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Jack Zaleski, Published June 15 2013

Zaleski: Book traces magical ND music story

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - It’s hard to fathom in today’s entertainment culture of faux celebrity that at the end of the 19th century a German-born piano virtuoso was a superstar in the United States. Adele aus der Ohe was a student of arguably the best concert pianist ever to touch the keys, Franz Liszt, and – this is the North Dakota connection – teacher to two sisters from rural North Dakota, who in their own right left legacies we enjoy today.

Author LaWayne Leno grew up near Bismarck. He studied piano with one of the sisters. He’s completed a biography of aus der Ohe. Leno presented a reading and book signing at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake last week.

Born in 1861, aus der Ohe was a prodigy. Liszt was not a fan of child stars but recognized her potential and took her on as his student. She was 12. When she was ready for the concert stage 10 years later, she proved to be all and more Liszt saw in her. After performing in Europe, she and her sister sailed to the United States, where she emerged as one of the best, if not the best, piano virtuosos of the time.

During years of touring the U.S., aus der Ohe wowed audiences and critics. She was in demand with all the great orchestras. Reviews from newspapers in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and St. Paul overflow with praise for her. She played in the great concert halls and many lesser venues throughout the country. She was among the major performers at the 1891 dedication concert of new Carnegie Hall. She was a star in several U.S. tours until, after the death of her traveling companion sister, aus der Ohe returned to Germany and never performed in the U.S. again.

The North Dakota connection: Among aus der Ohe’s students in Germany was 20-year-old Alma Mehus, of Brinsmade. It was 1923. Post-World War I Germany was in economic and social collapse. Alma (her sister Belle would study with aus der Ohe in 1930) learned from the master and went on to perform, including a first invitation from the Chicago Symphony.

Alma (later Alma Mehus Studness) continued to play and teach, leaving an incomparable legacy of music teaching and appreciation in North Dakota. Belle was one of the most sought-after piano teachers in the state, and today the Belle Mehus Auditorium – affectionately known as “The Belle” – stands in downtown Bismarck.

There’s so much more in Leno’s excellent biography. It’s a loving examination of aus der Ohe’s life and music. It’s a period piece that draws the reader into the history of a tragic time in Europe.

Finally, the story of rural North Dakota sisters reveals a line of musical talent and teaching that can be traced from Liszt, through aus der Ohe to Alma and Belle. The poignant correspondence between Alma and Adele is itself worth reading the book.

The book is “The Untold Story of Adele aus der Ohe: From a Liszt Student to a Virtuoso” by LaWayne Leno (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2012). Check your local bookseller.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5521.