In 1968, Antonin Kubalek, a partially blind classical pianist in his early thirties, arrived in Toronto from Czechoslovakia with little money, and even less English. A few months later, having made a few musical connections, he was invited to record a recital at CBC radio. It was a more significant assignment than he ever imagined.
"He gave the performance, collected a small fee and thought no more about it," says Brian Levine, former co-owner of Dorian Music, the record label to which Kubalek was later signed. Now executive director of the Glenn Gould Foundation, and a long-time friend of Kubalek's, Levine goes on to explain: "About a week later, an envelope arrived in the mail. Anton opened it and found a note inside which read 'Dear Mr. Kubalek, I don't know if you've ever heard of me. I am a local pianist and I make my second home at the CBC. I was wandering the corridors about a week ago and came across a studio where you were playing. I invited myself into the control room and listened. I have to say that what I heard was wonderful and I'm full of admiration for your playing. I know it's challenging to make a new life in a new country. I hope this will help.' Inside was a cheque for $1,500. The signature was Glenn Gould's."
Gould continued to extend a generous hand to a fellow musician whose talent, passion, and devotion he recognized. When Gould was approached to record Erich Korngold's Piano Sonata No. 2, he declined, but recommended Kubalek, saying, "I know an amazing artist who'd do a wonderful job with that repertoire. I'm so interested in seeing it done that I will volunteer to be the producer."
The recording was done at Toronto's Eaton auditorium and released in 1974. It was the first and only time Gould assumed the role of producer for another pianist.
Kubalek's famous supporters extended beyond the world of classical music into the world of jazz. In 1993, Oscar Peterson requested Kubalek as a performer for an Oscar Peterson tribute at the Leah Posluns Theatre in Toronto. After the performance, Peterson told Kubalek, "You've got a great talent there, young man."
Antonin Kubalik, (Anton to friends and family), was born on Nov. 8, 1935, in the village of Libkovice in the northern Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. His parents were unmarried, and he was sent to live with his father, a pastry chef also named Antonin. His mother, Helen, was absent, having been forced, by the German-occupied state, to work at a munitions factory in Sudetenland, in the north of the country.
Kubalek remembered his new stepmother as a spiteful woman who used to pinch and hit him. At the age of 4, he ran away, only to be discovered hiding in a field. His paternal grandparents, a coal miner and his wife, eventually undertook the raising of their grandson.
The Second World War was raging and, hearing a bomb overhead, the family hid in the root cellar. When they emerged, the house beside them was demolished. Physical scars were soon to compound the emotional scars of that harrowing day.
In 1945, the 10-year-old Kubalek came across an anti-tank incendiary lying in a field: Unexploded grenades were so common that schools were teaching older children to defuse them. Convinced he knew what he was doing, Kubalek picked up the device. The explosion set his entire body on fire.
"Had he not fallen into a nearby stream, he would almost certainly have died," says his widow, Patricia. "He was blistered everywhere, including his eyes. He had shrapnel and gunpowder all over him. In fact, even at the age of 75 you could still see little flecks of them on his body."
Having been almost blinded, Kubalek was sent to Prague, to the Hradcany Square School for visually handicapped children. There, he learned to play clarinet, violin, cello and flute, but it was the piano that ignited his passion.
"He was recognized at the school as being gifted," Patricia says. "He did regain some sight and subsequently underwent an operation on his right eye, but it was performed by poorly educated doctors. They ripped the iris out of his right eye, trying to pull off a blister. So his right eye was a glass eye from roughly age 12, and his left eye had shrapnel in it."
But Kubalek compensated. Learning piano notation in Braille, and then memorizing pieces gave him a powerful ability to recall music. He studied at the Prague Conservatory from 1952 to 1957, becoming a protégé of renowned Czech pianist Frantisek Maxian, and later returned there as a teacher in the 1960s.
"For 15 years, as a young concert pianist in Prague, Anton told me he prided himself that he never played the same piece twice," remembers Brian Levine. "So he built a huge repertoire."
Prior to the Prague Spring of 1968, a brief respite of political liberalization before the Soviet Union and its allies invaded to halt reforms, Kubalek had not been allowed to leave Czechoslovakia. It didn't help that he refused to become a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. When asked by officials why this was so he'd reply, "I am not worthy."
As soon as travel restrictions were loosened in 1968, Kubalek thought of emigrating. His first choice was Germany, where many of his artist friends had gone, but the wait was six months.
During a concert tour in Vienna that same year, he encountered a conductor friend who said, "I've got family in Canada. It's a great country. You should go there." The conductor accompanied him to the Canadian Embassy where Kubalek applied for emigration. He was horrified to learn that an eye test was mandatory.
