Piano teacher extraordinaire Eleanor Sokoloff, 101, feted at the Barnes

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Piano instructor Eleanor Sokoloff (center) with some of the eight pianists, all former students, after their recital in her honor.

If you want to hear the piano talent of tomorrow, you might press your ear to the wall of Eleanor Sokoloff's studio. In pedagogical tones that manage to be both sharp and warmly supportive, Sokoloff flourishes as one of the Curtis Institute of Music's busier piano professors.

She's 101 years old.

No eavesdropping was necessary Sunday afternoon. Eight current and former Sokoloff students stepped onto the stage of the Barnes Foundation's small auditorium to pay tribute.

What is it like to study with Sokoloff? "Tough love, emphasis on tough," onetime student Hugh Sung told the audience. The recital alternated between attention for Sokoloff - seated in the front row, in a black mink hat, accepting embraces from each student - and Bösendorfer, the Vienna piano-maker that had lent a special instrument to Philadelphia for this and other concerts. (Mrs. Sokoloff, as she is invariably called, owns a Bösendorfer on which her students take lessons, although Curtis is an all-Steinway school.)

In the end, though, brand yielded the spotlight to the pianists, at least one of whom, Daniel Hsu, seems to be on the cusp of a major career. Hsu was intensely charismatic in the first movement of Rachmaninoff's Piano Sonata No. 2.

There was also a time-portal element to the afternoon. Susan Starr, who went to Sokoloff as a student at age 4 and later sought her wisdom before the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, performed Chopin. Starr won a silver award in that Tchaikovsky, and it was only to play for Sokoloff now, she said, that drew her out of retirement. Her Chopin Nocturne in D Flat, Opus 27, No 2 and Etude, Opus 25, No. 1, "Aeolian Harp" were rendered with a kind of refined love.

If one were to look for repertoire symbolic of Sokoloff, it was in short supply. A recital of eight pianists at which there is no Beethoven, Mozart, or Schubert is a curious thing. Missing, too, was Bach. Even a brief appearance might have indicated the central place the composer occupies in Sokoloff's method - every student plays Bach.

There was, however, what might be interpreted as a reference to Sokoloff's former life, as one-half of a four-hand piano team with her husband, Vladimir Sokoloff (who died in 1997). Piazzolla's Libertango, it's safe to say, was not in the Sokoloffs' repertoire, but former students Min Kwon and Hugh Sung had great fun with the piece (including a piano run by Kwon rendered with the whoosh of an elbow across the keyboard).

The Barnes' diminutive auditorium (at 150 seats, a quarter the size of the Kimmel's Perelman) has a dry acoustic, which did nothing to support or enhance the sound of this Bösendorfer, a gilt-decorated instrument the company has been touring as the 50,000th piano it has produced. The results were often pleasantly revealing, as in Nina Hu's heartfelt performance of Tchaikovsky's Dumka, Opus 59. Soft-edge attacks are characteristic of this instrument, a quality that benefited some works more than others - that is, more suited to a transcription of the "Scherzo" from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream played by Zitong Wang than in works demanding a greater range of colors and dynamics. In Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody, Jenny Chen, a recent Curtis graduate, showed considerable growth - and swagger - since her student days. The first movement of Brahms' Piano Sonata No. 1, played by Bolai Cao, came off sounding emotionally limited.

Sokoloff herself made no public comments. Though, when Hu sat at the keyboard, a stern voice called up to the stage, telling her to put the music stand atop the piano down. After you've taught for eight decades, sometimes you just can't help yourself.

pdobrin@phillynews.com

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