The summer of the Steinway: music's enduring magic


A brilliant mind. A love for music. Such a combination has numerous felicitous possibilities.

In the case of Cherry L. Emerson '38C-'39G, a notable scientist was born for whom music is a driving passion.

Recently, that passion prompted the gift of an $800,000 endowment to the Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta, now in its fifth season under the guidance of Artistic Director William Ransom.

"Chamber music is the form of music I understand best," says Emerson.

What William Ransom understands is how much easier Emerson has made his job. He notes, "This incredible gift will allow us to present the highest quality chamber music performances with resident Atlanta artists and guests as well as focus on artist activities without having to raise money year after year."

Most music lovers don't own a Steinway; moreover, fewer still purchased that Steinway at the tender age of fourteen. Emerson did, by selling Coca-Cola to construction workers in Atlanta's Morningside neighborhood. Borrowing $3 from his mother was all Emerson needed as capital. Indeed, he was able to pay his mother back the next day. After three summers, he had saved $685.02 and was ready to visit his local piano shop.

On his way to earning bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from Emory in the late 1930s, Emerson could not resist indulging his love of music.

"Emory's music department at that time was Malcolm Dewey in a small office with an upright piano," says Emerson. "Back then, the only thing that Emory had musically was the Glee Club." Now Emory's offerings in music are so varied that Emerson surprises himself a little when he speaks of his support for the music department's non-Western collection, which includes the gamelan--music played without written scores, using drums and gongs.

Despite his willingness to embrace new kinds of music, Emerson remains something of a traditionalist. "Rhythm. Harmony. Melody. In the right combination," attests Emerson, "this is music I like best." Emerson and his wife, Mary--whom he identifies as a "staunch classicist"--have been seeking out the music they love around the world ever since their first date at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert.

In 1980, Emerson retired to Sea Island, Georgia, after spending thirty-three years at the helm of a chemical company, Emerson & Cuming. Among the company's products were a lightweight ceramic particle used by NASA for a heat shield and microwave products commissioned by the Air Force's Stealth program.

Finding the tranquillity of Sea Island frankly distracting, he and his wife moved back to Atlanta, where Emerson renewed his relationship with Emory. Emerson endowed the William Henry Emerson Chair in Chemistry, named for his grandfather, founding dean of engineering and chair of the Department of Chemistry at Georgia Tech. Another gift from Emerson established the Cherry L. Emerson Center for Scientific Computation, which brought supercomputing--which is so vital to the sciences and to chemistry in particular--to Emory.

A consummate storyteller, Emerson is not above playing the occasional sly trick with chronology. When he speaks of the man who brought classical music to Atlanta, Alfredo Barili, Emerson likes to say, "Barili was born in Florence, Italy, in 1854, and I studied under him." In fact, he did, when Emerson was thirteen and Barili seventy-seven. Emerson wrote the foreword for a recent Scholars Press book on Barili, thanking him especially for passing on the music of Mendelssohn.

In the six years that Ransom and Emerson have known one another, the chamber music program has made tremendous strides. Last year, in celebration of Brahms' one hundredth anniversary, the group performed all his chamber pieces--something that no other ensemble in the country attempted. Ransom points out that his players present more than a concert series, saying, "All members are artist-affiliate faculty who teach not only individual instruments but also are instructors in the chamber music program for students."

Emerson's hope is that he will support the arts at Emory for many years to come. His understanding of music is complex, but his litmus test for what he likes remains simple. "If I can leave a piece of music while whistling its tunes, then to me that music is great," he notes.--S.M.C.

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