Virtuoso pianist almost became a dentist

Symphony of the Vines presents the annual Torsten Juul-Borre piano recital at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18, at Cass Winery. (Photo contributed)

Templeton’s Juul-Borre returns for Symphony of Vines Concert

Renowned pianist Torsten Juul-Borre is amused by his so-called accent, “A waitress the other day wanted to know where I was from because of my accent. I was born in Minnesota and I’ve lived in Templeton most of my life. It’s a bit puzzling to me.”

What is more easily understood is that Torsten Juul-Borre is a piano virtuoso who travels extensively in the United States and Europe, often in Denmark, performing popular solo concerts. Symphony of the Vines presents his annual piano recital at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18, at Cass Winery in Paso Robles.

Perhaps his accent, if he has one, might have something to do with his Danish-American heritage. His parents were Danish immigrants living in Minnesota and when he was 3-years-old, the family traveled back to Denmark for a visit, which became an extended stay. He started school in Denmark not speaking Danish, and when the family returned to the United States, he could no longer speak English. However, as children often do, he quickly became bilingual.

His father longed for warmer weather in California and, in 1962, eventually found work as a meat inspector at two facilities — one in San Miguel and the other in Atascadero. It made sense to live in-between in Templeton. Juul-Borre enjoyed his school years in Templeton and studying piano with a teacher in Atascadero, but when he was in the 11th grade, his family life unraveled. His father died after a surgery and his mother had passed away a few years earlier.

“My father knew the operation might not go well, so he made prior arrangements for us in Denmark. My little sister would be raised by my aunt,” he said. Juul-Borre was 16 years old, his brother was 19. “In Denmark, we had family, but my brother and I were close and took care of each other.”

For years, his father had pushed him towards a dental career, and that was the goal until Juul-Borre was told that his high school work did not meet Danish standards. He would have to repeat many of his classes.

“I was a good student and graduated early from Templeton High School. I wasn’t having it,” he said.

He remembered that his Atascadero piano teacher had given him the name of a tutor in Denmark. If he was not going to be a dentist, playing the piano was a delightful alternative. He looked up the new tutor and asked for help gaining entrance to the oldest institution of musical education in Denmark, the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music.

“Not only would he help me prepare for the entrance exam, he would do it for free,” Juul-Borre recalled. “What generosity! I was so shocked that I nearly fell down a flight of stairs.”

At the age of 17, Juul-Borre was accepted into the Conservatory’s prestigious seven-year program which included all facets of music and piano performance. Juul-Borre studied with Arne Skjold Rasmussen, renowned interpreter of Beethoven and Carl Nielsen, and with the internationally known pianist and accompanist Kjell Olsson.

While studying in Copenhagen, a local pastor wondered if Juul-Borre would like to meet a young woman who also happened to be visiting from California. He remembers that first meeting and “seeing a beautiful, blonde woman across the room.”  He married Eva and a few years later, the couple returned to America. Eva’s parents lived in Southern California, and Torsten wanted to return to his roots in Templeton to teach and perform. 

“I love the beauty of music. It is a gift from God and it’s meant to be shared,” he said. “When I attended concerts as a boy, I would listen to a man in a penguin suit play the piano and then people would clap. No words were spoken and, even at that early age, I thought the performer was too removed from the audience.

Juul-Borre’s performances are different. Throughout his concerts, he sprinkles amusing anecdotes, trivia and other interesting facets of the composers, their music and the times in which they lived.

“I enjoy helping the audience understand the context of the composer’s everyday life and the complexities of his collaborations. I also want to give clues as to what to listen for during a performance. It opens a door for the audience to see into the music.”

The Nov. 18 concert features works from Ludwig Van Beethoven and Franz Liszt — two composers who had an interesting introduction in 1823. Liszt was 12 years old when he played for Beethoven, who was more than 40 years his senior. Beethoven was unimpressed by child prodigies and had refused to see the young Hungarian pianist. When they did finally meet, Beethoven requested several difficult pieces and gradually warmed toward the youngster’s abilities. Feeling a bit encouraged, Liszt cheekily asked Beethoven if he could play one of his works.

“Beethoven smiled and was overwhelmed by Liszt’s ability. He stroked his hair a few times and called him a little rascal,” Juul-Borre explained. “This is even more interesting because Beethoven was profoundly deaf at this time.  Beethoven would have ‘heard’ the playing by feeling the vibrations of the piano and observing Liszt’s fingerings.”

Symphony of the Vines presents the annual Torsten Juul-Borre piano recital at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18, at Cass Winery, 7350 Linne Road, Paso Robles. Tickets range from $15 to  $27, and students are free with a paid adult thanks to a sponsorship from Jim and Carolyn Brescia. The concert is also sponsored by Lieselotte Stockmann, and Stephen Lasalle and Barbara Schoenike. Tickets are available at www.symphonyofthevines.org.


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