Athens - On a Sunday afternoon in 1947, a young assistant professor from the University of Georgia performed Liszt's E-Flat Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Atlanta Symphony, and "with the first few bars of the fiery Liszt work, every one in the audience knew that a real artist was playing. Despite her small size, Miss Karlas was dynamic; she played with poise and grace and her interpretation of the difficult score was almost flawless." According to reviewer Howell Jones, "Shouts of 'Bravo!'-a cry rarely given by a music audience in Atlanta-greeted young Despy Karlas as she completed a truly brilliant performance as soloist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra." For more than five decades, that diminutive pianist made a name for herself as a performer and teacher, and every performance reinforced the early review; always, when Despy gave a concert, a real artist was playing.
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Despy Karlas Ljungdahl of Athens, Ga., died peacefully at her home in Athens on Tuesday, May 18, 2010. Born on November 17, 1919, in New Brunswick, N.J., she was the youngest daughter of Maria (n6e Maria Eliopoulos) and John Skourlas, first-generation Greek immigrants. Despy is survived by her husband of 12 years, Lars Gerhard Ljungdahl; his daughter, Ann-Sofie Rhedin, her husband, Michael, and their son, Tobias; his son, Lars Per Olof Ljungdahl, his wife, Cornelia Oellig, and children, Lisa, Johanna and Timas, all of Stockholm, Sweden; her nephew, John Johnnidis and his wife, Andrea, of New York; great-nephews, Jonathan and Christopher; and great-niece, Avril; and special friend, Thomas Powell Weaver. She was preceded in death by her three sisters, Dorothy Johnnidis, Sophie Stephens and Irine Skourlas; and by Christopher Durant Ballew, the son of her previous marriage to Leighton Ballew.
Despy began piano study at the age of eight and went on to earn degrees from The Juilliard School, Douglas College in New Jersey and the University of Illinois in Urbana. Her teachers were Muriel Kerr, Ernest Hutcheson, Webster Aitken and Soulima Stravinsky. Her early life as a professional musician included her duo-piano work with Sergei Barsukoff, a Russian pianist. The team of Karlas and Barsukoff soared both on the concert stage and in the air; Barsukoff was an aviation instructor for the United States Armed Forces, and under his tutelage, Despy learned to fly an amphibious, pontoon-equipped Luscomb aircraft. On one of her return visits to Juilliard, Despy was overheard practicing by Hugh Hodgson, the head of the University of Georgia's newly formed department of music. Hodgson immediately invited Despy to join his faculty in Athens, and she arrived by train in 1946, taking up residence in the Holman Hotel and later, in the University's Home Management Houses, where "Mr. Hugh" secured lodging for her. In those early days, the small faculty set the tone for the energy and vibrancy, which has characterized the music department, now the University of Georgia's Hugh Hodgson School of Music, over the years. It was this group that originated the much-loved Music Appreciation series of performances on Thursday evenings, sometimes deciding on Wednesday what the Thursday evening performance would offer. Despy thrived in that lively and creative environment, and her legacy of contributions to the musical life of the University and to Athens began during that exciting time. In later years, she would perform as a soloist and lecturer throughout the Southeast and internationally. Her long career, spanning four decades, threads the University of Georgia's past into its future; in 1978, for example, she and pianist Joseph Rezits performed the first concert of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Chamber Music Series, and that series has just completed its 32nd season.
Her generations of students remember her as a demanding and inspiring teacher, and many of them have built their own distinguished careers as teachers and performers. Over the years, Despy's students have visited her for coaching sessions as they prepared recitals, and many have brought their own students to play for her; but the tradition that may best reflect the close connection between Despy and her students is the "surprise" birthday parties, started by a group of students in the 1960s, that featured specially prepared songs, skits and poetry lampooning shared experiences in Despy's studio. The last of these parties was held on the occasion of Despy's 80th birthday, and, with former students from all over the country in attendance, Despy once again laughed along with those whose lives she had shaped.
Despy ended her formal teaching career in 1983, but her commitment to the University of Georgia's School of Music has continued through the establishment of The Despy Karlas Professorship Fund in 2003. Despy's intent for this fund was to provide support for students and faculty in the field of piano performance. Richard Zimdars, Professor of Piano at UGA since 1984, was selected as the first recipient of the Despy Karlas Professorship in Piano and continues to hold that position. As the steward of this distinguished professorship, Professor Zimdars has diligently honored the spirit of Despy's intent by supporting young pianists through such activities as the creation of The University of Georgia Despy Karlas Prize in conjunction with the William Garrison Piano Competition; the underwriting of guest performers and master classes; and financial support for graduate assistantships and piano competition entry fees.
To honor the life of her son, Christopher (1958-1983), Despy and Christopher's father, Leighton Ballew, established the Christopher Durant Ballew Memorial Fund through the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. This fund supported the establishment of an herb garden dedicated to Christopher's memory and the Christopher Durant Ballew Concert and Lecture Series. Despy herself, together with her longtime friend, pianist Joseph Rezits of the Indiana University School of Music, inaugurated the concert series with a four-hand piano concert on June 19, 1993. Every year since, the beautiful Cecil B. Day Chapel on the grounds of the State Botanical Gardens has been the site of a fall concert presented by a variety of distinguished musicians.
In honor of her husband, Lars, Despy established the Ljungdahl Lectureship in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology through the Arch Foundation for the University of Georgia. This annual guest lecture series invites a distinguished research scientist to Athens to deliver a lecture on his/her research findings.
Despy lived her life with all the poise, grace and energy that marked her piano performances. She was a warm hostess and a loyal friend; she was a tennis fan and a voracious traveller; she grew beautiful roses without even trying, and she laughed openly and often. She valued her association with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, of which she was a founding member, maintaining many close friendships through the Fellowship. And in the last years of her life, she found happiness in her marriage to Lars; as writer Phil Williams said, "Despy and Lars have shared their great gifts with students, faculty and friends for many years. Among those gifts, however is one that everyone wants but few receive: a happy ending. That, too, is a legacy that endures."
A memorial celebration of Despy's life is planned for later in the summer. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to The Despy Karlas Professorship in Piano, Hugh Hodgson School of Music, University of Georgia, 250 River Road, Athens, GA 30602; or to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, Despy Karlas Memorial Fund, 780 Timothy Road, Athens, GA 30606.
Lord and Stephens, EAST, is in charge of arrangements. www.lordandstephens.com.
Published in Athens Banner-Herald on May 20, 2010
Lord & Stephens Funeral Home - East Chapel
4355 Lexington Road Athens, GA 30605