Byron Janis, classical pianist who dazzled through his pain, dies at 95

0 10

Byron Janis, an American pianist celebrated for his extraordinary combination of technical virtuosity and urgent expression in Romantic-era music, died March 14 at a Manhattan hospital. He was 95.

The death was announced by his wife, Maria Cooper Janis, who did not specify a cause.

Mr. Janis had a career of supreme triumphs and near-constant physical struggles.

While still in his teens, he was already making recordings for RCA Victor, then the most prestigious label in America, and he became the first pianist taken as a student by the legendary Vladimir Horowitz, with whom he worked for three years. He played more than 100 concerts around the world before he turned 20.

He toured the Soviet Union twice at the height of the Cold War and, in 1962, at age 34, he presented a daunting performance in Moscow of three major piano concertos in a single program: works by Robert Schumann, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.

“I have now heard a pianist who can play three utterly different concertos with a perfect sense of style — one of the greatest pianists of this age,” his conductor, Kirill Kondrashin, said at the time. The audience hollered so long and with so much enthusiasm, Mr. Janis took six bows.

Mr. Janis suffered from hand problems throughout his life, essentially playing with only nine fingers. When he was 10, he was fighting with his sister and put his hand through a glass door, cutting the little finger on his left hand down to the bone.

“I was rushed to the hospital, and they had to operate,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1998. “I lost the use of a tendon, and the little joint on that finger did not bend. To this day, that finger is numb. Totally numb.”

Mr. Janis learned early on to play through his pain — a matter, he insisted, of will power.

His health troubles persisted. In 1965, Mr. Janis underwent surgery for bursitis in his right shoulder and took six months off. He took another year off in the early ’70s and soon developed psoriatic arthritis that spread to both hands, to his wrists and eventually to all his distal joints. “When I move,” he wrote in “Chopin and Beyond,” his 2010 autobiography, “it’s basically bone on bone. It hurts like hell.”

For a dozen years, Mr. Janis was quiet about his challenges, while taking fewer and fewer engagements. Then, at a White House event in 1985 with first lady Nancy Reagan, he not only spoke candidly about his condition, but announced that he would become an “ambassador for the arts” for the Arthritis Foundation, for which he played several benefits.

In 1988, he celebrated the 40th anniversary of his Carnegie Hall debut with a gala recital. Music critic Donal Henahan, writing for the New York Times, observed that Mr. Janis “tended to play as in the past, in brilliant lunges and bursts, relaxing only as if to build up energy for the next attack.”

“To those who believe there is only one way to play Chopin, in great arches and unbroken lines, such fluctuations might seem intolerably eccentric,” Henahan wrote. “In fact, they represented that current rarity, a mature artist’s personality mirrored in an infinitely various masterpiece.”

Mr. Janis was born Byron Yanks in McKeesport, Pa., on March 24, 1928, and grew up in Pittsburgh; he changed his last name before a radio appearance when he was 10. Both parents were of Polish descent but grew up in Russia. His father ran a sporting goods store, and his mother was a homemaker.

He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he was “discovered” by two prekindergarten teachers who could not believe that at age 4 he could listen to them on the piano and duplicate the music by ear on the xylophone.

When they came to his home the next week, he said he thought he was in trouble. Instead, they encouraged formal lessons. He swiftly was recognized as a budding talent and performed on a local radio station. Under the tutelage of Abraham Litow, he began concert recitals and impressed the celebrated New York-based pianists Josef and Rosina Lhévinne.

When Mr. Janis was 7, he moved with his mother to New York to study with Adele Marcus, a young pianist who later served as an assistant to the Lhévinnes at the Juilliard School before going on to a distinguished teaching career on her own.

At 15, Mr. Janis made his debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra playing Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto under the direction of the 13-year old Lorin Maazel; the younger of the two prodigies later became the music director of the PSO.

Mr. Janis made his Carnegie Hall debut in October 1948. “Not for a long time has this writer heard such a talent allied with the musicianship, the feeling, the intelligence, and artistic balance shown by the 20-year-old pianist Byron Janis,” Olin Downes, who had been publishing music criticism since 1906, wrote in the Times.

He had made his first recordings for RCA Victor in 1947, a performance of a piano arrangement of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube” and continued to work with the company throughout the 1950s. He decamped for Mercury Records in the early 1960s, and his recordings of the Rachmaninoff First and Prokofiev Third concertos with Kondrashin were among the first discs ever made by American engineers in Russia. Both RCA and Mercury have issued CD sets containing Mr. Janis’s complete discs for those labels.

For years, Mr. Janis was one of the best-known classical musicians in the world, playing major stages from Philadelphia to Paris. In 1965, he canceled a concert scheduled in Mobile, Ala., to protest what he called “the repugnant, brutal, and thoroughly un-American” racial policies of segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace.

Mr. Janis’s first marriage, to June Dickson-Wright, with whom he had a son, ended in divorce. In 1966, he married Maria Cooper, the daughter of the late movie star Gary Cooper. They lived in a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue until Mr. Janis’s death, and she is his only immediate survivor. His son, Stefan, a poet, translator and art critic, died in 2017.

Mr. Janis and his wife shared an interest in what is often called “parapsychology.” In her introduction to Mr. Janis’s memoir, Cooper Janis complained that there was “nothing ‘para’ about it” but affirmed that both of them had what she called “extraordinary human experiences.” (The subtitle for the memoir was “My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal.”)

In 1967, Mr. Janis discovered a handwritten manuscript of two waltzes by Chopin: the G-flat major, Op. 70, No. 1; and the E-flat major, Op. 18. In 1973, he located two variants of the same waltzes in a library at Yale University. Unknown manuscripts from great composers are a rare find, especially if there are sketches that show the piece might have developed in another way.

The first set of manuscripts were found in an old French chateau that dated to 1500, Mr. Janis told NPR in 2017. “Count La Panouse, whose property it was, showed us around and took us in to the old antique room, where there were all kinds of letters and things” he said. “There was a box marked old clothes. We opened the trunk, and that was something that looked like a manuscript. I said, I found a waltz here. He said, ‘Oh, my grandmother used to write down music all the time and fool around.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. This is not your grandmother. This is Chopin!’”

Mr. Janis taught at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts and the Manhattan School of Music, among other places, and was an occasional composer and conductor. He was a soft-spoken, gracious man who made himself accessible to pianists and scholars.

He seemed to enjoy the reverence often accorded age. “At last they stopped saying ‘young pianist’ about me,” he told The Washington Post in 1983.

Source link

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.