The Life of John Downey

February 18th, 2009  ·  comments: 0

John and Irusha DowneyWelcome to the life of John Downey – American contemporary composer, conductor and musician. My father and beloved mother, Irusha, not only loved music and the Arts, but they also loved seeing our youth — not just getting an education, but actually understanding and embracing what they’ve been taught. If you’ve had the great fortune to spend time and create a memory with my parents, please share that moment for all to experience. Whether it was a meaningful concert, a memory surrounding a performance you attended or a piece you heard, or a special time spent with my parents, please tell us about it. Takes just a moment to convey your story, and from it, others will laugh and learn. If you never met my parents, please let this site serve as an introduction to their accomplishments and life contributions.

My parents were pillars of strength for so many. Their love for each other was unparalleled, romantic and true. And they knew how to celebrate life. I miss them dearly but thoughts of them bring a smile to me every day. Thank you for keeping their spirit alive.


Mrs. Irusha Downey Fashion Article, Chicago Sun Times March 27, 1959

February 18th, 2009  ·  comments: 0


Photo Caption: Mrs. Irene Downey, a Russian language instructor for WTTW, keeps her TV wardrobe simple. Gray tweed suit affords just the right contrast against dark blackboard. Her pearl jewelry does not reflect studio lights yet adds appropriate finishing touch to the costume. She comes across television screen particularly well.

So You’re Going On Television;
What to Know About Styles and Makeup

by Jean Krueger

You never know, these days, when you might be the lady looking smack into the open lens of a television camera.

More and more novices are being drawn into the TV world of contestants, campaigns and panels.  Few are prepared for their debut.

After the shock of learning she’s scheduled to “go on,” the immediate feminine reaction is “What will I wear?”  Well, there are some pretty firm rules of TV clothes conduct and they have to do with more than necklines.

The keynote is simplicity and the safest color is pastel.  The worst thing you can do is wear black or white or trimmed with the other.  Another TV cameraman’s nightmare — glittering jewelry.

We visited the studios of WTTW (Channel 11) the other day and talked with Robert Carolan, producer of the educational station’s college programs.  As such, Carolan comes in contact with the educators who teach all of the station’s college courses.  Often he has to do some educating himself, concerning the do’s and don’ts of television wardrobes.

In order to avoid “burn in” — the halo effect which outlines sharp color contrast — Carolan advises his amateur performers on clothes selection, jewelry and makeup.  Medium colors, eh says, show off best against light backgrounds, or vice versa.  There should be a contrast between performer and background, but not a sharp delineation of color.

Mrs. Irene Downey, a striking blonde who is a Russian language instructor for the station, illustrated Carolan’s point by the outfit she was wearing for her upcoming TV class. Her tweed suit had no pronounced coloring.  It was simply tailored, allowed ease of motion at the blackboard and did not distract from her role as a teacher.

She wore a single strand of pearls an matching earrings.  Jewelry or dress trim is the thing which often gives a technician trouble, according to Carolan.  Rhinestones and sequins pick up light and cause a glare which is
distracting to an audience and detracting from a performer.  Simple, dull finish jewelry is the safest “finishing touch” for television.

The art of TV makeup is usually a mystery to the lady who’s making her debut.  Pancake makeup is the best foundation because it gives a dull sheen to the skin.  Eyebrow pencil is recommended to accentuate pale eyebrows, but mascara is a television don’t.  Darkening of eyelashes causes the whole eye area to be shadowed.  Makeup men prefer to lighten the inner portion of the eye with foundation or powder.  A smooth unruffled hair style is more flattering than elaborate hats or hair ornaments.

The success of a television appearance may easily depend upon choice of costume, accessories and makeup.  The lady who’s at ease because she’s prepared for TV has the advantage of being able to concentrate on why she’s in front of the camera.

Eun-Kyung Park

August 21st, 2009  ·  comments: 0

Dear Marcus,
As we talked about performance of Dr. Downey’s music in Korea. There will be a concert in May, 2010 and will perform all double bass pieces. So, they asked me to get the two of his double bass pieces which are “Recombinance for Contrabass and Piano (1989)”, and Solo piece, “Silhouette for Double Bass (1980)”.
They will choose one from them. Would you be able to get the scores and music and send them to me?
I am hoping that I can introduce his music to Korea every year if you agree with me. It’ll be great that I can listen to his music again in my country. Please let me know what I need to do in order to get them.

