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Pianist Byron Janis – the spirit of an American Idol

This article has been published in German at: PianoNews (Staccato-Verlag) on September 1st, 2013.

The eminent Pianist Byron Janis is the real deal when it comes to the stuff American legends, are made of.  Not unlike the Hollywood stars of the fifties and sixties, famed classical musicians have historically been part of the cultural stimulus, presented by talk show hosts like Johnny Carson, and featured prominently in the public eye.

In his earlier life, Janis’s pianistic dexterity and charisma, as well as his severe intensity, gained him exposure, adulation, and at times, unfavorable censorship. But it was his never-ending belief in the power of music and passion that best exemplified his later life, as he overcame adversity and has continued to publicly advocate his mantra “mind over matter,” which proves to be an inspiration for many.

Janis, born Byron Yanks (an abbreviation of Yankelevitch), is of Polish/Russian descent, and grew up a child prodigy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The artist, called a ‘magician’ by Le Figaro, looks back on a career that began in 1943, when Janis made his orchestral debut with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra at age 15, performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 under the Baton of Frank Black in New York.  Returning to Pittsburgh, Janis played the great romantic piece again, with then fourteen-year-old Lorin Maazel as conductor. As fait would have it, Vladimir Horowitz was in the audience for that performance, and invited Janis to play for him in New York.

Becoming the first student and protégé of the legendary pianist at age 17, Janis was often accused of imitating the master’s pianistic style, a burden which he admits was difficult to escape. It was in particular his “nervous energy,” as he called it, that attracted Horowitz.  Says Janis: “[nervous] in the good sense of the word…without which even the greatest technical proficiency can seem mechanical.” Janis’s previous teacher, Adele Marcus, had warned him: “Your own personality is going to get destroyed if you work with him,” and while Horowitz would never play the piano during Janis’s lessons as to avoid exactly such inclination to imitate, Janis had ample opportunity on many occasions spent at the Horowitz New York residence to listen to his playing.

Byron Janis with Vladimir Horowitz

Janis considers these moments to be examples of the master’s ‘greatest, unaffected, natural playing. Indeed Janis struggled to develop his own voice over some time; so profound was Horowitz’s overshadowing personality that Janis says, “I knew exactly how he phrased, how he felt about a piece and it all got into my ear,” as Aryeh Oron quotes in his biographical synopsis of Janis.

During the three years that Janis studied with the master, Horowitz attempted to make sure to be the only pianistic influence on the young and impressionable pianist, never missing a lesson and even taking him on tour along with his wife, Wanda. Yet Horowitz also made it clear that he meant to guide, but not totally indoctrinate Janis to the point of imitation: “You don’t want to be another Horowitz; you want to be a first Janis.” Janis felt a great obligation to develop into what Horowitz saw in him, particularly when Horowitz told him: “right now you draw in watercolors, when you could paint in oil.” This meant becoming the great, romantic virtuoso of which he held the promise within. The mentorship ended in an almost Oedipal affair between 20-year-old Janis and Wanda, who had struggled in her marriage to closeted, yet famously gay Horowitz.

Janis’s international concert tours brought him to South America and Europe in the early 1950s, playing with the greatest orchestras and conductors of the time, including the Concertgebouw with Eduard van Beinum, and the London Symphony Orchestra with Antal Dorati. Janis gave his London debut with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2  with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Norman del Mar, and upon his return in 1961, he performed the same concerto; a critic wrote that it was “…played with all the ardor, fire, and sympathy it calls for and so rarely gets by Mr. Byron Janis, an enormously gifted pianist from America.”

Peter Rosen’s documentary, The Byron Janis Story, aired on PBS in 2010.  In it, Janis humorously describes how, living on New York’s 57th Street, he must have been the first performer walking to his own Carnegie Hall debut, which took place in 1957.

Janis’s exciting recordings from that same time, made by RCA-Victor, include Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra with conductor Charles Munch, and Liszt’s Totentanz, Richard Strauss’s Burlesque and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 1. with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Chosen by the United States Department of State for a 1960 concert tour in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, Janis became the first American artist chosen, to initiate cultural exchange.  Another great American pianist, the late Van Cliburn, who had won the acclaimed Moscow Tchaikovsky competition in 1958, had already become a significant hallmark for a higher appreciation of the American cultural image in the Soviet Union, but it was Janis who faced public audiences, proving that as he says, “America could do more than produce cars.”

His recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, for Mercury’s Living Presence LP with Kyrill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic resulted from that tour, and became a benchmark for this repertoire. (In 1995 the CD version won the Cannes award for best Reissue).  Peter Rosen’s documentary shows fascinating footage dating from that time, profiling Janis’ persona in the historic context of his life. The film was included in an 11-CD Box Set of Janis’s works, which also includes seven of Janis’s re-mastered discs as CDs, and his original recording of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The compilation was released by Sony in April 2013.

