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Musician’s talent led him to work with stars

Tribune-Review
| Tuesday, September 2, 2008 12:00 a.m

A prodigy in the making as a young child, Bill Chrystal devoted his life to the piano and music, carving out a 40-year career with the Pittsburgh Symphony and other groups as well as teaching an eventual Tony Award-winning artist.

“Music was definitely his life,” said Mr. Chrystal’s wife, Anne Traeger. “He never thought of anything else.”

William A. Chrystal of Mt. Lebanon died Friday, Aug. 29, 2008. He was 77.

Mr. Chrystal started playing piano when he was 4. After listening to his sister practice, he would get on the instrument and play her lessons. He attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, where he earned a highly coveted Artist Diploma.

In Pittsburgh, Mr. Chrystal was a member of the symphony under the late William Steinberg. He played with the Civic Light Opera, the Pittsburgh Ballet orchestra and the Wheeling Symphony. He was a faculty member at Chatham and Carnegie Mellon universities, where he taught actors such as Ted Danson and Judith Light.

Mr. Chrystal had a private music studio in Mt. Lebanon, where during his heyday he taught up to 50 students a week, Traeger said.

One of his students was Stephen Flaherty, a Dormont native whose score for 1998’s “Ragtime” won a Tony. Traeger said her husband last saw his former pupil in 2007 when Flaherty premiered “The Glorious Ones,” a musical he wrote with Lynn Ahrens, at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Chrystal played piano for Steve Allen during a private benefit at Station Square. He also played during a reception for Leonard Bernstein when the composer visited Pittsburgh. Traeger said that was “one of the most enjoyable encounters” of her husband’s career.

But it was more because of Bernstein’s musical genius than his fame, she said.

“Bill was never turned by fame,” Traeger said. “If someone was famous, that was fine, but he was never awed by that.”

Bob Rawsthorne, a musician on “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” said he played countless gigs with Mr. Chrystal during more than 40 years of friendship. That included the performance with Allen.

“He wasn’t just a good player; he was a great player,” said Rawsthorne, 73, adding that Chrystal could play classical, Broadway tunes, pop, even jazz.

Rawsthorne’s daughter, Robin Malloy-Goldsby, was one of Mr. Chrystal’s students. Today, she’s a pianist at Lerbach Castle in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany.

“He always commanded respect as a musician and as a person,” Rawsthorne said. “If you were with him, you didn’t have to go through the back door — anywhere.”

Recalling a performance once at the Concordia Club in Oakland, Rawsthorne said the club manager wanted the band to move to the other side of the room.

“You might not understand my job,” Rawsthorne said Mr. Chrystal told the manager. “I’m here to play the piano, not move one.”

Then Mr. Chrystal turned to Rawsthorne. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll help you move your drums.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Chrystal is survived by a son, Scott Chrystal, and two grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Laughlin Memorial Chapel in Mt. Lebanon. Burial will be private.

Donations may be made to the National Parkinson’s Foundation, 1501 NW Ninth Ave. at Bob Hope Road, Miami, FL 33136.

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