Music and ‘the Man’


Key bored? Not even at the age of 80!

But his birthday is just another jaunty working day for Byron Janis — although there aren't many who get to celebrate with a performance before an anticipated crowd of hundreds and have their cake candles blown out at the New York Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center.

But then, this Byron lords over the piano like no other. Acclaimed and applauded since debuting 65 years ago with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the erstwhile wunderkind is a wonder even now, as he keys in on his octogenarian years.

To mark that date, he will offer a lecture on "Remembering Horowitz, Toscanini and Heifetz: Reflection by Byron Janis," Saturday night, March 8, at the New York Performing Arts Library's Bruno Walter Auditorium, followed by Monday's "An Evening of Song With Pianist as Composer With a Touch of Chopin."

And Chopin has touched his lively life in many ways. The McKeesport, Pa., kid of Russian-Jewish heritage who was born Byron Yanks is a Yankee Doodle Dandy with a pianist's reach of history. Famous for his Chopin showmanship and etude attitude of respect and revelation, Janis' two faces of public and professional merge seamlessly in a talk about how he remains the musical "man" 67 years after his Bar Mitzvah rabbi proclaimed it so.

Oddly, the hands given him by audiences may be in better shape than his own. Suffering from psoriatic arthritis since 1973, Janis jettisoned his career — temporarily, as it turns out — in 1985, the pain being too much for him to play.

Or did he? "Oh, it was just that I didn't play New York for a time, but I did play all over the country and Europe."

Now he's back home, premiering his compositions to a city that reveres those who pedal protean talents and persistence.

A student of sophisticated portrayals of the classics, Janis himself was a classic study of commitment to a calling.

"I was the only student of Horowitz's at the time," a singular scion sensation and claim to fame that would one day evolve into a triumphant trio also including Gary Graffman — former president of the Curtis Institute of Music — and Ronald Turini.

Turns out those lessons were priceless … sort of. Seems the master carded his pupil in different ways. "Horowitz told me there were a couple of conditions — that the lessons be paid for, and that I not play for anybody else during the first year."

The lessons came with the ultimate rebate check. "Horowitz returned the money later, saying that that [charging me] was the only way I would take the lessons more seriously."

Payment came in pianissimo praise, instead. "He said he saw in me the kind of nervous energy that reminded him of himself when he was young," recalls Janis.

And it all may have been familiar to family, too. Janis' personal musical map is more than a sentimental Jewish journey; it has roots in the past. A genetic genius? His history includes "a famous cantor in Poland."

But it was a Polish composer who may have had the greatest influence: Chopin was always a favorite, and Janis returned the favor, credited with discovering two once-lost Chopin waltzes, a find called "the most dramatic musical discovery of our age."

At 80, Janis reflects: "It was a defining moment of my life; I felt like I was being led to them."

He has taken the lead since that 1967 discovery of the 1832 waltz works, which Chopin had written "for a lady friend; how he loved the women."

Courtly and composed, Janis himself is a gentleman of gentility and eloquence. But his calling card of a concert is extended to one woman only; he is famously married to Maria Cooper Janis, who's had her own high noon showdowns with fame. She is the daughter of Gary Cooper, for whose cable telebiography his son-in-law composed the music.

Name that tune in one note? Janis was the first American artist to perform in the initial cultural exchange between the United States and the USSR in 1960. Nearly 50 years later, the multiple-award-winning pianist and honorary doctoral recipient from Trinity University has a treasure trove of titles, including being head of the visual and performing-arts department in America for Tel Aviv University, and chair of the Global Forum Arts and Culture Committee.

But then, Janis shows interest in literary, as well as lyrical, classics: He composed "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" for a 1993 off-Broadway production.

"I wrote 22 songs in six weeks," he says of "Hunchback" — "from the heart."

The heart hasn't been a headache; what's perplexed him has been heading off the illnesses that have plagued his piano performances. "I've overcome so many things; I got into severe depression for so many years," he says of a painful period when music, his life, "was taken away" from him.

But not even the arthritis could still his ardor or oeuvre. And over the years, the man who has earned the title of French Legion d'Honneur for Arts and Letters from France and whose letters include notification of his selection as a Distinguished Pennsylvania Artist, has even overcome Soviet suppression.

Back when he was asked to serve as the musical "Contact for the Cold War," it was no easy thing to be the artistic equivalent of an antihistamine. Janis was asked to perform in Moscow just at the time of the U2 incident, in which an American spy plane shepherded by Gary Powers lost power in a shootdown by the Soviets. Midnight in Moscow was a less-than-mellifluous wake-up call. "Here I went on stage in Moscow, and from the audience I hear, 'U2! U2!' "

They were not talking Bono. "It couldn't have been a worse moment," laments Janis. "I was the enemy at that point."

But the theme soon turned to "Friends," as "I started playing, and it was a huge success, with members of the audience crying. I had become the 'enemy' who broke through."

Another big break came just about eight months ago, when Janis discovered a pirated release of a Leningrad performance from those Soviet days. Now, he is releasing his own classic CD of performances from 1975 to 1990.

And Janis is making book on writing his autobiography.

His has never been a career on autopilot — and never been one isolated from today's astroplane of stardom. Indeed, the guest list of performers at his March 10 engagement is more than engaging — it's exemplary.

Among those set for the 80th birthday play date is Karen Mason, cabaret-star extraordinaire, with many Broadway bona fides, and whose sunrise of song credits include "Sunset Boulevard," as well as "And the World Goes Round."

So how does she square her appearance at this event of classics and the classical? Easy. "I also performed at Byron's 70th birthday," she says, adding that her rendition of "The Best Is Yet to Come" proved prophetic.

"Better Days" — one of her major CDs — are ahead this weekend, too.

"I guess it was meant that I should perform at his birthday parties every 10 years," she joshes of being part of Janis' upcoming gala, reveling in the composer's "absolutely gorgeous melodies."

The composer of "Like Any Man" is like no other: Janis, arts ambassador of the Arthritis Foundation, will be donating one of his works to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts after the March 10 performance.

So, Byron Janis, does life begin at 80 for a master with a lock on life's 86 keys?

Without missing a beat, he conducts himself as kibitzer: "I'll let you know March 11." 


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