Her grand gesture

From mom of five to the U of A’s first doctoral grad in piano performance, Lillian Upright’s next act will inspire a new generation

16 November 2020

She was 41 when she’d finally run out of excuses.

Lillian Upright, since she was a girl, had dreamed of one day striding onto a stage to play piano with a major orchestra, a “knock ‘em dead” dress flowing elegantly behind her. Instead, she did everything her parents (both
born at the turn of the last century) expected of her: Get married. Stay home. Raise children.

“I had the idea that, ultimately, what a woman should do is marry and have kids,” Lillian says. Which is why going to school for piano performance took a back seat for the first half of her life.

“And also, I think I was chicken,” the now 86-year-old says, then roars with laughter.

Lillian eventually reached her dream of studying piano and offering a major recital. A gift in her estate to rehabilitate Convocation Hall at the University of Alberta will help ensure that other promising musicians get the performance experience they need to realize their highest potential.

In the mid-1970s, after her five sons had left home, Lillian started studying piano at the University of Alberta — a program she knew to be one of the foremost in Canada. In just over a decade of tireless study, Lillian would become the first person at the U of A to receive a doctorate in piano performance.

That opened the door for her to perform across the country and to deepen her piano instruction by training teachers. She also continued her busy job as long-time music director at the United Church in St. Albert, Alta. One day in 1998, she finally summoned the courage to realize her dream to perform with a major orchestra. While shopping at a local deli, she cornered Edmonton Symphony Orchestra director Grzegorz Nowak and firmly asked for an audition. Grzegorz agreed and within a year, Lillian was featured at the Winspear Centre, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Minor — a dramatic piece she had been working to perfect since age 11.

After she retired from teaching at age 75, Lillian wondered what more she could accomplish through music. She sat down one day and thought about how she could help — through her estate. Her sons had families of their own and were financially Independent.

“Next to my family, music has been that essential thing in my life,” says Lillian, ’80 BA, ’82 MMus, ’88 DMus.

“And the U of A music program did so much for me, accepting me in my forties and helping to shape me as a performer.”

A crucial part of her education was playing in Convocation Hall, the university’s historic recital space.

“To become a great performer, you have to have a great performance space with a great piano and good acoustics.”

Convocation Hall was opened in 1915 and today is hampered by an outdated stage and seating, noisy mechanical systems, inadequate dressing rooms and poor sightlines.

After learning that, Lillian decided almost on the spot to direct her estate in support of the renewal of Convocation Hall.

Her gift will help ensure that U of A music students have a first-rate venue where they can perform and record recitals, setting the stage for their own dreams of musical greatness.

“Music has kept me alive,” Lillian says. “It is a privilege to be able to help new students realize that the joy it has brought me can be theirs as well.”