With the passing on Wednesday, Sept. 30, of Belgian-born pianist Jeanne Stark, the musical world has lost one its most luminous spirits. Stark, who had lived in Berkeley since 1968, died at home of natural causes in the early morning hours with her companion at her side. She was 94.

Regarded with the highest esteem in Europe and the United States for her superb musicianship and deeply spiritual interpretations of classical music’s most challenging piano repertoire, Stark’s artistry earned the praise of some of the great musical masters of our times, including composers Darius Milhaud, Olivier Messiaen, and Lou Harrison, to name a few. Conductor Kent Nagano said of their work together: “…we gave one of those deeply moving profound concerts and the vehicle was Johannes Brahms and your wonderful, wonderful playing.”

Jeanne Stark attended the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, receiving the Prix de Virtuosité avec Grande Distinction. Soon after, she received a scholarship awarded by the International Competition of the Queen Elizabeth committee and chose to continue her studies in the United States. Her association with the musical world of New York began with her highly acclaimed Carnegie Hall debut in 1959.

Over the course of her career she delighted audiences in Europe, Canada, Mexico and across the United States with solo performances in the world’s major recital halls, as well as appearing with national and international orchestras, including the Belgian National Orchestra, the Boston Civic Orchestra and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.

She returned several more times to New York City, performing at the Alice Tully Hall in 1985, 1988 and 1992 and at Carnegie Hall in 2001. The New York Times called her performance “revelatory.”

Stark was well-known to Bay Area audiences, performing regularly at Herbst Theater and the Masonic Auditorium in both Oakland and San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of her playing of Mozart: “Stark’s performance was so moving as to be a spiritual comment on the composer’s life.” In 2006, then-Mayor Gavin Newson proclaimed Feb. 19 “Jeanne Stark Day”.

Stark taught in Berkeley for decades. She performed in the city many times, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church on College Avenue, at the Berkeley Piano Club, the Arch Street Studios, as well as with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra at First Congregational Church. And, in 1976, she performed as a benefit for Berkeley teachers who were striking.

A talented lecturer on music and an inspired teacher, she was on the faculty of the Adamant Piano School in Vermont. She also presented guest lectures at the Yachats Music Festival in Oregon and Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She will be deeply missed by her devoted audiences and students, on whom she bestowed so much inspiration, wisdom and insight.

Jeanne Stark album cover
Photo: Courtesy family

Stark’s artistry was informed by a life fully lived. As a young teenager, she survived the perils of the Nazi occupation of Belgium. As a young woman, alone in New York in the late 1950s, she persevered as an unconventional single parent. Her life in California brought her in contact with the radical lifestyles of the 1960s and ‘70s, as she involved herself with the revolutionary School of Orpheus Orchestra, and later the visionary Four Seasons Arts – an organization which “seeks to reflect the total community in its audience and roster of performing artists.”

Stark was dedicated to the idea of sharing her music with those who were not generally regular classical concerts attendees. Her long association as Distinguished Artist with Four Seasons Arts, and later the Adams Foundation, gave her that opportunity.

She was an engaging and remarkable personality, possessing a rare and unique sensibility, great warmth, generosity, a courageous and adventurous spirit and ready humor.

Jeanne Stark has left an extraordinary legacy in her numerous recordings and was featured in a PBS News Hour’s Brief But Spectacular spotlight.

She is survived by her companion of 40 years, Matthew Owens; her son and daughter-in-law, Eric and Carole Sartenaer; her daughter and son-in-law, Nanou and Teale Matteson; and her three grandchildren, Natasha Matteson, Alexander Matteson and Antoine Sartenaer.