Monday, November 1, 2010

Chopin and Beyond

In 2001, I was briefly introduced to pianist Byron Janis during an inaugural concert for the Tacoma International Music Festival at the Pantages Theater. Mr. Janis was to have been Artistic Advisor to the festival, but like many other musical organizations in this region, Tacoma International Music Festival died at birth. At the gala and final concert, Mr. Janis performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major K488 with violinist Erick Friedman on the podium. It was a sad affair; two incomparable artists who were no longer at the peak of their careers, battling for a come-back, or so it appeared. Mr. Friedman was soon to be diagnosed with lung cancer, and would die a few years later at the age of 64. Mr. Janis had been practically crippled by arthritis but he performed through his pain and rendered a charming and elegant Mozart. With the help of his wife, Maria Cooper Janis (daughter of Gary Cooper) has written Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal.

In Chopin and Beyond, Mr. Janis tells the story of his extraordinary life in music; his many friendships with renowned artists, writers and celebrities. Most fascinating to me are the accounts of various teachers who influenced his career, from the stern Abraham Litow who slapped young Byron Yanks (his name before being changed) with a ruler whenever he played a wrong note, to the loving couple Rosina and Josef Lhévinne, who impressed upon Janis one of the most valuable lessons of all: there's more than one viable way to approach something. As the Lhévinnes' travel schedule increased, they engaged Adele Marcus to mentor their star performer. Shortly after his studies with Marcus, Janis was accepted by the legendary Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz would say, "Something is not right. You know, you should go home and find what is the problem and work on it yourself and bring to me next time." The master pianist insisted that his pupil not play for anyone else during his first year of study because his goal was to make Mr. Janis into a "big" pianist. "You are a pianist who could play more in oils, not just watercolors." Encouraging Mr. Janis to exaggerate that bigness Horowitz would say, "Don't worry, Byronchik. You can always subtract but you can't add on."

In Chopin and Beyond, Mr. Janis delves into the frequent experiences that took him beyond the reach of the senses; episodes of psychokinesis, synchronicity, automatic writing, and clairvoyance which became a regular facet of his reality. Admittedly, some of what Mr. Janis shares in Chopin and Beyond recalls pianist Rosemary Brown, the spirit medium who claimed that dead composers dictated new musical works to her. Brown reported that Franz Liszt appeared  dressed in a black cassock and controlled her hands a measure at a time. Chopin appeared to her and pushed her fingers down on the keys, and Franz Schubert sang to her.

For Mr. Janis, who has had a lifelong fascination with Chopin, he reveals for the first time some of the paranormal events he has experienced relating to the composer. The most spectacular is an account of a death mask of Chopin "crying" in 1973. Mr. Janis had recently struck up a friendship with the Israeli psychic Uri Geller. After dinner one night, Mr. Geller asked to touch the mask, which had been given to the pianist by the family of Chopin's lover George Sand. "We were standing around holding this mask and in about 15 seconds we noticed a liquid coming out of the eyes," says Mr. Janis. "It was gushing, it was unbelievable. I put my hand on the liquid and said they were tears. I am convinced of one thing, the strongest power in the world is love and I loved Chopin since I was a young man, and that may be what caused this to happen."

For those who are skeptics, acknowledging the impossible is crucial to great playing for Byron Janis. "In performing Chopin it is so important to touch that other world. In playing, sometimes you feel you are being played—that happens to me a lot."

Music is to Byron Janis his life's oxygen. To his audiences and many admirers, there is little doubt he breathes music. As to the paranormal, if you are a nonbeliever, writes Byron Janis, in his new book Chopin and Beyond, I hope I may have persuaded you to say, "Maybe."

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