"Anton just called out random letters and numbers," Patricia says. "The optometrist got angry, yelled at him and left the room. Anton went over to her desk, found the little red stamp, stamped his documents, and got out of there. He never looked back. It was 1993 before I could convince him to go for an eye exam and get glasses. He was afraid he'd be deported."
Once established in Canada, Kubalek influenced the playing of many students. Robin Heisey, one of Kubalek's first students, says he was a demanding and passionate teacher. "He was not shy about showing his frustration at your lack of preparation. He also never referenced his visual problems, ever."
Kubalek taught privately at the Brodie School of Music and Modern Dance in Toronto from 1969-75 and at the Blue Mountain School of Music in Collingwood, Ont. He also taught at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music beginning in 1979 and later served on its faculty, as well as the faculties of the University of Toronto, Toronto's York University, the Prague Conservatory and the Prague Academy.
Divorced from his first wife, who had accompanied him to Canada, and with whom Kubalek had two daughters, Ildiko and Helen, the 5-foot-7, stocky, slightly rumpled musician with the deep, mellifluous voice had no problem attracting women. During a second relationship in Toronto, he sired a son, Darius.
"Yes, he was a bit of a ladies' man," Patricia laughs. "Women were always calling the house. They'd barely say hello to me."
Patricia Wotherspoon, 24 years Kubalek's junior, and also a piano teacher, met him as a student at the Royal Conservatory. She later reconnected in a deeper way after driving him to a concert in Orillia, Ont. The couple married on July 31, 1993, three months later.
In 1994, Patricia gave birth to Kubalek's fourth child, Karolina, now a 16-year-old piano student in Prague.
"By today's standards, Anton wasn't good at the day-to-day aspects of parenting," Patricia says. "He was mono-focused on his music so he wasn't particularly good at any mundane things like opening bills or paying taxes, but he liked to eat, and he was a great cook. He loved to drink, to excess at times, and he was a bit OCD about everything being in its proper place.
"He did have a quick temper and was fond of dropping a certain Czech swearword. It was one of the first words our daughter learned. He could be hard on her, but at the same time, he could be extremely loving and kind, sweet and mushy."
After a 17-year estrangement, Kubalek was reunited with Darius at a recital given by Karolina, and later was invited to attend his son's wedding. "He was overjoyed about that," Patricia says.
A gifted performer who made more than two dozen recordings, (two nominated for Junos) and a composer who commissioned pieces from other Canadian artists, Kubalek could often be found holding court at the Duke of York pub on Prince Arthur Street in Toronto. He loved to drink beer or whisky, smoke, and talk music with members of the Royal Conservatory and CBC producers, such as his friend Jeff Anderson who worked with him on many projects.
"He was very funny, very amusing in English, even though it was his fourth language behind German, Czech and Russian. He loved telling jokes, though most of them are unrepeatable. And he was always broke," Anderson says, affectionately.
"I think Anton was one of those people who didn't always enjoy the level of financial success that happens when an artist gets strong backing," Levine explains. "His playing was poetic, sensitive, virtuosic, and expressed a real deep and sincere romanticism. His interest in 20th-century music was full of curiosity and adventure. He wasn't locked into music of the past, and his performance of the music of his homeland is simply a benchmark by which you can measure anyone."
According to Patricia, if her husband had to pick the highlight of his long career, it would have been his performance of Johannes Brahms's First Piano Concerto at the Rudolfinum in Prague, where he had been invited to play the 2002 Prague Spring Festival. "It's a massive undertaking for very strong hands. He was 70 years old at the time. He said to me, 'I should never have taken this on.' It had been 50 years since he played on that stage. He practised literally 12 hours a day for the concert. At the end of it, people were crying."
Kubalek received three standing ovations. Later that year, the Czech Music Council recognized him with a UNESCO honorary award for the promotion of Czech music and the representation of Czech performing arts abroad. In 2003, he inaugurated the Kubalek International Piano Courses for young pianists in Zlate Hory, in the Czech Republic.
"He was an extraordinary artist, a humble artist, and he deserves to be remembered," Levine says. "It's my hope that posthumously, the recognition he deserves will come. His Brahms and Schumann are at the absolute pinnacle of world-level performance. The Piano Music of Brahms Volume I that we did with him (for Dorian Music), is the one I play most often. It's so beautiful it makes me cry."
Kubalek died at the Nemocnice na Homoice hospital on Jan. 18 in Prague, where he and Patricia had gone to support their daughter's studies. After the successful removal of a brain tumour that restricted his performance, this year, a lung embolism triggered a heart attack followed by a brain hemorrhage. He was 75. He leaves his wife Patricia, daughters Karolina, Helen and Ildiko, and son Darius.
A memorial will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 28, at St. Wenceslaus Church, 496 Gladstone Ave. in Toronto.
Special to The Globe and Mail