Bruce Prince-Joseph, 90, bought his midtown home in 1986 not because it’s an all concrete structure with 18 rooms designed by a prodigy of Frank Lloyd Wright, but because it had a niche to display his most precious treasure — a Nymphenburg porcelain statue of the Blessed Mary holding Child Jesus — given by Crown Princess Pilar of Bavaria. The two met during one of the keyboardist’s concert tours in Europe in 1953 and he cherished his memory of the princess of the old kingdom that shrunk to a mere state after unification of Germany in 1871.
If you get a sense that this highly acclaimed musician isn’t an ordinary man, you’re not alone. All signs of his extraordinary character were there even when he was only 5 years old. It was in 1929, the year the nation saw the worst stock market crash that forced countless factories and businesses to close and made millions of workers homeless. His father, a successful real estate investor in Pittsburgh, Pa., lost everything he owned and had no choice but send his young son to live with his maternal grandparents, Kansas City residents.
Prince-Joseph said he wasn’t really afraid during the two-and-half-day train ride because the Pullman porter to whom his father entrusted him looked after the boy the whole time, making sure he ate and did not wander about the moving train. The family was reunited shortly.
It turned out that Kansas City was a best place to be for young Prince-Joseph at the time because he soon was introduced to music at St. Paul Episcopal Church at 40th and Main streets, where he began to sing in the boys choir. Later, he began playing the piano and organ, and by the time he graduated Westport High School at 17, he was passionate about studying the keyboard in New York. And his wishes were granted months later: as a newcomer to New York, he was appointed as the chancel organist at St. Patrick Cathedral.
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“I was very fortunate,” he said in a recent conversation. He studied at Yale with pianist-composer Paul Hindemith and later at the University of Southern California with Alice Ehlers. In 1952, he auditioned for Bruno Walter, then-conductor of the New York Philharmonic whose name was heard across the world. Prince-Joseph was hired and became the keyboardist of the most prestigious orchestra of all orchestras in the world. He kept that position for 20 years until 1974, before he began teaching at Hunter College. A decade later he retired as the department chairman and professor emeritus and returned to Kansas City to live.
Kansas City residents might remember Prince-Joseph for the rescue and restoration of the Bells of Peace, a vintage carillon (a keyboard instrument with tuned bells).
I met Prince-Joseph in early 2012, while he served St. Therese Little Flower Catholic as the music director and organist for the 11:15 a.m. Anglican Use Mass on Sundays. The restoration of the carillon had already begun and he and a group of volunteers, including his longtime organist friend, the Rev. Harry Firth, who had served as the pastor of All Souls Episcopal Church in Kansas City, were elbow-deep, working every day to restore life back into the vintage carillon that had fallen silent twice since 1961.
The carillon was completely restored a few months later, installed at its new home, and was dedicated on Sept. 30, 2012, by Bishop Robert Finn. But after 18 months, the carillon made the news again: It only rings inside the church, not outside. It was a blow for all who worked hard to bring life to the vintage instrument, but it was short-lived.
It was harder for Prince-Joseph and Rev. Harry Firth because they had founded a carillon school shortly after the dedication and had been teaching several adult students — mostly teachers with some keyboard trainings before. But the carillon not having its full voice certainly is a handicap for the school.
But once again, fortune knocked Prince-Joseph’s door just in time: an electronic engineer in Minnesota has agreed to visit Kansas City within weeks and give the carillon a complete checkup!
Year 2014 is marching away without a promise to return. The old master counts his blessings, because he knows the New Year will bring him new challenges as it always had.
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.