Janis still reminisces about this historical concert: “After initial hostile shouting of ‘U2! U2!’ An American spy-plane that had been shot down over Soviet territory just weeks before, I said to myself ‘stay calm.’” As he began to overcome the animosity and started the performance, the people’s attitude began to change, and fascination and solidarity with the performer set in. “When I had finished, people were ecstatic, and came to the edge of the stage. But it’s not just the music, I felt they know who I am, I am not the enemy.  I am also like them.”

The recording crew’s vehicle with US license plates parked on the red square was a highly unusual sight, and fascinated crowds made it into the hall for rehearsals, which took place until deep into the night. Janis was invited back by the Soviet Union in 1962, and he performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Benny Goodman, which marked the first performance of the iconic work by an American in Russia.

Having made his reputation predominantly with repertoire from the great romantic era, Janis actually feels that all music is romantic at heart.  It was Chopin in particular who played a special role in Janis’s life.

Many pianists feel drawn to Chopin’s wondrous harmonies, his beautiful melodies and earthy spirituality. It has been Janis, though, whose exceptional encounters with Chopin have touched on an element of supernatural phenomena. “Chopin makes the piano speak like no other. You can actually put words to his melodies,” he says while sitting down at the piano to recapture the very first meeting of the souls, playing Chopin’s Waltz, Op. 69 No.2 in b-minor for me.  As he halts his playing to explain about Chopin’s suggested technique of unusual fingerings and sliding hand movements, he exudes the genuinely experienced wisdom he has gained throughout his highly creative life, yet maintains an air of youthful spirituality. His accounts are not didactic, but rather convey a deeply personal approach, which transpires well in his book Chopin and Beyond, co-authored by his wife and published by John Wiley & Sons in 2010. In 1967, during a concert tour in France, Janis rediscovered the manuscripts of two previously unknown Chopin waltzes at the Château de Thoiry, outside of Paris.  One of Janis’s fans, Viscount Paul de la Panouse, invited him and his wife for a visit. Upon wandering around the Renaissance estate and its historic archival collection, Janis became curious about an old trunk that had belonged to the Viscount’s great-grandmother, Clémence. The unusual wooden trunk, covered with boar’s skin, was marked ‘old clothes.’  “As they opened and inspected the folded layers of lavish dresses and shawls Clémence had worn,” Janis describes in his book, “they noticed the letters.”  It was a collection of correspondence from diplomat Eugène Sue, author of The Wandering Jew, who was obviously an ardent admirer of Clémence; he had also been a friend of Chopin’s. Underneath the letters, Janis discovered several old manuscripts, held together by a frayed, pale blue ribbon. In disbelief, he immediately recognized them to be Chopin’s manuscripts with variations of his Waltz in G-flat, op. 70, no. 1, and the other as Chopin’s famous Grande Valse Brilliante, op.18.  Reflecting on that moment, Janis says, “I quickly went to the piano with the manuscripts penned in 1833 and excitedly pointed out the differences [to their published versions].”

Chopin himself had published the famous Grande Valse brilliante (in E-flat) in 1835, when, according to Janis, he was in need of money to travel to the Rhine Music Festival in Germany, where some of his works were to be performed; he may have wanted to show that he could do a waltz, a dance he had never encountered before his visit to Vienna in 1832.  Janis points out his that in his letters from Vienna, he had mentioned that the waltz was a “very strange dance.”  Upon the verification of the manuscripts by the Société Francaise de Musicologie in Paris, the New York Times ran the rare find as their December 21st cover story in 1967.  In the summer of 1969, Janis performed the 1833 version of Chopin’s manuscripts at a private recital at Thoiry, becoming the first person to play them since Chopin.

Yet, as if this was not remarkable enough, the story does not end here.  In 1973 while visiting Yale University, Janis, who was suffering pain from the onset of arthritis, was discussing teaching a master class. While in the library’s archives where the musical manuscripts were held, Janis curiously pointed to a folder on a high shelf. Astonishingly, additional versions of the same previously discovered waltzes were recovered, which were dated a year prior (1832), and contained further differences: “Accents were put on different notes, giving certain sections a syncopated rhythm; one had some measures deleted; another section was now marked dolente, with pain, and a few octaves were substituted for single notes,” Janis explains.  These events led to Janis’s involvement with the 1978 French television documentary, Frédéric Chopin: A Voyage with Byron Janis.

Photo: Jamis with his wife Marie Cooper

Fascinated with Chopin’s life, Janis visited Nohant, the Estate of George Sand, where Chopin had spent ten years of his life until two years before his death, when he and Sands parted. There, Janis met Aurora, the grand-daughter of Meurice, George Sand’s son; she asked Janis to play the piano at the Estate.  Janis also met with the caretaker of the Estate, Roger de Garat, who made him the head of the short-lived musical society, ‘Les Amis de Chopin’ (Friends of Chopin).

