S. citizen, Fabry said. His hobbies included operating ham radios, storm chasing and astronomy.
“We would get in the car, and we would drive out to the country where there was no ambient light just so we could see the stars,” Fabry said, adding that he would stay up late at night to watch meteor showers.
Aside from performing, Mr. Feghali was also adept at using computer technology to enhance music teaching. While at TCU, he served as coordinator of Internet technologies for the School of Music. Mr. Feghali fixed coding issues in a Microsoft videoconferencing program to improve the audio quality, enabling musicians to give master classes to students who might be thousands of miles away. He was later invited to a Microsoft conference in Seattle to speak on the coding improvements.
He also lent his technical expertise to the Cliburn Foundation as the remastering engineer for the competition’s Retrospective Series of CDs, which digitized recordings of the early competitions, with performances by gold medalists Steven De Groote and Cristina Ortiz.
TCU also used Mr. Feghali’s musical expertise to help the school buy a new Hamburg Steinway piano, sending him to the German factory to select just the right concert grand piano. Gipson said that Mr. Feghali tried about 10 pianos in the showroom but that none were up to his discriminating musical standards.
“He didn’t find one he was really happy with, so he just took off and headed towards the assembly line and started checking out the entire inventory,” Gipson recalled. The piano Mr. Feghali finally chose now resides in the PepsiCo Recital Hall at TCU.
TCU plans to hold a public memorial service for Mr. Feghali in January.
He is survived by his mother, Aurea Almeida Feghali, who lives in Rio de Janeiro.
Staff writer Domingo Ramirez Jr. contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Andrea Ahles, 817-390-7631