Leonard Pennario 1924 – 2008

27 Jun

The subject of Mary Kunz Goldman’s upcoming book, Buffalo-born concert pianist Leonard Pennario, died last night in La Jolla. Mary has the info here.

The ultimate child prodigy, Pennario learned the Grieg Concerto in one week so he could perform it, from memory, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Texas Exposition, before 2000 people. This mind-boggling feat has been well documented by journalists.

At 19, wearing his private’s uniform, Pennario made his debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Arthur Rubinstein was in the audience, and so were critics Virgil Thomson and Olin Downes.

The great violinist Jascha Heifetz chose Pennario from all the pianists in the world to perform and record with himself and the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. By performing in that famous trio, Pennario filled the seat vacated by Rubinstein. Pennario won a Grammy Award for his work in the 1960s with Heifetz and Piatigorsky, and next to Rubinstein, he is the pianist most closely associated with those two great musicians.

The greatest conductors in the world admired Pennario and sought him out as soloist — including Fritz Reiner, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leopold Stokowski. Mitropolous said of Pennario: “Playing with this musician has been one of the joys of my life. He has technique, but he has what is more important, a soul.”

The foremost critics in the world praised Pennario and acknowledged his greatness. In 1952, writing in a London paper, Andrew Porter, who later became the longtime music critic for The New Yorker, wrote, “No one plays the piano better than Pennario.”

The Grammy-winning film composer Miklos Rozsa, who composed concertos for Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky, wrote a piano concerto for Pennario, who premiered it. Rozsa also wrote a piano sonata for Pennario. Both these pieces are highly esteemed by pianists today.

Pennario was one of only two pianists named permanent members of the jury of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. (The other was the Hungarian-born Lili Kraus.)

In 1959, both the New York Times and Musical America acknowledged Pennario to be the best-selling American-born classical pianist. Between 1950 and 1960, as the sole classical pianist for the Capitol label, he made over 40 recordings. He went on to make over 20 more.

Sometimes referred to by journalists as “the wizard of the keyboard,” Pennario became the first pianist after Rachmaninoff himself to record all four of the Rachmaninoff concertos plus the Variations on a Theme of Paganini.

In 1989, Pennario toured Communist China, one of the few American pianists to have done so. He was the first pianist to perform in all 50 of the United States.

One Response to “Leonard Pennario 1924 – 2008”

  1. Roland Perini June 28, 2008 at 3:52 pm #

    Leonard Pennario was a good friend for more than forty years. He was a great talent and I had the privilege to be at his house so many times to hear him play just for a few friends. I had many good times with him a the various race tracks of the California area. Wonderful memories of Leonard. I shall miss him !!

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