Obituary: Reva Ballreich

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On Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009, Reva Ballreich, widely known as “The Lilac Lady,” died peacefully in Rancho Mirage at the age of 84, three days after her birthday.

A piano prodigy who gave her first concert in Germany at age 8, Ballreich enjoyed a luminous career as a concert pianist primarily in Europe. Vladimir Horowitz, with whom Ballreich studied, said of her, “Miss Ballreich was my most talented student. The beauty of her playing is not to be found in books or scores. It is the purest God-given talent I have ever known. Many, many times I have been reduced to tears when I have listened to her play.”

Ballreich performed with the New York Philharmonic, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, as a substitute soloist when Russian violinist Peter Chzeryng canceled because of illness. After 11 curtain calls, the diminuitive Ballreich walked off the stage to a standing ovation.

Her international career came to an abrupt halt in 1971, when carpal tunnel syndrome, developed over years of repetitive practice and performance, forced its end. Ballreich was only 46 at the time.

Ballreich’s Idyllwild property had been in the family for 81 years, built by her father in 1928. She retired there in 1982. Friend Gary Parton, commenting on how Ballreich dealt with a sudden end to an illustrious concert career, said, “She turned her intelligence to raising lilacs.” Mentored by Idyllwild local Tommy Emanuel, known as “The Lilac King,” Ballreich planted her first lilac shrub in Idyllwild shortly after her return. She became a member, and then served as president, of the International Lilac Society, planting, hybridizing, cultivating, and eventually displaying more than 887 lilac varietals on her property. Each spring, Ballreich opened her garden to the public — her gift to the community.

Ballreich’s expertise in raising lilacs soon eclipsed her fame as a concert pianist. Most online searches turn up Ballreich’s fame as a lilac grower and aficionado, and little of her concert career. She designed the lilac garden at the base of the Statue of Liberty, using French lilacs in magenta, white and blue, honoring the flags of both the United States and France, the donor of Miss Liberty. For the garden at Will Roger’s Oklahoma birthplace, Ballreich used only American lilacs.

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