When great people die, they often go out with a flourish, particularly if they’re young and popular.

But if the person is old and has outlived many of his or her peers, often that passing occurs with barely a sound.

That would have been true of Peter Ré, who was 97 when he passed July 24, except that for his younger colleagues, friends and students, there is anything but silence in the magnificent wake he left them in the world of music.

A Waterville professor, composer, pianist and conductor of the Colby Symphony Orchestra over many years, Ré was a brilliant, innovative, and thoughtful man who in his greatness took the time to mentor others.

“He was the most supportive and helpful colleague I could ever imagine,” said Paul Machlin, a former Colby music professor who directed the Colby College Chorale, as well as the Colby-Kennebec Chorale Society, which Ré founded.

Machlin, now retired, came to Colby in 1974 as a green, 28-year-old and Ré handed over the reins of the chorus to him.

“He made it clear that we were collaborators — equals — even though I was 25 or 30 years his junior,” Machlin recalled. “He respected my opinions. I could take any issue to him, and he would set aside whatever he was doing and not just give me a quick fix, but talk to me about it.”

Ré joined the Colby faculty in 1951. In 1974 he succeeded professor Ermanno F.G. Comparetti as conductor of the Colby Symphony. Ré retired in 1986.

“He had more or less made the music department a viable unit, an academic unit on the campus,” Machlin said.

Over 42 years, Machlin and Ré not only worked closely together, they became great friends, performing together and socializing as well. Machlin retired in 2012, and he and Ré would go out to lunch about once a month. Machlin continued to visit Ré after he was moved to the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough.

“It was a wonderful, rich relationship, and he continued to be there for me after he retired,” Machlin said. “He wrote a number of choral pieces that I premiered, and they were challenging and audiences liked them.”

Machlin and Ré’s last conversation was memorable.

“We talked about music,” Machlin said. “We talked about food, which was another of his passions. He’d always ask after my family. He was still interested in other people and had a wonderful sense of humor. He was talking more and more in Italian.”

Ré was of Italian heritage and was born in Little Italy in New York City. He studied at Juilliard School of Music, earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a master’s of fine art from Columbia University. He also served in the U.S. Army and met his wife, Elizabeth, there. She was in the Women’s Army Corps at the time. They had seven children and were married 69 years until her death in 2014.

Ré was a student of composer Paul Hindemith, and they became good friends. Ré created the Colby Summer School of Music and started the Colby Piano Institute. In addition to leading the Colby Symphony, he also conducted the Bangor Symphony Orchestra.

“He was an amazing guy,” said Jonathan Hallstrom, who took over as conductor of the Colby Symphony after Ré retired. Hallstrom, a composer who has been at Colby 32 years, retired from conducting the orchestra in 2012 but continues to teach music theory and composition at Colby and directs the inter-media lab.

Hallstrom remembered that when he first arrived at Colby, Ré welcomed him and helped him to get on his feet during his first year. They developed a close friendship, and Hallstrom was often invited to Ré’s house for music and dinner.

“We’d play his music and talk about it and play my music and talk about it and then, in the true sort of old-school Italian tradition, we would eat. He was a great cook, and I’ve had a lot of traditional Italian meals at his house. We got to be friends through music and eating.”

Ré was a great conductor, teacher and mentor, according to Hallstrom.

“He was a really interesting sort of amalgamation of the old school of composing and conducting and the current school, which tends to be a lot less severe,” he said.

The old-school conducting teachers, for instance, tended to be hard on students, working on the idea of breaking the student down and then building him or her up to what the teacher wanted the student to be, according to Hallstrom. Ré was a taskmaster with the Colby orchestra, but he also had a tender side and was very warm and kind, he said.

When Ré conducted, he knew his musical scores inside and out and sometimes rehearsed from memory, according to Hallstrom.

“He had an incredible ear. If he didn’t have perfect pitch, he had incredible relative pitch where you sort of learn to differentiate between pitches in a context.”

Ré was always impeccably dressed in a suit, white shirt, tie knotted tightly, his silver hair swept back no matter where he was.

My husband, Phil Norvish, played first violin for the Colby Symphony under Ré in the 1970s and ’80s, as well as for the Bangor Symphony when Ré was conducting there.

“He was a class act,” Phil said. “From my point of view, he was a conductor, but he was first and foremost an extraordinarily talented and dedicated pianist. He used the piano as a teaching tool if the orchestra got off the mark. Instead of singing to us, he would jump off the podium, sit down at the piano and without a note in front of him, show us how it should be played. There was always a grand piano just feet from the podium in the rehearsal room. Then he would leap back up to the podium, raise his baton and say, ‘Now, let’s try it again.'”

Phil believed Ré had perfect pitch, though he never heard him say he did.

“I saw him on many occasions stop the orchestra and tell a player, ‘That’s a B flat, not a B. Mark your part.'”

Like Hallstrom, Machlin said Ré had a marvelous sense of humor. At Ré’s funeral, Machlin told a story about the time he and Ré and two other faculty members played two pianos using eight hands, and they all wore funny hats. Ré, he said, donned a five-foot-long, red and white-striped winter stocking cap that he carried delicately over one arm.

“He was so aristocratic looking and had such a serious visage, but he had this wonderful sense of humor and he could make fun of himself just as well as anyone could,” Machlin said.

He recalled that whenever they were backstage before a joint performance, Ré would say to him, “In bocca al lupo,” which is Italian for “In the mouth of the wolf.” It means “good luck” and is similar to “break a leg,” which is what actors say to each other before going onstage. As time went on, Machlin would repeat “In bocca al lupo” back to Ré before performances, and then they would both laugh. The last time they spoke, they ended their visit that way.

Ré will be missed by many people in his adopted city of Waterville and beyond. He left Waterville and the world a better place — and a rich legacy to carry forward.

In bocca al lupo, maestro.

Grazie.

And Godspeed.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.