Byron Janis is one of the most inspiring survivors in classical music.
Despite decades of struggling to overcome the debilitating effects of, first, a childhood injury to his left hand, and, later, severe arthritis in his fingers and wrists, the great American pianist never really stopped playing the piano, nor did he ever completely give up the life of a traveling virtuoso. Janis soldiered on, determined to prove, if only to himself, that his will to make music was greater than his pain.
A favorite with Chicago audiences for many years, Janis was back last week in what he calls "the city I've played more in than any other in the world," to celebrate his 86th birthday with his wife and friends at a reception in the Arts Club. He also was here to be honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Music Teachers National Association at its annual conference.
Near the end of the birthday bash, Janis was persuaded to get up and play a waltz by his favorite composer, Chopin, along with a song from the score he composed for an off-Broadway musical, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The playing was beautiful, the sound unmistakably his own.
Janis hasn't lost his fine touch at the keyboard.
"What my life has taught me is that almost anything is possible if your mind is strong enough to make it possible," he told me later on, as he eased himself into a chair in a corner of the club. Even though his voice was faint, his manner was remarkably spry.
"The arthritis hasn't gotten any better, and in fact it's gotten worse," he remarked. There was no bitterness in his voice, only acceptance.
Along with Van Cliburn, William Kapell, Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, Janis is one of the most gifted of the American pianists who emerged in the 1950s only to be waylaid by adversity. Kapell died in a plane crash. Fleisher and Graffman lost the use of their right hands. Cliburn lost hold on his career. Janis, arguably the most brilliant virtuoso of them all, faced huge obstacles almost from the start.
Overcoming a rigid and numbed pinkie caused by a severed tendon and nerve in the little finger of his left hand, which he suffered in an accident at age 11, Janis found his thriving career again threatened in 1973 by the onset of psoriatic arthritis in both hands and wrists. Keeping the pain at bay with medications, he adjusted his technique to his disability, revamping his fingerings and hand position. He refused to give up, even when, some years later, the arthritis caused the bones at the first joints of his fingers to fuse.
"It was a life-and death struggle for me every day for years," Janis said. "At every point I thought of not being able to continue performing, and it terrified me. Music, after all, was my life, my world, my passion."
He tried every kind of remedy, from faith healing to acupuncture. He underwent multiple surgeries. Except for his wife, visual artist Maria Cooper Janis (daughter of Hollywood film icon Gary Cooper) and a few close friends, he kept his condition a closely guarded secret.
"I didn't want sympathy or advice, and I didn't want people in the audience to blame a less-than-wonderful performance on my condition," he said.
The pianist is convinced that constantly using his fingers, even in big, bruising repertory such as the Rachmaninov concertos with which he was long identified, kept him from having totally deformed hands.
In 1985, Janis decided to break his silence and speak publicly about his condition, doing so at a concert in the Reagan White House. He felt a great burden had been lifted. Since then, he has been a spokesman for the National Arthritis Foundation, speaking and playing concerts to raise money for the organization and give hope to fellow sufferers.
Janis recounts his long struggle in an absorbing memoir, "Chopin and Beyond," co-written with his wife and published in 2010. In 1996, he released his first recording in 34 years, a lovely EMI disc of solo pieces by his beloved Chopin.
Last year Sony Classical issued an 11-CD/ DVD boxed set containing virtually every recording the pianist made for RCA Victor during the 1940s and '50s, including vintage concerto performances with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The best of these discs are a cherishable reminder of why Janis was so widely admired in his heyday. The burnished tone, the leonine technique, the volatile interpretive personality, the caressing lyricism – they're all there.
I asked him what it was like to perform with Reiner. "I had heard he was a very difficult man to work with, but we got along terrifically," the pianist replied. "I can't tell you why. I hope he respected me!"
The Pennsylvania-born Janis' extraordinary gifts emerged at an early age. At 15, he made his concert debut. At 16, he became the first pianist accepted as a pupil by the legendary Vladimir Horowitz. At 20, he made his Carnegie Hall debut. At 32, he was chosen as the first American artist to tour what was then the Soviet Union.
As a teacher, Horowitz brimmed with good advice, Janis recalled.
"He told me I could be a bigger pianist than I was. He said I painted in watercolors when I needed to work in oils. He never played a note for me during my lessons, but afterwards he would play through all kinds of repertory for hours on end. His playing on stage was nothing compared to the way he played in his living room. I always had the feeling he was trying to seduce the public."
Horowitz wound up cautioning his young pupil that it would be better to become a first Janis than a second Horowitz. Even so, once he stopped taking lessons from Horowitz, it took him a good five years to get over the master's influence and, in so doing, find his own artistic voice.
In 1960, two years after Cliburn won Russian hearts as winner of the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, Janis was sent by the U.S. State Department to tour five Soviet cities as part of a Soviet-American cultural exchange program. He remembered his first recital in Moscow as an unnerving experience.
"The audience had no idea who I was. When I walked out on stage, there was no applause, only angry shouts of 'U2! U2!' '' (U2 was the name of the U.S. spy plane the Russians had shot down three months before.) "I sat down and waited until the noise died down. I started playing a Mozart sonata. The audience slowly began to warm to me. At the end of the concert, people rushed to the edge of the stage. Some were sobbing."
Two years later, Janis was invited back to the USSR where he made several concerto and solo piano recordings for Mercury Living Presence. Rachmaninov and Prokofiev concertos were taped between midnight and 3 a.m. because that was the only time the orchestra was available. Janis went into that recording session straight from playing an exhausting recital that included five encores. His recording producer had to stoke him with homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to sustain his energy level.
Back home, the pianist's travails continued. He underwent surgery in 1990 that left him with a shortened left thumb. That nearly finished him, he said. Until he was able to get his hands and technique back in shape to return to the recording studio five years later, he fell into a deep depression. Fortunately another musical outlet opened up for him. Encouraged by his wife, Janis took up composing. He found that writing songs and short pieces gave him the same pleasure as playing the piano. What's more, he said, "it got my creative juices flowing again."
"I came back to a semblance of myself. I have always had a wide horizon and felt I didn't have to be confined to being a pianist. But of course I was very confined while I was fighting all of this. I believe that all of the stuff I went through added lyrical depth to my playing – I had more of an ability to make people feel."
As he nears 90, Byron Janis hasn't lost that ability, not by a long shot.
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