The Bronsons of Carmel

Lyn & Renee Photo 2_edited-2By Scott MacClelland

IT’S A LOVE STORY that began nearly six decades ago. Carmel native Renée and New York City native Lyn were students, she at Monterey Peninsula College, he at Monterey Presidio’s Defense Language Institute studying German and Russian. She was still in her teens, he in his mid-20s, when they met at a Carmel dinner party during which most of the guests were so absorbed in social chitchat that Renée and Lyn spent the evening playing their hostess’s piano in another room. “We were the only ones left standing,” says Renée. Both accomplished musicians with sensitive ears, their fate was sealed by Steinway & Sons.

After Yale and its ROTC program, Lyn Bronson was trained as a counterintelligence officer in Baltimore. “I was a spook,” he says of his six years in the army, some spent in a New York City Field Office and some later in Germany interviewing defectors from then-East Germany. “Most intelligence gathering is routine and boring, but the interesting part was the liaison with local police agencies and the FBI including occasions when I was part of surveillance teams observing members of Soviet trade and United Nations delegations.” Although he was issued credentials, a badge and a firearm, he never had occasion to draw his weapon.

It was in Düsseldorf, where he was assigned to the US Consulate, that Lyn and Renée were married, on her 21st birthday, and when their parents met for the first time. (At least two of the four parents were not happy about the marriage.) The newlyweds then honeymooned on the French Riviera. After his military service, Lyn worked in several careers, at the Bank of New York, Columbia Records and CBS Musical Instruments. While at Columbia Records he got to know some big names in classical piano, including Lili Krauss, Eugene Istomin and “the totally self-centered and a little ripe” Glenn Gould. At age 39, “I decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in piano performance at CSU Fullerton,” he says. In New York Renée was invited by the esteemed Australian pianist Bruce Hungerford to play for him. For four years, her lessons with Hungerford, some lasting as long as two hours, regularly left her “walking on air.” At some point the couple sold their VW bug and bought their first Steinway.

At CSU Fullerton, Renée studied with Earle C. Voorhies and took her master’s degree and Lyn completed his graduate studies and joined the piano faculty. And while they both felt the temptation of concert careers they came to understand the hazards. “Jean-Philippe Collard, past the age of 50, told me you really get to hate it, the traveling, hotels, airports, reception lines.” And though a concert superstar and a product of the Paris Conservatoire, “He was never asked to teach there.” By contrast, Lyn explains, “Roy Bogas at the San Francisco Conservatory, Jura Margulis at Fulbright College of the University of Arkansas and Hans Boepple at Santa Clara University—all excellent musicians—have good faculty jobs and plenty of opportunities to perform.”

In 1974, after Fullerton, the Bronsons decided to return to Carmel and open a teaching studio. “We have about 40 students at any given time,” says Lyn. “Many of them have gone on to teaching and performing careers at American conservatories.” Over time the ratio of the most motivated and talented among them tilts back and forth between Renée and Lyn. “It was not long after we came back here that we gained some real success among area piano teachers,” Lyn adds. The Bronsons became active with the Monterey County Branch of the Music Teachers’ Association of California and the California Association of Professional Music Teachers. Both Bronsons have performed many times, in solo, duo and with other music presenters, over a long span of time, locally and elsewhere. In 1990 they were featured duo-pianists at the State Convention of the California Association of Professional Music Teachers.

In 1981, Lyn and Renée attended the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Ft. Worth and found out that the competition winners could be engaged “for a few hundred dollars.” They decided to create a keyboard series called Bronson Concerts to be held “at Sunset Center when it was still affordable,” says Lyn, “small audiences, cheap rent.” Then superstar pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, a great friend of photographer Ansel Adams, bought a house in Carmel. The Bronsons approached Ashkenazy in the hope of engaging his son. Bronson explains, “He said, ‘You don’t want me? I’ll do it for nothing to help you get started.’” Suddenly, Bronson Concerts turned into the Keyboard Artist Series and, until 1996, attracted many of the biggest names in classical piano, nationally and internationally. It became a Golden Age for classical music in Carmel. “We sold out the first few seasons, all 700 seats at Sunset. We did all the work ourselves,” Lyn says. In addition to Van Cliburn winners they brought in Cuba-born Jorge Bolet, Nelson Freire from Brazil and Americans Misha Dichter and André Watts. “But In the second season Watts did not sell out despite his near superstar status.” (As a teenager Watts had been championed nationally by Leonard Bernstein.) “I remember Dichter playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10, followed by Freire’s amazing revival of that trashy piece. It was really great,” Lyn told me.

But the single most unforgettable performance in the entire Keyboard Artists Series was in the winter of 1987 when Bolet played Liszt’s transcription of the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser. “I thought I was having a heart attack,” says Lyn. “I realized that I had stopped breathing,” adds Renée. But that Golden Age began to fade when artist fees and other expenses went up. “With second-tier artists our audiences began to decline.” Shutting down the Keyboard Artist Series was a huge disappointment to lovers of classical piano on the Monterey Peninsula, but an understandable move by the Bronsons.

The Bronsons are known as a team pulling together in the same direction. But a rough patch is inevitable. Renée says they were sharply divided over the Hatton Canyon Freeway controversy in the early 2000s. “He was for it, I was against it,” she says. “We almost got divorced,” she now jokes. Today, Lyn serves as founding editor of the on-line Peninsula Reviews covering classical music in the Monterey Bay and SF Bay Areas. Privately, the Bronsons invite keyboard artists and about 30 guests into their Carmel Highlands home three or four times a year to hear selected artists, upcoming and veterans, play on one or two of their side-by-side nine-foot Steinway D grands—the very ones they use while teaching their students. (Most recent, Hans Boepple dazzled—and raised a workout sweat—in Brahms’ Handel Variations.) These pro bono events are huge treats to the Bronson’s invited friends and fellow musicians. Likewise, Lyn and Renée also host recitals by their accomplished students and, on rare occasions, perform themselves as well. Most of the Bronsons’ students now are from Asian culture families, many ambitious to win competitions.

“I’m 83,” Lyn says. “I practice two to three hours a day and teach close to six. I love what I’m doing.” Same is true for Renée, if not exactly in the same words; read ambitious piano buffs. She knows; she was raised by one herself.