Challenger composition by Robert De Gaetano, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, Robert De Gaetano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

A tribute to the late, Robert DeGaetano, classmate, NYC High School of Performing Arts

Bob DeGaetano screen shot

“Bobby” as I remember him at “P.A.” (nickname for the FAME school that hadn’t yet acquired Broadway, TV, or movie status) was a shining light among stage-struck students, some of whom swished down the hallway in first position, ballet style, while others in the drama department audibly cajoled each other, wise-cracking their way through academics. One of them would sneak drop a thumbtack on a sub teacher’s chair, inciting a chorus of laughter, while the elderly mentor was in obvious pain.

The music kids seemed more sedate, less involved with displays of attention-getting antics, and more likely to be found practicing in musty rooms with less than perfectly maintained pianos. A few stayed after school for extra coaching. Among them, “Bobby” was one of many gifted P.A. pianists who was constantly honing and refining his skills. He had a sunny personality and an engaging disposition. I remember Joanne Salamone and Carol Lian tagging along with him, part of an inseparable trio.

One afternoon as I was packing up after 6th period, prepping to take the IRT North bound subway home, I was distracted by the strains of Schubert’s Eb Impromptu emanating from one of the practice rooms. It was Bob DeGaetano playing in the presence of Murray Perahia, (PA ’63) who was coaching him to finite detail–a peak level music-mentoring experience worth a memory treasure.

That same year Bob had won an audition to play Beethoven’s Bb Piano Concerto at the School’s Winter Concert and soon after, he made a Town Hall appearance, broadcast on WQXR F.M., which was a feather in his cap. (PA sent its finest to this event, after grueling auditions with Nadia Reisenberg, Abram Chasins and other music notables) Leonard Bernstein was on PA’s Board of Directors and may have snuck in a back door visit here and there.

After graduation everyone dispersed, marrying, having kids, teaching, some performing, yet somehow we managed to keep up with each other through e-mailed newsletters and reunion announcements.

I blogged about P.A. recalling my personal journey with added alum updates.

Note Bob’s photo in the H.S. Grad Yearbook:

Robert DeGaetano PA grad yearbook pic

What I should have included, (a glaring omission) was Robert DeGaetano’s moving tribute to the Challenger astronauts that captured the hearts of a nation in mourning. In this memorable interview DeGaetano spoke about his composition and played an excerpt from the score. (a section devoted to Christa McAuliffe)

Bobby’s own creations and his many performances of masterworks will always be cherished.

“May his music continue to nourish the world and live on forever.”

R.I.P. Maestro DeGaetano….

Robert De Gaetano

“DeGaetano was born in New York City. He graduated from The Juilliard School, where he studied with Adele Marcus and Rosina Lhevinne. He received a Rotary International scholarship, which enabled him to live in Paris and continue his studies with Alexis Weissenberg. Recommended by David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter, DeGaetano became a concert pianist under the auspices of Sol Hurok.

“In the mid 1970’s DeGaetano made his performing debut in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In 1975 DeGaetano met Samuel Barber as DeGaetano was preparing to perform Barber’s piano sonata at Carnegie Hall and they became close friends for the five years that he lived. He has credited Barber for inspiring him to compose, when he visited him in his Santa Cristina chateau in the Dolomites.

“DeGaetano made his New York recital debut at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Alice Tully Hall. His orchestra debut was with the San Antonio Symphony. He toured all fifty states and the major music capitals of Europe. DeGaetano was a frequent guest soloist with US orchestras, including those of Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, San Diego and the Boston Pops. In 1986, DeGaetano premiered his first Piano Sonata in New York City, followed by a domestic and international tour. He then was commissioned by Michigan’s Jackson Symphony Orchestra to compose his first Piano Concerto, which he premiered in March 1989.

“In November, 1987 The Challenger, a suite for solo piano which Alice Tully had commissioned DeGaetano to create in tribute to the astronauts killed in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, premiered in the presence of the astronauts’ families at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The performance was filmed live for television, featured on CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kurault, broadcast over WQXR in New York City and radio stations nationwide. It played on concert tours across three continents.

“In 1999 DeGaetano made his Carnegie Hall recital debut. The same year on Memorial Day he played Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s ‘L’Union’ and ‘The Banjo’ at the Green-Wood Cemetery gravesite of the composer with the Goldman Memorial Band.

