LeRoy Peterson, professor of music at Pacific Union College for 25 years and widely known violinist, retired from full-time teaching in 2008. During his career he also taught in the preparatory division at Peabody Conservatory, at Atlantic Union College and Pioneer Valley Academy in Massachusetts for three years, and Andrews University in Michigan for fifteen years, before going to PUC.
Peterson was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and began studying violin in the Far East while his parents were missionaries in Singapore. Following his debut recital at age fourteen, the Singapore Times said, "He should become a world player ere very long."
Two years later he continued his studies at the Geneva Conservatory in Switzerland and then returned to the United States, where he appeared as soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., at age seventeen. He later performed as a soloist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at a special memorial concert for John F. Kennedy, with renowned composer Aaron Copland present. He remembers that occasion as one of two highlights among many in his musical career, the other being a later performance as a member of La Camerata Nuove Orchestra in the world premiere of Handel's Messiah in Bethlehem.
After graduating from Columbia Union College, Peterson completed his graduate study at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of John Hopkins University. He has studied violin with noted teachers, including Henryk Szerying, Ruggiero Ricci, Roman Totenberg, Robert Gerle, and Berl Senofsky. While at Peabody he received several awards and prizes for distinguished performance.
Peterson has visited 35 countries and performed in most of them. This past summer, he completed his ninth trip to Russia, working in evangelism with music and preaching. His love of travel has taken him from the jungles of Borneo, where he climbed the highest mountain in SE Asia, Mt. Kinabalu, to the 1,000 year-old temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, from the Great Wall of China to the Garden of Gethsemane, from swimming in the Volga River to sailing on the Black Sea along the coast of Yalta, from Masada to Bali, to Norway, the land of the Midnight Sun.
Aside from performing in Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York City, Peterson has appeared on television and radio and as soloist with orchestras in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Singapore, Michigan, N.Y. City, California, and the Ukraine. Chapel Records recorded him on six different albums, and he has been featured in the international Strad magazine. He also guest conducted the Paradise Symphony Orchestra in Northern California and the Indianapolis Symphony Strings, with which he also recorded.
The Washington Post (Washington D.C.), described him as "an artist of vigor and laudable technical virtuosity, whose tone quality summoned warmth and reached impressive depths." The Vestfold Blad in Norway described him as an "artist of top class" and his performance as "playing of the highest quality."
More recently, Peterson was listed in Who’s Who in American Music, The International Who’s Who in Music, Outstanding Young Men of America, Personalities of the South, Who’s Who in the Midwest, and International Leaders in Achievement, 2nd Edition. He has also been a contest winner in badminton and bodybuilding and received several awards in painting.
His wife, Carol, works as a nurse for a dermatologist at the St. Helena, California, Hospital. His son, Todd, and daughter, Shelley, both active musicians, graduated from P.U.C. and have also taught there. One of his great joys now is spending time with his grandsons, Blake and Lachlan.
As Professor Emeritus at PUC, he continues to perform, to teach World Music and Culture, and to give string lessons.
Sources: Interview with and biographical sketch provided by LeRoy Peterson, 2009; personal knowledge.
Violin-toting Bodybuilder Evangelizes Russia
Music, Russian evangelism, and fitness: the common denominator in these three diverse areas is LeRoy Peterson, professor of music at Pacific Union College. As a teacher, performing artist and bodybuilder, Peterson has always believed in mental, spiritual and physical development.
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, Peterson began his musical training on the violin in Singapore, as the son of missionary parents to the Far East. Four years later he gave his debut recital at age fourteen. The next year found him at the Adventist school in Collonges, France, while studying at the Geneva Conservatory in Switzerland.
Upon returning to the United States he soloed with the National Symphony Orchestra at age seventeen. While in graduate school at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, he was invited to perform the Trauermusik (funeral music) by Hindemith for viola and orchestra, in a special memorial concert for John F. Kennedy with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "At the time," he said, "I didn’t know Aaron Copland was in the audience - I think I would have had vibrato of the bow if I’d known."
After graduating from Columbia Union College and Johns Hopkins University, he accepted his first teaching position at Pioneer Valley Academy in Massachusetts, and later taught at Atlantic Union College. For fifteen years he taught and conducted at Andrews University in Michigan before going to Pacific Union College, where he has taught for the last 21 years. "I guess the lure of the West finally won out," he said.
An avid performer, Peterson has recorded several albums, soloed with a number of orchestras and played in 24 different countries. One in particular stands out in his memory: In 1994 he performed with La Camerata Choir and Orchestra in the world premiere of Handel’s Oratorio The Messiah, in Bethlehem. He says,
I remember glancing at the armed Israeli soldiers in the Church of the Nativity as we played this work for the very first time at the birthplace of Christ. I was filled with such awe and gratitude. I had tears in my eyes while playing.
