Thomas Zoells, Founder and Executive Director of PianoForte Chicago and PianoForte Foundation, was named as the recipient of the 2016 Ruth D. and Ken M. Davee Excellence in the Arts Award by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra. Zoells will be presented with the award at the IPO's May 7 Season Finale at Lincoln-Way North Performing Arts Center in Frankfort.
The award is given to individuals and/or organizations who go above and beyond in supporting, promoting and encouraging the arts as cultural lifeblood.
Marilynn Tannebaum, a past IPO board president and current board member said this about the woman in whose honor the award is named:
She (Ruth M. Davee) did so much for us that we felt we wanted to honor other people who had given, too. We hope that when we give the award that we are recognizing people who are outstanding in their efforts to promote the arts.
Fellow board member Bill Hofmann echoed that sentiment in explaining why Zoells and PianoForte were selected saying, "I was impressed with Mr. Zoells' altruistic spirit. He didn't want to use the concert series just to promote his business, but had a desire to further the art of the piano and connect it to an audience without regard to any personal benefit or recognition."
Born in Switzerland, Zoells had a background in arts management and banking. However, after relocating and later emigrating to the United States, he found himself a new career in 2004.
"My desire was always to bring people together with music, and so combining a piano store with a non-profit that would promote piano culture seemed totally logical and natural. Needless to say, the store is the non-profit's biggest sponsor and supporter in kind and in deed," Zoells explained.
In PianoForte's new space at 1335 S. Michigan Avenue,
a three-story industrial building from 1906 has been converted into a piano center on 11,900 square feet. Only the first floor is dedicated to sales, whereas the second floor is entirely dedicated to a 100-seat recital hall with wonderful acoustics and state of the art equipment, along with a recording studio, practice rooms available for rent and a rehearsal room.
In addition, PianoForte's concert programming has become varied and broad, according to Zoells. It includes classical, jazz, contemporary and family-oriented concerts centered around the piano, regular broadcasts on WFMT 98.7FM and WDCB 90.9FM, YouTube live streaming of their concerts and the biennial Chicago Amateur Piano Competition.
It should also be noted that Zoells, since the inception of PianoForte Foundation, has acted as a volunteer Executive Director, without pay.
"It has always been our long-term goal to grow sufficiently to where we can hire a professional Executive Director. But we are not quite there yet," he explained.
In the meantime, the foundation has a full-time Managing Director and hopes to add a part-time assistant soon. The organization
supports a piano donation program, primarily benefiting the Chicago Public Schools, and a scholarship program helping children to learn the piano at no cost.
Looking to the future, Zoells says that the foundation's strongest desire is to stem the tide of the lack of music education at the lower grade levels
"So we hope to some day soon develop programs to bring piano education to these under-served schools. Performance is great, but we have to build the audiences of the future," Zoells said.
On a personal note, Zoells, who calls himself an amateur pianist and is active in many area music groups which play house concerts, says his favorite PianoForte event is the Schubertiade.
"I have a strong weakness for Schubert. It's my favorite thing that we do and our most successful event. It's like a Schubert perform-a-thon where we have two or three stages with (Schubert) music playing all day," Zoells shared.
And in a year in which the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra has performed several major works by Schubert, it is particularly fitting that the IPO honors Zoells with the Davee Award, added Dr. Charles Amenta, IPO board member and Artistic Committee chair.
"He has been one of the great patrons of classical music in the Chicago area for many years," Amenta affirmed.
Zoells will receive the award on Saturday, May 7, at 8PM at the beginning of the Season Finale (and Maestro David Danzmayr's final concert with the IPO). The program includes Zamastil's
Archive IV/Passacaglia, Piazzolla's
The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires with guest violinist Lindsay Deutsch and Tchaikovsky's stunning Symphony No. 4. Tickets are available at ipomusic.org or 708.481.7774.
Previous Davee Award winners include Larry Johnson (Chicago Classical Review and The Classical Review), James Ginsburg (Cedille Records), and 98.7 WFMT and the WFMT Radio Network, among others.
For more information, please contact Executive Director Eska Koester at 708.481.7774.