“DeGaetano created nine albums, playing Chopin, Beethoven, Gottschalk, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, 20th century composers and his own compositions on the Crystonyx label. His latest album was the premiere recording of his Piano Concerto No.1 and the Chopin Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor with the Moravian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra on Navona distributed by Naxos Records.”

14 thoughts on “A tribute to the late, Robert DeGaetano, classmate, NYC High School of Performing Arts”

  1. I was Robert’s hospital roommate from Jan 17th until the 23rd (2015) when he was discharged. The divider is very thin and, of course, conversations were easily overheard, I did not communicate with him the first few days I was there (I had just had bladder removal surgery) as I wanted to maintain some privacy between the two of us. But it soon became obvious that I shared a room with an extraordinary talent and a class act. A quick Google search validated my hunch.

    So on the third day I reached out to him and we began sharing life stories. We both grew up in NYC but on different sides of the cultural track. Robert was a child prodigy musician and I a fairly talented electrical engineer. So we had stories in common and stories unique to our history. I lived with a chess prodigy (my son) so it was really fascinating for me to hear about his early razzling and dazzling of grownups with his piano playing skills. I could say something trite like it made the time in the hospital go quicker but in truth it was far beyond that.

    I solved a technical issue for him during one of our conversations and as he introduced me into a side of the musical arts I had never known I, in turn, revealed some insights into technology of which he was unaware. It was certainly and enriching experience for me and I would like to think he benefitted as well.

    I promised him my wife and I would sit center stage when he gave his first concert once he recovered. Alas it is a promise I am afraid I will have to break.

    We corresponded by email after he was released. We bought a couple of his CDs which we really enjoyed and I emailed him to tell him so. When he did not respond I feared the worst. Alas, it has come to pass.

    I know I regret not having a chance to get to know him better and spend some time with him. We had also planned dinner. I can only imagine what his close friends and associates will go through.

    Rest in peace Robert.


    1. Thank you for this beautiful account and remembrance of Robert. Many of his friends and alums from the NYC of Performing Arts are posting tributes to him far and wide. We have two Facebook P.A. pages that have now gathered so many responses to the shocking news of Bob’s passing. I hope you don’t mind if I share your moving words and sentiments. Most Gratefully, Shirley Kirsten


      1. Shirley: Be my guest and I meant every letter.

        I think you visited Robert while I was there and played music which you had composed.

        Best regards,


  2. Thanks, Seymour.. Your namesake is of course, my dear friend, pianist, Seymour Bernstein whose movie is coming out in March which you should not miss. Seymour: An Introduction is produced by Ethan Hawke and is heading for next year’s Oscar nomination. I only bring this up because of your affinity with the arts and piano, in this case. No, I would not have been in Florida, if that’s the location of the hospital you mentioned. I live in Berkeley now but originally hail from NYC. I knew nothing of Robert’s illness and didn’t make it to the last June Performing Arts High class reunion that he in fact, attended. Again thanks for the beautiful memories,
    Shirley K


  3. Thanks Shirley!

    We were in NYC MSKCC. Robert had many visitors and many of them musically inclined.

    I will look for the film and see it when it comes out. Thanks for the tip.

    Best regards,


  4. Shirley:

    One last thing: I went to Stuyvesant High School and The Cooper Union for electrical engineering. As I said the other side of the cultural tracks.



    1. Shirley:

      Thanks for the pointer. I am sure to see this movie.

      Best regards,

      PS: I can’t get on the PA facebook page as it is closed to non-members.


  5. Robert was my teacher, mentor and dear friend for many years. I am so saddened to read this. I just stumbled upon this. How did this happen?


  6. Hi Shirley! I hope you’ll see this comment as I know this is an older post!
    My bf and I moved into a beautiful house a few months ago and a few days ago I sent him up into the attic and he brought down a box that had a lot of stuff about Mr. Robert DeGaetano in it. I’ve made a post on my fb about it. Here is the link:
    I’d like to find someone who knew him or even a family member so I could get this little bit of his life back to them. You can contact me on facebook if you can help! If anyone else sees this comment and can help me I would appreciate anything! Thank you! Can’t wait to hear from you!


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