Composer, pianist Ronald McFarland loved sharing his passion for music
Ronald George McFarland, a well-known composer, concert pianist and piano teacher whose Tiburon home became a gathering place for artists and students alike, died July 8 at The Redwoods retirement home in Mill Valley of complications from a fall following a period of declining health. He was 94.
Mr. McFarland was born April 20, 1928, in San Bernardino, the younger of two sons of Anna Belle Hagy McFarland and George M. “Millard” McFarland.
He started playing piano at age 5 and was quickly recognized as a prodigy, said his cousin, Curtis Lawson of Palm Springs. Mr. McFarland’s mother took him back and forth to Los Angeles, more than an hour each way, for piano lessons.
After finishing San Bernardino High School early at 16, he began to study under Ethel Leginska, a British-born pianist and composer who became one of the first female conductors and symphony directors.
Mr. McFarland became Leginska’s protégé; he moved to Los Angeles, where he studied under her for three years before making his debut performing in a symphony that she conducted.
In a review of the performance, the Los Angeles Examiner wrote, “His tone quality, his emotional directness and his amazing fluent fingers added to a musical grasp of light and shade and earned this teenager repeated calls from his listeners.”
During those years, he met and performed for numerous internationally known artists, composers and conductors, including Artur Schnabel, Benjamin Britten and Bruno Walter, who encouraged him to pursue a career as a composer.
Early on, as a finalist in a Hollywood Bowl competition, Mr. McFarland performed with the KFI-Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Sample.
After a total of six years of study with Leginska, he took a break from the world of music and reportedly joined the Seminole Dance Troupe in Los Angeles. He next went to New Orleans, where he began a brief career as a painter, winning a design competition.
“He was a bit of a golden boy,” Lawson said. “He was talented in everything.”
While in New Orleans, he met the Hungarian pianist István Nádas, a teacher at Xavier University, and decided to renew his piano studies.
He returned to Los Angeles, where he studied composing under Arnold Schoenberg, whom he’d met in his teens and who is considered a great master of 20th-century composition.
When Nádas eventually accepted a teaching position at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Mr. McFarland moved to the Bay Area and completed his unfinished “Suite for Piano.”
Nádas was so impressed with the work that he included it in his Festival of 20th Century Piano Music at San Francisco State University, where he’d become a professor of music. The work received first prize and a special award from the Music Teachers’ Association of California.
He continued his studies in orchestration with David Sheinfeld in San Francisco and also continued performing.
Mr. McFarland wrote four operas and many symphonies and concertos for performance by orchestras. His many works of chamber music included sonatas, string quartets and music for trios, and he also wrote music to accompany spoken dramatic works.
Edward Hastings, artistic director of American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco commissioned him to write the incidental music for his production of “King Lear.” Its success led Mr. McFarland to write a version for two spoken voices with instruments, and it premiered with actors Peter Donat and Fredi Olster.
One reviewer of Mr. McFarland’s work said it showed the influences of Schoenberg, who taught his students to write tonal music in the German tradition. Mr. McFarland “uses that language with conviction and skill, and the result is expressive and shapely music that pleased me all the more for being concise and avoiding emotional excess,” the reviewer wrote.
Of his opera “The Donner Party,” Opera News reviewer Stephanie von Buchau, who could be bluntly critical, wrote, “McFarland’s music has fresh and original features. … The best scenes in the opera, not surprisingly, have the strongest music. The pioneers reach the top of the Wasatch Mountains to a glorious upwelling in the orchestra worthy of Bartok. The passacaglia theme in Act Two imprints itself vividly on the ear, and the final duet is beautifully lyrical.” She called Mr. McFarland’s opera “a small miracle.”
The Berkeley Symphony, then conducted by Kent Nagano, performed Mr. McFarland’s concert version of the opera, “Tamsen Donner.” Nagano called the work “a score to be treated with respect and one worthy of a great production.”
Mr. McFarland’s second opera was a finalist in New York University’s American Opera Competition. “The Song of Pegasus” has been performed many times since then, notably for a summer series at the San Francisco Opera.
Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, he joined the Bay Area Playwrights Festival Opera Studio, where he composed “The Audition of Molly Bloom.” A San Francisco Examiner critic admired his “amusingly schizophrenic Molly Bloom, a hypothetical audition piece that toys with Mozart and comes awfully close to being a hip saloon piece.”
One of his commissions for the San Francisco Girls Chorus, “The Night Before Christmas,” premiered at Davies Symphony Hall.
He received grants and awards from many organizations, including the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. He won five first-place prizes in Composers Today competitions.
He lectured at the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco City College’s concert lecture series, the University of Southern California Composers Forum and Chico State University, among other organizations. He had served on the artist advisory committee of Old First Concerts since 1994.
Mr. McFarland’s talents and personality attracted celebrities. In Los Angeles, he became good friends with Hedy Lamarr and Tyrone Power, with whom he made the rounds of nightclubs.
Mr. McFarland moved to Tiburon in the 1960s, reportedly first renting a house on Ark Row before buying the Tiburon Boulevard home where he would live for nearly 55 years.
He met his longtime partner, John “Jack” Dempsey, at a party his first night in town. Dempsey was a chemist who worked for Shell Oil until retirement and then went into antique trading and making pottery.
Mr. McFarland’s gig as composer-in-residence at American Conservatory Theatre brought him into contact with more performing artists. The two enjoyed entertaining — Mr. Dempsey was a great cook and Mr. McFarland played the piano — and they drew gifted artists and performers to their home, including ACT actors Peter Donat and Annette Bening, cookbook author and cooking-show host Julia Child and Child’s food stylist, Rosemary Manell of Belvedere.
After Dempsey died in 2010, caregiver Keith Kauthoff stayed on to take care of Mr. McFarland. Almost every day while Mr. McFarland was still able, Kauthoff accompanied him and his dog on his morning rounds: walks in the Tiburon hills and into town for coffee at Caffe Acri.
“He was very gracious and very much a gentleman,” Kauthoff said. “He had a very blessed life. He believed that if he believed, good things would happen, and he put that energy out into the universe: good things would happen, and they did.”
Concert pianist June Choi Oh, chair of the department of music, dance and performing arts at Dominican University of California in San Rafael, knew Mr. McFarland for 20 years.
“It was always a pleasure performing his pieces,” Oh said. “I found Ron’s compositions to be lyrical and beautiful and have youthful energy and freshness. They are also quite accessible to the audience, which makes performing his pieces even more enjoyable.”
Mr. McFarland has left his works, recordings and memorabilia to Dominican University.
Mr. McFarland regarded his compositions at his babies, Oh said.
“He was never shy about sharing how proud he was of his pieces,” she said. “Now students and scholars will be able to access his music and make it live forever.”
He believed strongly in teaching. After establishing the McFarland Piano Studio in his home, he taught piano to many local students, including adults with advanced previous training, on the side-by-side Steinway grand pianos in his home. He loved teaching children, especially beginners. He told friends it was because he didn’t have to break them of bad habits learned from other teachers.
Tiburon resident Fani Hansen, an architect and trained pianist, played duets with him. Her daughters Milla Hansen and Christina Hansen-Scott, now 50 and 45, respectively, started studying with Mr. McFarland when they were four and went on to win national competitions, she said. Then her granddaughters, Alice and Eloise Scott, started studying with him, also at age 4.
“He was not interested in financial gain,” Hansen said. “He understood the values that are important for humanity. I’m indebted to him for sharing that and for helping to build my girls’ self-confidence.”
Only COVID-19 put an end to Mr. McFarland’s teaching, and he finally made the long-deferred move to The Redwoods, which he loved because of all the company. He was much in demand as a pianist there, and the residents started calling him “Maestro.”
In addition to Dempsey, Mr. McFarland was preceded in death by his brother, Robert “Bobby” McFarland. He is survived by a number of cousins in California and Texas, including Lawson and Lawson’s mother, Nancy G. Lawson of Orange Grove.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Aug. 27 at Community Congregational Church, 145 Rock Hill Drive, Tiburon. Donations in his memory may be sent to the Belvedere-Tiburon Library, P.O. Box 483, Tiburon, CA 94920.
Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.