By the way, now my husband and I are in Korea and I’m teaching at my university where I graduated from as a music theory instructor. Dr. Downey always wanted to visit my country.

Thank you for your cooperation.
Hope you are well.


Eun-Kyung Park

Danni and Shel Gendelman

August 11th, 2009  ·  comments: 0

When we recall Irusha, we think of a beautiful person with great intellect and charm who saw her purpose in life to foster the genius of her loving husband and friend, John. She saw to his every need so that he could concentrate on teaching his students and continue his path to being a world recognized composer and musician.

Perhaps the single incident we remember most took place when we were driving them home after dining out when we heard John choking and Irusha yelling that John cannot breath. There was no place to park, so Shel jammed on the brakes and drove on to the sidewalk, jumped out of the car, dragged John out of the back seat and started performing the Heimlich Maneuver on him. It worked, and just as John took a deep breath, Shel was pulled away by two police officers, who thought they were fighting. John had choked on a piece of candy he had purchased from the restaurant.

John was invited to perform his work in Israel in 1991 and as part of the tour went to Yad Vashem, the memorial for 6 million Jews slaughted in the Holocaust. Irusha explained to us how deeply they were moved and how they sat outside and could not speak.
Later John composed a musical response which he named “Yad Vashem-An Impression”. Imagine our pride when he dedicated the piece to us.

Of all the proud moments we shared with John and Irusha, the most memorable was being part of a large group of admirers from UWM, Milwaukee and the world of music in London in 1999 for the John Downey Festival. Two major works were performed, one by the London Philharmonia Orchestra at the Barbican Center with Geoffrey Simon conducting and Professor Robert Thompson performing. The other concert was at St. John’s Smith Square with John conducting.

Close friends introduced us to the Downeys; we learned that John and Shel shared a birthdate and we became close friends from that night on.

Thank you for this opportunity to recall our memories and love for John and Irusha.

Thallis Hoyt Drake Recording Secretary and Publicity Chair of the MacDowell Club of Milwaukee

June 15th, 2009  ·  comments: 0

This is a wonderful tribute to the memory of musical Milwaukee’s “First Couple”! Likewise to add, is that Piano Trio written by John Downey was commissioned by the MacDowell Club of Milwaukee for it’s 75th Anniversary which was premiered in 1984 by UWM’s violinist Leornard Sorkin and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s cellist Loren Brown with John Downey at the piano. During this years Milwaukee MacDowell Colony Centennial Celebration several of John Downey’s pieces were performed.
Likewise of note, Thallis Hoyt Drake founded Early Music Now in Milwaukee in 1986. Early Music Now has become one of the most distinguished presenting organizations of early music in the United States, and has expanded its activities to include both Madison, WI and Evanston, IL. Thallis was always very concerned to include educational and outreach events in addition to the formal concerts in her series, and the organization continues in that approach.

Li-Chin Lai

May 25th, 2009  ·  comments: 0

I will be performing John Downey’s “Eastlake Terrace” at a farewell dinner reception for the 2008-09 U.S. Fulbright Grantees and in honor of the retirement of Dr. Wu Jing-jyi on Friday, June 12, 2009 at the National Theater Concert Hall in Taipei, Taiwan.

In my search for piano pieces written by Fulbright composers, I stumbled across John Downey’s “Eastlake Terrace.” When I obtained the score, I was immediately struck by its impressionism and mysteriousness. Its extremely dramatic dynamic range and impressionistic tone color greatly interested me. I look forward to performing this piece, and I hope to play more of his pieces in the future.

Christine Hoffman

May 11th, 2009  ·  comments: 0

My husband Alan was a composition student of your father’s and I had had him for Form and Analysis and Counterpoint (he usually called me “Celesta” but there were other variants). Having grown up in rural Wisconsin, I was in awe of your sophisticated, and somewhat chaotic, household with all of the touches that matched your parents’ exotic natures and their love of beauty and culture.

It was an honor to see John again at Weill Hall in New York City years and years later.
Your dad’s classes were unique in many ways. Not so many years ago, I often played Bach in the evenings, in editions purchased for those classes and marked with analyses guided by your father.

