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Leonard Pennario was among the most popular American-born concert pianists of the 20th century. Pennario's professional career began at the tender age of 12 when he filled in for an ailing soloist on the Grieg Concerto in A minor at a 1936 concert with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Freshly inducted into the U.S. Army, Pennario gave his Carnegie Hall debut in the uniform of an Army private, playing the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in November 1943. Pennario returned from his tour of duty to an eager reception in the concert world. At the time, a Minneapolis critic wrote "Pennario is endowed with temperament, interpretive imagination and the capacity to express it, above and beyond the flyingest ten fingers you ever saw. He made the concert one of the most exciting and exhilarating musical experiences in a long, long time." This sentiment would be repeated in city after city as Pennario dutifully traversed the concert circuit.
Where many young concert artists view resettling in New York as a necessity, Pennario stayed based in Los Angeles his entire career. Although he gave his first European tour in 1952, Pennario concentrated his performances mostly within the continental U.S. and Hawaii. His choice of venue allowed him to build up longstanding relationships of value with other Los Angeles-based individuals and concerns, such as his friendship with composer Miklós Rózsa, who composed both a piano concerto and the outstanding Piano Sonata (1948) for him. Pennario also began an association with Hollywood-based Capitol Records, for whom he recorded for more than three decades. Among more than 60 albums made for Capitol is Pennario's recording of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under Felix Slatkin, one of the best-selling classical albums from the era of vinyl records.
When the classical division of Capitol went belly up in the early 1980s, it derailed Pennario's recording career, but it did not affect his standing in the concert world. In 1987 Pennario played a concert at Lincoln Center that was broadcast over PBS in observance of the 50th anniversary of Gershwin's death. Ultimately, by the 1990s, Pennario finally began to retreat from the concert stage, pursuing instead his other great ability -- as a champion bridge player. Leonard Pennario was a great all-around pianist with an innate sense of musicianship -- as one of his record producers put it "Pennario is one of those artists who just 'gets' the music."
Leonard Pennario (July 9, 1924 – June 27, 2008) was an American classical pianist and composer.
He was born in Buffalo, New York, and grew up in Los Angeles, attending Los Angeles High School remaining in L.A. for his entire career. He first came to notice when he performed Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto at age 12, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The scheduled performer had fallen ill, and Pennario's piano playing had come to the attention of the conductor Eugene Goossens, who recommended him as the soloist after being assured by Pennario that he knew the work. In fact, he had never seen the music or even heard it, but he learned it in a week.
He studied with Guy Maier, Olga Steeb, and Isabelle Vengerova and attended the University of Southern California, where he studied composition with Ernst Toch. World War II interrupted his career, and he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces in China, Burma and India, where his piano skills were soon realized and served well entertaining troops. He occasionally had to play around keys missing from the keyboards of the pianos at a couple of the more remote bases. He was discharged in 1946 as a staff sergeant and was awarded three Battle Stars. He had, however, made his debut, in uniform, with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on November 17, 1943, with Artur Rodziński, playing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1.
Shortly after Sergei Rachmaninoff's death, the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos invited Leonard Pennario to be the soloist at a memorial concert, playing the Second Piano Concerto with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Pennario became the first pianist after the composer himself to record all four Rachmaninoff piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. His recording of the Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto was used for the film September Affair (1950), in which Joan Fontaine plays a concert pianist preparing to play the concerto.
Beginning in the 1960s, he played in a renowned trio with the violinist Jascha Heifetz and the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Miklós Rózsa wrote a piano concerto for Pennario, and he was the soloist in the first performance, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta.
Pennario recorded over 60 LPs, most of them of composers dating from Chopin and later. He is perhaps best known for championing certain modern composers such as George Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Rózsa, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1958, he was tied with Walter Gieseking in terms of best-selling classical records involving the piano.
Pennario retired from active performance and recording in the 1990s. He wrote some pieces of his own, such as Midnight on the Cliffs, March of the Lunatics, and a 4-hand arrangement of Chopin's Minute Waltz.
He was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in October 2007.
As well as being well represented in music encyclopedias, he was a Life Master in tournament bridge, and is listed in The Official Encyclopedia of Bridge, most notably winning an Open Pairs event in China in 1991. He was once part of a celebrity foursome with Don Adams, Les Brown and Jack Benny's daughter Joan Benny.
He died of complications from Parkinson's disease on June 27, 2008 at the age of 83, in La Jolla, California.
An authorized biography of Leonard Pennario is currently being written by Buffalo News music critic Mary Kunz Goldman.