From Garat, Janis received one of the three remaining original death masks of Chopin. Garat, in dire need of money to prevent the contents of the estate being sold off piecemeal, felt this relic was safe in this pianist’s hands, since he loved Chopin so immensely.

Janis describes inexplicable, intense, and mysterious happenings surrounding this mask, pointing to a spiritual connection between souls beyond the border of the immediate capacity of perception.

“Chopin himself believed strongly in an alter world,” he says. “It is a very important interpretative device. When I played his works at times, I experienced an out-of-body experience. Those are the most sublime moments every artist lives for.”

Janis’s continuing resilience throughout challenges is enough to make one believe in the supernatural.  Janis is living proof of how it is possible to conquer pain and illness, physical limitation, and even disbelief, with only a large reservoir of profoundly inspired love. He has managed to pursue his intense calling to piano performance despite a severe finger injury experienced during childhood, severe bursitis, frozen shoulder syndrome, and then the onset of debilitating psoriatic arthritis at age 45, which he had managed to keep secret for a very long time. Yet, despite the increasing pain, he kept on playing. For years, Janis gave concerts, not knowing when the pain would set in, how long he could rehearse without irritating the inflamed joints too much, and worse perhaps, not knowing if he would still compare to “normal pianists.” He constantly wondered and worried if managers and orchestral advisors find out he was “damaged,” or worse yet, the critics. The first of five operations left Janis with a shortened thumb in 1973, a procedure, he found out later, which could have been avoided. “Music was my passion; without it I thought I could not live anymore.”

Depression and self-doubt set in, yet Janis managed to take up his career intermittently once again. As the remarkable pianist he was, Janis was able to negotiate the keyboard by constantly switching fingerings, in order to substitute the painful fingers. Sometimes the pain would set in only shortly before a performance, which meant a constant alteration of motions, an incredibly difficult task.  To study and memorize a routine of motions, and then suddenly replace it with different fingerings, at times even helping with fingers of the other hand would be nearly impossible for most musicians. “I even devised a peripheral way of vision to make it possible to have my fifth finger in my view, while seeing the overall keyboard, for more security,” Janis says, regarding his unorthodox technique. Over time, in light of the constant struggle to overcome his pain-ridden reality, Janis’s concert appearances became increasingly rare. Finally, he came out with his secret suffering, and turned his heavy, arduous burden into an act of exemplary civil courage, becoming an ambassador for the Arthritis Foundation. Janis never compromised on style when he decided to perform a concert at the White House in 1985, at which Nancy Reagan announced that the pianist was also suffering from Arthritis, a fact that Janis finally embraced with courage: “I have arthritis, but it doesn’t have me.” It was his wife, Maria Cooper Janis, the daughter of the legendary screen actor Gary Cooper, and Janis’s true love, who helped him through the times of despair that followed. She motivated him to write the music score for a documentary about her father being filmed at the time, which Turner Network later used in a 1989 broadcast. His soundtrack turned out to be captivating, capturing the essence of the film star wonderfully. Greatly encouraged, and possessing a new outlet for his creative energy, Janis gained new vitality as a composer.  His musical theme for the Global Forum on Human Survival, held in Oxford, England in 1988, became the song “The One World,” and his work also includes a musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Janis’s high-spirited efforts to promote the enormous healing power of art and music have never diminished. He has many plans, one of which is to offer his testimonial of music’s therapeutic possibilities to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for veterans.

When asked if he enjoys going to concert performances of today’s performing pianists, he comments: “I conserve my energy to be creative myself.”

Janis still performs with echoes of his former grace and grandeur, even in the shadow of the many ups and downs of his long, complex career, although generally only for events celebrating his great pianistic and personal achievements, most of which are devoted to the support of a variety of humanitarian societies including the Arthritis Foundation, the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute, for which he acts as presidential advisor, and ProMusicis, which supports young musicians and encourages their involvement in social services.

Janis has received a slew of honorary titles for his undiminished enthusiasm and ongoing humanitarian efforts, the latest of which he received on May 2nd, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Hebrew Union College. Since Janis has a strong commitment to the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and Jerusalem as a spiritually meaningful and holy place, this means a lot to him.

Janis expresses no resentment as he relates the events of his long and intense life at the piano and beyond, and after so many surprising comebacks, Janis is entitled to say: “Some things even feel better than what I have done before. Suffering brought something out, an ability to make people feel. True artists don’t make excuses – they just do and I would not ask for another pair of hands, what I have learned has made me what I am.”

While some details now escape his memory, Janis is an interesting storyteller with an intriguingly generous approach to life.  He says, “Striving for perfection is ok, as long as you know you will never reach it – you play the right notes so much, and then something else happens.”  His worldview clearly relates to life beyond the keyboard! He says, “Truly great artists are masters of imperfection.”



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