Robert Neufeld was known for being someone you’d hear before you’d seen him.
If you’ve ever attended an event hosted by the “Eastman Choral Association”, like an Easter Sunrise Service, you would have heard him. Listening to a classical concert featuring local artists like Mary Jane Hiebert or David Klassen, you may have heard him.
Though he could sing quite well, it was his skills at the keyboard, be that a piano or an organ, where he shone. His musical skills showed up at a young age and he was still playing in a church on Sunday, October 23 before passing away peacefully on November 1, 2022.
Neufeld will be remembered and missed by many in the southeast, in particular those he’d accompany and the many choristers he’s conducted over the years.
SRSS Choir Director, Kristel Peters says she and Robert go way back. “On so many occasions he has been my accompanist for festival performances and then we were on the Eastman Choral Association Committee together. He took over the Manitoba Choral Association as executive director while I was finishing my university years and as a director. I've known him from being a young student all the way into my adulthood. Working alongside each other on different committees. He was also the Executive Director of the Foundation for Choral Music in Manitoba, and I had the privilege of being on the committee with him there as well. We got to give money to choral associations for choral projects around the province. It's just been a hoot to hang out with him on numerous occasions. He was a workhorse when it came to accompanying or helping different groups and we loved working with him.”
But there is one performance she recalls as her favorite. “It was when Robert accompanied me for a sort of very hearty and almost a little bit raunchy song called “I love a piano”. I sang about all the accompanists that I’ve fallen in love with. But I had to flirt with him on stage and he just remained so stoic and didn't crack a smile while we were, you know, in performance. And at one point I think I even got on top of the piano. It was the SRSS baby grand piano or maybe the full grand, anyway, I jumped up on it and sang to him from on there and. like you know, caressed his hair and all, well, he kept it together and just played the piano. It was so much fun. It was such a great time.”
Peters continues describing him, “He is a person who always had a twinkle in his eye and his little jokes and giggles under quiet context. So, you would hear him, just sort of, in the back and he would sort of whisper something to you at a board meeting or just a little comment and we would all just burst into laughter. He had a great sense of humor and loved to support all the different performers and choirs and the music in Manitoba and SE Manitoba. Especially in the Eastman area, Robert was always there. He was always around. He was always playing. He was always willing to give his time and his talents.”
She remembers his talent at the organ. “To hear him play was always my epic most favorite moment of his. He was so great at really uplifting people and bringing in all the stops if you will on the organ and really working through those key changes and getting people just to sing. It was such a rousing rendition always, especially at the Eastman Choral Association Easter Sunrise services his “Up from the grave He arose” was just monumental.”
Meanwhile, David Klassen Executive Director of the Steinbach Arts Council and professional Baritone also speaks highly of Neufeld,
“Robert was a musician who was really hard to compare anyone else to. His skill level and his sensitivity as a pianist was beyond what many of us can even dream of. He was so very supportive and as a young singer, and even as a professional later on in my life, when I had a chance to perform with him, I always knew that the support would be there and that he would be working really hard to elevate the whole performance. I think that our community, in our region and our province will experience a really great loss without him sitting at that keyboard and being that supportive person that we all counted on for so many years.”
Klassen recalls being a very young singer and performing at a voice recital with Neufeld at the piano. “I remember it was the very first time I sang in public after starting lessons and Robert was playing a song for me that had quite a repetitive introduction. And of course, this being my very first performance I missed my entry and so he went back to the beginning and played it again. Of course, nobody knew, but afterward he came up to me, and he smiled with his, you know, sly smile and he said to me, “I think I'm going to have to charge you extra for all those extra bars that I put in to save you in your performance.” We had a good laugh. “
“I mean he was all about working with students who are at the very beginning of their learning, all the way through to the professionals. Many of us here in Steinbach, those who have worked with him in our professional lives, know the value of all that history and just Robert being a warm and generous collaborative pianist and a friend.”
Klassen shares Neufeld’s expertise at the organ. “I worked with him as a conductor. I heard him play the organ at many concerts and at many services, and you know, his skill at the organ was another one of those things that one can finds it really difficult to put into words. He had a way in his playing of lifting the congregation, you know, when he played. He had this amazing ability to make people sing from the keyboard. He wasn't conducting necessarily and he wasn't singing for the congregation, but he was playing and supporting them in a congregational setting.”
“He had these most amazing key changes while playing hymns. Many people will remember that he had had an amazing ability to raise that roof so worshipfully. And as amazing as that congregational was singing, he just made it even bigger.”
Klassen says that Robert was always involved at the Steinbach Arts Council. “He was always willing to help and to contribute. He played for several community/ school musicals that I directed. He was always willing to come on board and to lend his expertise and to support the projects that we were working on. I think he was just overall a well-rounded contributor to the community. He loved to give. He loved to be a part of the quality music that was being made in this region for many years and continues to be and he was certainly worth mentioning on a lot of levels. He really just made our community even better than we could think it to be.”
Meanwhile Peters notes that he was quiet man. “He would sometimes just sort of sneak in and sneak out and he would be gone in a flash. He was never one for a ton of accolades. He found it hard to stand up at a concert or to take those extra bows and yet he deserved it.”
How does one say goodbye to such a huge contributor to music in the southeast? Both Peters and Klassen make their attempts.
“You say just thank you. It was absolutely an honor and a joy. It w as a privilege to come to know him. He was just a quiet, humble, gentle, and so sweet and so funny and such a supporter of the arts and the choral world. So, farewell my friend. It was an honour and a privilege getting to know you. You will be missed. I can only imagine the organ you are playing in heaven. Crank it up! Rest in peace.”
“Thank you for being one of the most generous friends that another musician could have. It was a pleasure.”
The celebration of the life of Robert Neufeld was held on Tuesday, November 8 at the Emmanuel Evangelical Free Church in Steinbach. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Eastman Youth Choir, which is an honours choir program that Neufeld was always heavily involved in over the years.