Jean Bartlett


Jean's Magazines     


Lunch at the Cliff House with pianist Barbara Sprung Wilkes
December 5, 2006
By Jean Bartlett, Managing Editor

Barbara Sprung Wilkes
Barbara Sprung Wilkes

Cliff HouseThe sky shined blue over San Francisco’s Pacifica Ocean as classical pianist Barbara Sprung Wilkes recently sat down to discuss her circuitous road to the modern day stage over lunch at the Cliff House.  Born in Rockaway Beach, New York, raised in Forest Hills, Wilkes became interested in piano at age 5.  By age 6, her mother saw the talent and put Barbara under the tutelage of pianist Edwin Hughes.  From age 8 until age 14, Barbara studied with renowned classical teacher Alexander Lipsky.  She then continued her studies with master piano teacher Clarence Adler.  High school was spent at the High School of Music and Art in New York City with summers at Deerwood Adirondack Music Center (Music Camp.)  By age 16, Barbara was walking the hallways of Adelphi University, New York heading towards her bachelor’s in music – and all along, there were the concerts. Barbara began playing concerts before she was 10 and she loved it.  She thrived on it.

At age 12, Barbara had her first appearance as soloist with an orchestra and played Beethoven’s “First Piano Concerto.”  By age 14 she had worked up to the Grieg “Piano Concerto” and played that with the Queens Symphony Orchestra.  It was at age 17 while performing a program at Steinway Hall on West 57 Street that Barbara had a social epiphany.  For the performance she had played: “Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue” (Bach), “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” (Franck); “Etude in D Flat Major” and “Polonaise in A Flat Major” (Chopin) and “Concerto in A Minor” (Schumann).  Finished with her recital, Wilkes went to chat with friends in the audience.  After much congratulation, her friends waved goodbye and left for Rumplemeyer’s Ice Cream Parlor.  Barbara went home with her parents.  It was then Barbara realized that she could not be the concert pianist who had a minimal social life; she liked people too much for that.  No daily four to six hour sessions at the piano for Barbara.  She would practice two hours a day; take it or leave it.

Out of college by age 20, with an additional string background in cello, and a bit of world travels under her belt, Barbara accepted a job of teaching strings and orchestra at the elementary level in the East Meadow public schools in New York.  While teaching, Barbara also went on to receive her Masters in Conducting from Teachers College Columbia University.  She also met Bob.

Barbara’s aunt and Bob’s mother lived in the same apartment building.  Meeting up in the laundry room, the ladies got to talking and the next thing you know, Barbara and Robert Seth Wilkes met on a blind date.  The date took place over coffee near the International Airport.  Barbara was leaving for a two week trip to Mexico.  Bob was getting ready to begin his internship at Kings County Hospital.  Still they clicked and would eventually marry and move to California.

With Barbara’s help, Bob set up a solo internal medicine practice in Novato and their family grew to include three wonderful children.  Barbara worked as her husband’s financial manager.  She also remained thoroughly involved in music though not as a concert pianist.  She conducted a twenty-six member choral group in Marin.  She received her California teaching credential and was hired to teach strings and orchestra in the middle schools in San Rafael.  She conducted for two semi professional opera companies, Novato Lyric Opera and North Bay Opera, both in Novato.  She was asked to take on the high school orchestra program.  She did this as well.  Along the way she incurred a neck injury which left her in traction for weeks and out of commission for several months.  Unable to lift heavy orchestra instruments, Barbara took a Career Counseling Certificate at JFK University and went on to work as a vocational rehabilitation counselor.

Barbara says: “When we moved out to California it wasn’t in the cards for me to continue with piano, and I didn’t mind.”  She did play piano to coach singers and to conduct her choral group.  “But playing is one thing,” says Barbara. “Performing and studying seriously is quite another.”  People would ask Barbara to play ‘something’ and she would say: “No.”  She didn’t want to play something if: “I hadn’t practiced; if I hadn’t worked at it; if I was not going to do it right.”  Her husband loved Barbara’s piano playing, but even he could not convince her to perform in concert.

Barbara’s husband Bob was her soul mate.  He loved and admired her independence, and it was her independence which allowed her to survive his death in 2000 and step out to see what the world had to offer. 

Quite by accident, Barbara came across a bundle of old letters from her days at Music Camp.  The letters were written by a friend from Music Camp, long since a successful violinist and conductor, who had admired Barbara’s talent on piano.  Amazingly through the Internet, Barbara located her friend, and he reiterated his still unwavering belief in her piano magic.  Inspired, Barbara sat down to the piano.  But she worried: “would the fingers work, the arms, the shoulders, the brain – would the memory work.”

Barbara spent the next four months rediscovering her talent and she was pleasantly surprised.  Exercises and pieces she had played in the past were coming back.  She began working with a coach, classical pianist Sylvia Jenkins.  Jenkins, now a dear friend, proved to be a powerful teacher and inspiration.  Barbara attended Jenkins master classes, now she performs at the master classes.  Doors opened and people listened.  She recorded her first CD during the summer of 2003.  At a solo recital in November of 2003, Barbara recorded her second CD.  She has since recorded several more CDs.  Since her “quote” comeback; Barbara has presented recitals in New York, Northern and Southern California and in Northern Florida.  In addition, she has performed both in solo recital and as soloist with orchestras.

Recently at a Victorian Englander House performance in San Francisco, which I attended, Barbara Sprung Wilkes presented: Schumann’s “Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 54.”  Accompanied by The San Francisco Concerto Orchestra under the baton of Geoffrey Gallegos, pianist Wilkes allowed the magnificent language of Schumann to flow through her fingers in an exhilarating display of light, poetry and virtuosity.  Her performance brought the crowd to its feet.

“Life is a funny thing,” says Barbara.  “Being at the right place at the right time and availing yourself of the opportunities as they present themselves, and knowing what to do with them – and that’s where I’ve been lucky.  I think that is part of my independent spirit.  If I had known five years ago what I would be doing in the last few years, what I am telling you about today; I wouldn’t have believed it.”