Mr. Jeff Gendelman and Family

April 10th, 2009  ·  comments: 0

My parents, Danni and Shel, were close friends of Irusha and John. In fact, decades ago as a child, I often recollect the respect and fondness my parents had for the Downeys. Watching the four of them relate with each other influenced my understanding of true friendship.

John McWilliam

March 11th, 2009  ·  comments: 0

I had the unique and privileged experience of spending time working on the Downey residence as a painter during John’s later days. It was a beautiful setting of family love, music and friendship. Whether I was outside listening in or inside listening through, John spent his days playing the piano and I was the lucky listener. Being a musician myself and a fan for the abstract I profoundly appreciated John’s special genius. Sharing lunches and warmly hilarious conversations with John and his deeply compassionate family will always reside in my memories of caring love.

John McWilliam

Nancy L. Zimpher – President, University of Cincinnati

March 3rd, 2009  ·  comments: 0

Dear Marcus,
I couldn’t have been more pleased to receive your email about your father’s website.  I went to it immediately and it brought back such fine memories.  They were indeed an incredible couple, and while very meaningful to you as their child, so it was with all of us.  I can only recall how thrilling it was to travel to London in your father’s honor, to be present when the Philharmonia addresses his compositions.  How proud I was of John, UWM and what that moment meant for so many. 

Thanks so much for sharing with me. 

Fondly,  Nancy

Nancy L. Zimpher is former Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

George & Arline O’Connell

February 23rd, 2009  ·  comments: 0

We have so many fond and loving memories of John and Irusha. To list them all would take pages.

Some of our special memories are attending John’s concert in Greenwich Village in New York, at DePaul University, Milwaukee Cathedral, Lewis University in Lockport, and hearing his music played in Carnegie Hall.

John is the cousin (George’s cousin) who brought a special music, love and fun into our lives. We will always cherish the vacations dinners and conversations

we shared.

John had a certain charm that made one feel good about oneself and the world. We so loved listening to him and his music. Our favorite piece of music has always been, “The Edge of Space”.

John enriched our lives in a way that can never be duplicated. John and Irusha are loved now as they were in life. We miss them.

Thank you Marcus and Lisa for setting up this tribute to John and Irusha.

Jon Senzig

February 21st, 2009  ·  comments: 0

I met John Downey when I was a student at UWMilwaukee.  One day in class I was sitting in the front row next to the grand piano.   Dr. Downey played Debussy’s First Arabesque.   It was the most beautiful piece of music I had ever heard.   With tears rolling down my face I asked him if he would play it again.   He smiled and in his breathy soft voice he said “Why certainly” and played it again for me.    John’s ability to recognize beauty was always a part of his teaching.  In composition lessons he was kind and encouraging.  I had begun a vocal piece with another teacher who had encouraged me to throw it away because it was tonal garbage.  When I asked to study with John he asked me what I had written.  All I had was a couple of pages of my Psalm 13.  When he got done listening to it he told me it was beautiful and guided me to its completion.

When John was commissioned to write some pieces for the Chicago Children’s Choir he shared his progress with me and sought my opinion which was the greatest honor he could have given me.  I helped organize a chorus which he named “The Free Spirit Chorale” in protest to the fact that the choral director at UWM wouldn’t assist him.

I have the distinction of being one of the few students that ever made him angry in class.   During Twentieth Century Theory he played a Schoenberg piece.  When it was over I asked “Dr. Downey, are you sure the tape was running in the right direction?”  His face went red, then he calmed himself, smiled and said “I can appreciate humor.”

Like so many of us who knew him, I regularly quote him in class.  When a student does a bit of successful theory on the board I always put on my “Downey Voice” and say something like “Micheal, you’re a genius” and if they are unsuccessful I have been known to say “Not in Racine, Wisconsin you don’t.”

I cannot express how much I valued having John as my mentor except to say that when my first son was born, I called him from the hospital to ask permission to give our son his middle name.  He said “That’s a pretty big handle to put on such a little guy”  but agreed and we named him Donovan Wilham Senzig.

Both John and Irusha are sadly missed.   One more Downey quote: “The greatest joy a composer can have, is just once to hear their piece performed well. “