Gwendolyn Toth

Gwendolyn Toth is the director of the New York City-based early music ensemble, ARTEK, and a soloist on early keyboards (organ, harpsichord, fortepiano). She is married to harpsichordist Dongsok Shin, and they have three children.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

In honor of Liddy

ARTEK's founding board director, Elizabeth "Liddy" Guiher, passed away on August 17.

A memorial service for Liddy was held on October 1, 2011 at Immanuel Lutheran Church, where she attended church most Sundays - making the trip up to the organ loft without fail every time, in order to say hello and talk to me about the music we played during the service.

Below is the text of my comments about Liddy at the service, and here also is a a live recording of the piece ARTEK sang at this event, Monteverdi's beautiful Litany for the Blessed Virgin Mary, from a performance several years ago.

Last August, I had just returned from my summer travels when I received the call that Liddy Guiher had passed away in Maryland.

Everyone in the New York early music community knew Liddy. She was one of ARTEK's founding board members, and she had volunteered, attended performances and otherwise supported many other cultural organizations throughout her life.

I got to know Liddy when I was a newly-arrived musician in New York City. She wanted someone to play harpsichord and coach music with her and her recorder player friends. In those early days, I was so poor that a few dollars from each recorder player was a huge help to buy some groceries, so I came regularly, once a week. That was the beginning of a friendship and collaboration that lasted 30 years.

The first year I gave some concerts as a young performer, in 1986, she helped me organize the concerts in every sort of way. At the end, when i thought "Phew! it's over!" she said to me, "But you have to do it again, next year!" And that was how ARTEK began - had it not been for her, I truly don't think I would have ever gone on. But we did go on, and Liddy was at my side helping. Until she became ill with Wegener's disease, she was my practically full-time administrative assistant. When we did the Handelmania workshop in 1995, with 5 days of teaching and rehearsing, out of town fellows, faculty needing help with accommodations, and a four hours of final concert the last day for First Night, she did the lion's share of the work, xeroxing and mailing parts and rehearsal schedules, organizing places to stay, and countless other details. That was just one example. And when ARTEK came up short some years because of a worthy but expensive project, like our Orfeo opera performances and recording, she was there helping us financially too.

Her generosity knew no bounds, whether it was her financial support, her time and energy, or just her enthusiasm for all things early music. Our entire early music community owes her a great debt. ARTEK was just one of the many organizations she helped. Others included Pomerium, Music Before 1800, Parthenia; non-early-music organizations such as the Volunteer Referral Center and the Visiting Nurse service; and others I probably don't even know. But she was always on the go - volunteering somewhere every day, playing her recorder and singing regularly, attending concerts in the evening.

Then, in about 1997, she told me she was just too tired to come to a concert that evening. Liddy? Tired? Not the woman we knew. Her symptoms increased and before long she knew she had a terrible disease called Wegener's granulomatosis. This is an autoimmune diease that causes inflammation of the blood vessels, and affects the lungs, kidneys, and other organs. It is treated with harsh chemotherapy and steroid therapy. Only a few years ago, typical survival was measured in months. Liddy received the newest treatments, and she survived for 15 years with the disease.

Nobody who knows her is surprised that she lived that extraordinary length of time. Liddy was a fighter. She never gave up on anything. And she was stubborn. No disease was going curtail to her life - her recorder music, her volunteer work, her concerts.

Some of my fondest memories of Liddy are the week I spent with her and members of her family at the villa in Umbria she rented each summer for several weeks. Until then, I did not realize certain things about Liddy. That, she didn't eat much. I knew her typical lunch was a half a sandwich eaten on the run, but there I realized that went for every meal. That, she had a peculiar and unique sense of smell. Many ordinary foods smelled "bad" to her, especially cheese. She was constantly going in the refrigerator and saying "I'm throwing this out, it smells bad!" There was a small conspiracy to get up and eat the delightful fresh mozzarella we had bought the previous day for breakfast before Liddy would have a chance to find it and throw it out!

She traveled around Italy with Jim, always letting him do the driving, but with little patience for his style of “taking the back roads to see more". Liddy was energetic and a go-getter, and she wanted to get there, as soon as possible, thank you very much! But she loved Italy, the historic places, her favorite local cafes and restaurants, the town square and church in Lugnano, where she told me "oh they have a little nothing organ, it's nothing much at all" - this about a restored small, very beautiful 17th-century Italian organ. (I wasn't able to change her opinion on that, though I tried!)

No, no one ever changed Liddy's mind on anything. She knew what she liked, and she knew she liked music and early music, and she put her whole self into supporting that. "Anything you need, Gwen" she would say to me. She had some sort of game with her accountant where she would tell me "He says I'm not allowed to give you any more, but I'm giving you this anyways!" I think she truly enjoyed as much the idea that he couldn't tell her what to do, not really.

After her illness, Liddy was never as strong, but she kept up with her activities and concerts, gradually declining over the years. Still, for the past year before she died, she visited here at Immanuel Lutheran Church every Sunday, walking all the way up to the choir loft to say applaud us and say hello at the end of each service, and attending Midtown Concerts here every Wednesday afternoon. I'm so grateful that I had the good fortune to find a position at this church, right down the block from her apartment, and to be able to move Midtown Concerts here, so that she had this pleasure right up until nearly the very end.

The concerts will continue, thanks in large part to the memorial fund the family has created for ARTEK, and I'm sure Liddy’s spirit will be with us, listening as she always did, applauding and saying, "play more!" and smiling at us with her sunny, lovely smile.