An unexpected connection, and the captivating story of a piano maestro

“Number 23?”

“That’s me,” I said to the smiling, older, short-of-stature lady as I stood up from a chair in the waiting area of the radiology department at Medical City Arlington.

We chatted while I walked with her through the doors, down the hall and toward a room where I took another seat and she asked me questions about the procedure I was there for. I’d be swallowing a capsule full of radioactive iodine targeting my thyroid, which has spent several years being hyperactively uncooperative.

But before that, this same lady who’d soon plop the pill into my hand and bring me ice water to drink it down would delight me with the most amazing memories of her adoptive father, a classically trained pianist who was born into a Jewish family in Germany, raised in Austria and came to the United States in the early 1940s.

It was a recent Thursday, and I was about to receive a treatment that would necessitate my spending the following three days locked in our bedroom — so I wouldn’t expose anyone else to the radiation supposedly oozing from my pores. The security measures were unusual, and a bit unnerving.

Some of the most gratifying moments in our lives come when we meet strangers and connect, hear their stories and are touched by them. The last thing I expected when I arrived at the hospital that day was that I’d meet someone like Maria Hilliard, supervisor of nuclear medicine at MCA.

Maria Hilliard (third from left), with some of her colleagues at Medical City Arlington. (Photo from Maria Hilliard)

After we sat down and she contacted the oncologist to let him know I’d arrived, we began visiting and found out we shared a bond as fellow adoptees. As Maria told me about how she’d been adopted in the Chicago area after she was born in 1951 and the remarkable story of her adoptive parents began to unfold, I quickly became engrossed.

My love of classical music and the fascinating history of Maria’s father, Stefan Bardas, drew me in. And, not only was her father a pianist — her mother, Luisa, who was born in Riva, Italy, was as well.

Maria told me that her father, born in 1914, was teaching piano at Northwestern University when she was adopted. He took a job in 1954 as a professor of music at North Texas State College in Denton, where he remained on faculty until 1980.

Stefan Bardas taught piano at several colleges and universities, including Northwestern, Carroll College and Wesleyan University.

But as Maria and I waited for the doctor, she told me one of the most shocking chapters of her father’s life. If not for an incredible twist of fate, he might never have made it to the United States — or survived to be her father.

When he was about 19 (she believes he was in Germany), Stefan was in a train station and dropped his identification papers. A Nazi soldier picked them up, found and detained him, noting that he was a pianist. Stefan was given a choice: He could either perform for Hitler and earn his freedom, or he could be hauled away to a concentration camp. Maria said it was a painful decision for her father, but he grudgingly chose to perform for the Führer.

Stefan survived the Holocaust by attending school in Rome at the Conservatory of Saint Cecilia, earning his bachelor’s degree in music. There, he met Luisa, and they married after immigrating to the U.S. Maria said they both performed, and years later, gave private lessons to young children.

After arriving in New York, Stefan played popular music in piano bars and taught young students. He served as a piano teacher at Carroll College and Wesleyan University before joining the Northwestern faculty.

From 1954 to 1980, Stefan Bardas was a professor of music and artist in residence at the former North Texas State College in Denton, where he gave numerous solo recitals. (UNT Libraries Special Collections)

Another extraordinary memory Maria shared: When she was a young girl in the 1950s in Denton, the famed pianist Van Cliburn was her baby-sitter. She said he always read her stories about trains and let her jump on the bed before her parents came home. This must have been not long before, at age 23, Cliburn became a global sensation by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

I asked Maria if her father performed with orchestras; she said he did some, but most of his performances were solo. Stefan was known worldwide for his mastery of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and for a fingering technique he developed for pianists with small hands. After retiring from North Texas, he continued to teach piano part time at El Paso Community College, and was an adjunct faculty member at New Mexico State University.

Stefan Bardas was known worldwide for his mastery of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.
He’s shown during a Denton performance in 1968. (UNT Libraries Special Collections)

I also asked Maria at the hospital if her parents’ piano gifts had rubbed off on her, and she smiled and said they hadn’t. She played the flute growing up in Denton, where she graduated from Denton High in 1970.

“My parents gave me a wonderful, loving musical life,” she messaged me later. “I look back and think of it as almost magical. I only appreciate and love classical music today because of both of them.”

Maria has invited me to get together at a Starbucks sometime and talk more about her parents, and I’m sure I’ll take her up on the offer. Hopefully she’ll share a recording or two of her father’s music with me, because I’m eager to listen to his virtuosity.

In messages we’ve exchanged, Maria has told me that after her father passed away in 2008, his family spread his ashes in the Rocky Mountains in Estes Park because they reminded him of the Alps in Austria and Italy. She said her brother’s ashes are also there, and hers will be someday. Her mother is buried in her Italian home of Riva.

Stefan and Luisa Bardas in Estes Park, Colorado, where the Bardas family spent their summers. Their daughter Maria says it reminded them of their beloved Alps. (Photo from Maria Hilliard)

As I Googled Stefan, gazing at numerous photos and reading through the many references, I found his obituary. The opening words are a fitting tribute to a piano maestro held in high esteem by his countless students and the pantheon of classical music:

“Stefan Bardas passed away quietly, like the codetta of a Beethoven Sonata, with a perfect cadence in the appropriate key, confirming the tonality of his life and his death, on April 29, 2008, after a long and inspiring 93-year life dedicated to teaching the piano.”

Thank you for walking me through some of your family’s unique history, Maria. I feel privileged to have learned about your parents and, especially, your father’s vast influence on young piano students and classical music.

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