CHARLESTON – A West Virginia native who earned a spot to play piano with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra as a teenager in 1955 never forgot the experience.
James Cresce would go on to major in music and play around the country, including at the Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, restaurants and even a stint with Macy’s in New York. He worked as musical director of the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, where he also taught music lessons. He recorded two CDs.
But Cresce never forgot winning the statewide musical contest that put him on the stage in Charleston just days before he turned 17.
So when his health started failing him in recent months, he directed his cousin, Mary Lou D’Anna, to help settle his estate.
And he decided to give $100,000 to the West Virginia Symphony. D’Anna said her cousin, who lived in New York at the time of his death earlier this month, was generous.
“Since Jim was an only child, never married and had no children, he felt he had to share his wealth with those in need and gave to many, many charities,’’ she wrote in an email.
“Music was special to him, particularly the symphony, where he started off. He felt that a donation in such a large amount was going to a good cause and not to a big organization (as the Lincoln Center) since he felt they didn’t need it.’’
Cresce, who began studying piano early, actually made his symphony debut when he was just 11, when he was invited to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A. His next performance with the orchestra was a bit more notable since Cresce was selected from a statewide competition. He and another teen, Margaret Krimsky, tied for top honors, and both were invited to perform. In April 1955, Cresce played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat.
When the symphony’s executive director, David Gross, first learned of the intended gift this past spring, he said he was stunned. “We weren’t sure if it was for real or not; I’ve got to be honest,’’ he said. It’s not every day that a surprise donation for that amount comes in, after all. And Cresce at first attempted to make it through an online e-giving link on the symphony’s website. When there was a glitch, he asked D’Anna to call.
“We gave them our physical address to mail it in,’’ Gross said. “It was literally the day after Memorial Day when I opened a letter with a $100,000 check paper-clipped to it. I kinda just went, `Good Lord.’
“We were stunned, but it’s also very humbling,’’ Gross added.
The check came with no strings attached _ the symphony is free to use it any way it deems best, and Gross said it will go for general operating needs. Of course, the symphony folks were eager to learn more about Cresce. Longtime symphony volunteer Helen Lodge serves as its informal historian, and she dug out newspaper clips with stories written about the competition. They show a photo of a bespectacled Cresce.
Our intent is to copy these and put them in some sort of display,’’ Gross said. “We’re also trying to determine some way to permanently recognize his gift so that it doesn’t go unnoticed, “I think there are so many nice angles to this. It helps us, of course, but beyond that, the fact that this gentleman had such a powerful experience with the symphony to me really says something about the power of music.’’