Peterson smiles as he recalls, "If anyone had told me during the height of the ‘cold war’ that someday I would be going - let alone six times - to Russia to do evangelism, I would have said I have as much likelihood of doing that as going to the moon." While Peterson did not go to the moon, he did go to Russia six times, beginning in 1993.
His first trip to the city of Yoshkar-Ola with a team of five was an event, he says, that changed him forever:
I cannot express the deep feelings I developed for the Russian people. That first morning when I went to the local music school to find a good pianist to perform with me, the director brought out four young women, all piano teachers. He asked me to choose one. I had each pianist accompany me on the same piece. Afterward I came out and told the director that I could not choose just one - they were all so good - so I ended up using a different pianist each evening over the next six weeks.
The joy of playing for an audience that soaks up every note and nuance was indescribable to Peterson. One lady told him, with tears in her eyes, "We have never had such music in our city." When another woman told him "you play like a Russian," he felt that he was finally communicating the true essence of music.
In another city, the drab factory city of Dzerzhinsk - which was a closed city during the Communist era, where no one was allowed to leave or come without special permission - a lady attending the meetings asked him one day, "What do you think of our city?" As he was groping for some complementary words for this dismal city, she said in broken English, "Ours is the city God forgot." Her words still haunt him to this day.
Over the ensuing years, Peterson made four more trips with Warren Ashworth and Susi Mundy, both from Pacific Union College, to the former USSR (two were to the Ukraine). In addition to performing, he also gave health lectures. He recalls, "In Evpatoria a lady asked if I could do anything for her ten-year old son, who was completely bald." He explained that this city is only about thirty miles away from Chernobyl, where the large nuclear disaster took place. Many children had lost their hair due to the radiation fallout. "I felt so helpless as I looked into the pleading eyes of this mother," Peterson said.
Most, if not all, the people had ever met an American before. He recalls, "I felt like the Pied Piper as children followed me around, wanting to carry my camera bag and violin case. When I entered the large auditorium each evening, there was always an entourage of ten or twelve kids already there to meet me and follow me down to the front row.
My heart thrilled to hear the children sing in their meetings, and to see them and their mothers and grandmothers clutch their new Bibles to their bodies - for most, their first Bible. I cannot describe the joy of seeing young and old come out of the polluted river after baptism; and the agony of seeing the waving hands and the sad tears as our train pulled out, leaving behind our new believers and friends." From Yevpatoriya on the Black Sea to St. Petersburg in the north, Peterson has experienced the joys of sharing, performing and acquiring many new lifelong friends - it was a life changing experience.
During his first visit to Kiev, he was asked to perform with the Kiev Radio Orchestra. It came as a complete surprise on such short notice. He also recorded two separate programs for 3ABN in Nizhniy Novgorod.
On several occasions, taking his violin out of Russia at the airport proved somewhat problematic. The custom officials were suspicious he was trying to smuggle a valuable old treasure out of their country.
On one occasion, after much debate by the officials who closely scrutinized the precious instrument, Peterson finally picked up his violin and played some Tchaikovsky for them. They smiled, satisfied that the violin really did belong to him.
When he was performing during Net ’98 at Andrews University, he ran across an advertisement in a physical fitness magazine while working out in their weight training facilities. Feeling the need to get into better shape, he decided to enter a national bodybuilding contest.
Although he had always enjoyed sports, especially swimming, tennis and badminton (he won the badminton championship three years running while teaching at Andrews University), he had only twelve weeks to get in the best shape of his life, and at the age of 61 he knew it would not be easy! "It was one of the greatest challenges of my life," he said. The grueling one-and-a-half-hour workouts, six days a week, required discipline along with a strict diet and one-hour aerobic sessions each day.
Twelve weeks later and thirty pounds leaner, Peterson was a winner in the National Max Muscle Physique Championship at Anaheim, California. "Although the $13,000 prize was nice," he said, "the benefits of being in good health and physically fit were even more rewarding." He continues to be an inspiration to a number of students with whom he works out.
Peterson also performs with the Pacific Union College String Quartet. They have been on tour twice throughout Asia and Hawaii, twice to Scandinavia, and once to Russia. With his son, Todd, an accomplished pianist and baritone, and with his daughter, Shelley, a mezzo soprano, the Peterson family has also performed together in Asia and Scandinavia.
Peterson feels that music is just one part of his life. "I am grateful," he says, "that the Lord has given me the opportunity and abilities to branch out in other areas." Music, keeping physically fit, and especially helping to take the gospel to Russia, have been far more rewarding to him than going to the moon.
Thea Hanson was editor of Viewpoint, alumni magazine for Pacific Union College, and senior writer in the College's PR Department. This article was published in the Winter/Spring 2005 issue of Notes a magazine published by the International Adventist Musicians Association.