WRITTEN BY SUSAN MAYER DAVIS, PHOTOGRAPHED BY SARA MOORE
Light the candles and turn up the tunes. Newnan’s native son and internationally renowned music maestro, Charles Wadsworth, turns 90 on May 21.
Wadsworth fans from near and far visited Newnan in March to celebrate his birthday during Wadsworth Weekend, which featured four events and hundreds of visitors sharing stories dedicated to the homegrown musician and famed pianist. Wadsworth Weekend is an expansion of the annual Friends of Wadsworth concert, held here and hosted by Wadsworth for more than 20 years.
“Charles Wadsworth’s influence on the city of Newnan has been immense,” says John Thrasher of the Newnan Cultural Arts Commission. “His world-class performances, performed so that everyone could enjoy them, brought a touch of sophistication and culture to Newnan and advanced many musically talented students on their careers.”
Wadsworth was not able to attend the event due to health issues but shared his memories of growing up in Newnan from his current home in New York City.
“Newnan is a unique place,” he says. “My education and early passion for music were nurtured there.”
“It is hard to imagine the eternally youthful Charles Wadsworth turning 90,” says Courtenay Budd, soprano and host of the annual event, who toured and performed with Wadsworth. “If anyone could be described as young at heart, it’s Charles. His easy and accessible style while hosting hundreds of concerts, including those in Newnan, make even the most senior audience members feel young again.”
Susan Wadsworth, the maestro’s wife of 52 years, shares her husband’s passion for music and musicians, and their professional lives have been intertwined for decades. Susan founded Young Concert Artists (YCA), a nonprofit, in l961. When they met at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in l963, their artistic collaboration began as Charles brought artists from her YCA roster to perform in his chamber music concerts at the festival there and later in Charleston, S.C.
During his 20 years as founder and artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Charles worked with many renowned artists, including violinist Pinchas Zukerman, flutist Paula Robison, and pianists Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax and Murray Perahia, to name a few.
On turning 90, Charles says, “I think it’s unusual for a person like me, not very athletic, to make it this far. But the hard part was making it to 90. I figure it will be an easy slide to reach 100 from here.”
He claims the secret to a long life: “Don’t stop trying out interesting new things.”
That, he has done his whole life.
“My goal is to make people feel better by being around me,” he says. “Music makes people feel alive. I feel so lucky that I live in a beautiful world full of music, and I want to share it with others.”
The Wadsworths’ daughter, Rebecca, shares memories of her dad.
“When NBC’s program, ‘20/20,’ did their portrait of my father in 1985, they came to Charleston to film him during the Spoleto Festival,” she recalls. “I mentioned that they could set up a shot of him sitting on the floor with his back to the keyboard, with my father’s hands crossed behind his head playing the piano backwards, an amazing trick he loved to do. They took my suggestion, and it looked great.”
Beryl Rajnic, his older daughter, recalls benefit concerts her father orchestrated.
“He planned benefit concerts for Camphill Village, the residential community where my developmentally disabled brother David lives,” says Rajnic, noting that residents would come onstage and play at the end of the concerts. “It was tremendously moving for me to see my brother standing on the stage of Carnegie Hall, or Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, playing his chime bar like he has seen our father do.”
Rajnic also recalls a story her father shares from his teen years in Newnan.
“He was asked to substitute as a guest organist in a local church where the regular organist never pulled out the big stops,” says Rajnic. “He enthusiastically pulled out all the organ stops and proceeded to play with great gusto, at which point the air shooting up through the organ pipes blew a rainfall of bugs onto the choir ladies who frantically tried to brush them off as they sang. He didn’t tell me if he ever got invited back.”
Aria Rajnic, 19, appreciates how her grandfather mentors others.
“I simply adore my grandpa’s passion for bringing musicians together to share their gifts in a way that brings joy,” she says.
Her sister, Aliya Rajnic, shares a memory of her grandfather playing a grand piano: “He asked if I had something I’d like to hear, and I asked him to play ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and he simply played it–no sheet music, no prep time. It came right from his memory, and it was absolutely beautiful.”
Friends and fellow musicians at Wadsworth Weekend 2019 shared memories and comments about the musician’s sense of humor, mentorship and kindness, attributes that complement his musicality and international fame.
“Charles Wadsworth has given so much back to his hometown–always with a great sense of humor and a lot of grace,” says Newnan Times-Herald News Editor Winston Skinner. “Interviewing him has always been a joy. Charles always tells a good story.”
Newnan resident and historian Elizabeth Beers, a high school friend and classmate of Charles, shares a story from their school years.
“He was one of those harmless flirts who made the girls feel good about themselves,” says Beers. “Some of us jokingly called him ‘The Wolf of the West,’ but it was all in fun. I became one of his many fans as he awed us with his ability to play the piano while sitting backward on the bench.”
Echoing others’ sentiments related to Charles’ intrinsic kindness and humor, his wife describes him as “the most delightful, warm, witty, loving, adorable husband anyone could have.”
Charles puts it all in perspective, sharing sage advice with his friends, fans and family members as his 90th birthday approaches: “The purpose of life is to keep doing what you do to make people around you feel better,” he concludes.
Charles Wadsworth’s Music Reaches Peers, Performers and Presidents
Newnan’s Wadsworth Auditorium shares strength and stature with the man for whom it is named: Charles Wadsworth.
The classical pianist and famed music promoter celebrates his 90th birthday on May 21.
Born and educated in Newnan, Wadsworth lives in New York City with his wife, Susan. Until declining health restricted travel in recent years, he made the annual trip to Georgia for the Friends of Wadsworth benefit concert at the auditorium named for him in 1998.
Wadsworth grew up in Newnan where he worked in a grocery store, routinely fetching hens from the back alley whenever a customer fancied fried chicken for dinner.
By the age of 12, the piano prodigy was performing in public. About the same time, he began taking music lessons from Hugh Hodgson, namesake of the music school at the University of Georgia in Athens. At age 19, Hodgson suggested Wadsworth move to New York. The teenager made the move and studied at Juilliard.
In 1959, Wadsworth was hired to direct the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, where he gained international fame by introducing American musicians to European audiences.
In 1965, he was named Founding Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, where he led concert series for 20 seasons. In 1977, he started the chamber concert series of the Spoleto Festival USA, in Charleston, S.C., which he directed, hosted and performed in through 2009.
During his career, he worked with famous musicians such as Leonard Bernstein and Yo-Yo Ma, garnered numerous awards and received three honorary doctorates.
Along with thrilling audiences of his peers, he performed at the White House for five U.S. presidents: Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan.
The University of West Georgia created the Charles Wadsworth Music Scholarship in honor of Wadsworth in 1990. The scholarship is awarded to an incoming music major who demonstrates artistic excellence and potential as an instrumentalist or vocalist.
Next year’s annual Friends of Wadsworth Concert on March 14 kicks off the 2020 Wadsworth Week, which culminates with the Charles Wadsworth Piano Competition set for March 20-22 at Nixon Center for the Performing Arts.