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Play on: Sandresky's musical life draws on past, extends into future

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Margaret Vardell Sandresky, 97, lives a musical life.

Her home in Arbor Acres contains a 7-foot Steinway Grand, a digital Rodgers pipe organ, which she has played for most of her life, and a guitar, which she has just started learning.

Books about music take up an entire wall in her living room, and art about music, such as pages from a medieval choir book, hangs on the walls.

Her ancestors, going back three generations, were musicians. Her daughter, Eleonor Sandresky, is a composer, pianist, performance artist, collaborator and musical innovator.

The love of her life, Clemens Sandresky, who died in 2009 at 93, was dean of the School of Music at Salem College for nearly 35 years. In addition to Eleonor, they had two sons: Paul, a landscape architect who died in 1994; and Charles, a software engineer who lives in Houston.

“Clem enchanted me from the first moment I saw him,” Margaret Sandresky said. “His musicianship. His charm.”

Margaret Sandresky

Margaret Vardell Sandresky, 97, plays the piano in front of a portrait of her late husband, Clemens Sandresky, at her home.

Musician/mentor

She is a musician’s musician. In May, the Music@Home series and the Piedmont NC Chapter of the American Guild of Organists will present a Margaret Vardell Sandresky Celebration Concert at Home Moravian Church. Area musicans including Susan Keck Foster and Timothy Olsen will perform her work.

Foster, an organist, will play “Dialogues for Organ and Strings,” originally commissioned by the late John Mueller.

“I attended the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists in Kansas City in July, and her ‘Dialogues’ were the featured piece in the gala concert. She is a presence in the national organ scene.”

Olsen, UNCSA Kenan professor of organ and associate professor of organ and associate director of the school of music at Salem, will play a work commissioned by the Kenan Institute at UNCSA for its 20th anniversary.

“I have performed a number of her works,” Olsen said. “Her compositions vary quite a bit. She has a very interesting harmonic language and interesting rhythmic drive. The music is very accessible. There is a lot of her music that church organists perform on a regular basis.

“I knew of her before I knew her personally, but you get the gamut of her personality through her music. Some of it is relaxed and subdued and lyrical that hints at her Southern ease, and at other times there is some feistiness, rhythmic flair and excitement.”

Olsen said that lyricism is at the heart of Sandresky’s work. “There is a part of the ‘Dialogues’ called ‘Aria’ that has just a really beautiful flowing, lilting quality, and was perhaps inspired by the organs at Salem college where she spent so much time.”

Sandresky was an organist for a time at Home Moravian, Centenary United Methodist and First Baptist on Fifth. She is a member of Highland Presbyterian Church where she sang in the choir.

In December, Sandresky was honored at a dinner dance presented by the North Carolina Society of New York, Inc., for her achievements in music. The society was founded in 1898 for North Carolinians living in New York: “To cultivate social intercourse among its members, to promote their common interests and contribute to the welfare of the State of North Carolina.”

Past honorees include actor Rosemary Harris, Frank and Julia Daniels, Bonnie McElveen Hunter and John Hope Franklin.

Sandresky is a composer, organist, theorist and teacher. She holds degrees from Salem College and the Eastman School of Music and received a Fulbright Award to study in Germany in 1955-56.

Barbara Lister-Sink, 72, succeeded Clem Sandresky as dean of music at Salem in 1986. She is currently Salem Distinguished Professor and director of the School of Music at Salem College.

Margaret Sandresky gave the seed money to begin the Sandresky/Lister-Sink Steinway Piano Restoration Project to restore the 17 vintage Steinway grand pianos at Salem. Lister-Sink and Sandresky have known one another for more than 50 years, starting when Sandresky was a college professor and Lister-Sink a high-school student.

“I was intimidated by her at first. She is formidable,” Lister-Sink said. “But she is completely gracious.

CLEMENS SANDRESKY

Clemens and Margaret Sandresky.

“All of my students just love her and think of her as the epitome of elegance and style. They are wowed by her. She is the best musical mentor that anybody could ever have.”

Musical heritage

Sandresky’s grandfather, Charles Graves Vardell, founded and was president of Flora MacDonald College in Red Springs, which became St. Andrews University in Laurinburg in 1961.

Her grandmother, Linda, who studied music at the New England Conservatory in Boston, founded the School of Music at Flora MacDonald.

Sandresky’s father, Charles Jr., moved the family to Winston-Salem in 1923, when he came to work at Salem College. Margaret Sandresky received her bachelor’s degree in organ music there in 1942, the year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II.

She received a master’s degree in composition from the Eastman School of Music in 1944 and was on the faculty at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio for two years.

“When I was teaching at Oberlin, you couldn’t buy a car or sugar,” Sandresky said. “The war had a huge impact on us.”

In 1946, missing her home, Sandresky returned to Winston-Salem and joined the music faculty at Salem College.

At her 95th birthday party, a few years ago, home movies of happy summer days in Blowing Rock and musical evenings in Winston-Salem played in the background.

Although, in the 1960s and ’70s, she focused primarily on raising their three children, Sandresky was never far from the musical life. She continued to teach music theory and composition at Salem. She was head of the organ department there 1948-1956 and taught music 1967-1986, when she retired.

She was tapped to establish the organ department in the School of Music for the newly minted N.C. School of the Arts — now UNC School of the Arts — and was there from 1965 to 1967.

“Another area of my life that I’m really proud of is music theory,” Sandresky said. “I love the Italian Renaissance, and I got into a new way to analyze that.”

She was the first woman to read a scholarly paper on music theory at a Society of Music Theory conference at Northwestern University and the first woman to publish a paper in the society’s journal, Music Theory Spectrum.

“She has a brilliant mind and a brilliant musical mind,” Lister-Sink said. “It never stops working. She has the highest compositional and musical standards. She never stops working or thinking about music or composing or probing music.

“She has a voracious appetite for learning and inquiring, an intellectual musical mind that never stops.”

Charles Fussell, a composer who now lives in Queens, N.Y., grew up in Winston-Salem with Sandresky, and they have stayed in close contact over the years.

“She is a wonderful organist and a wonderful harpsichord player, so she writes very well for organ,” Fussell said. “The fact that she’s written so hard and so steadily for so many years is extraordinary.”

In 1950, Sandresky won the Young Composer Award from theN.C. Symphony in 1950 for her composition, “The Three Marys.” She has written more than 100 pieces for orchestra and keyboards and shows no signs of letting up.

“Everyday, I could go in there and write music,” she said.

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