Concert Veteran Brings The Music He Loves To Annapolis

January 10, 1992|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

Some American pianists have fashioned flashier careers than John Browning, but few have remained before the public for a longer time at asustained level of artistic excellence.

Back in the late 1940s and 1950s, a fraternity of musicians smilingly referred to themselves as the "OYAPS" -- Outstanding Young American Pianists. Virtually everyone expected they would dominate the concert stages of America for decades.

It was not to be.

The great William Kapell died in a plane crash while still in his 30s.

Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman were disabled by injuries that ended their careers prematurely.

Julius Katchen's European career was cut short by his early death.

A lanky Texan named Van Cliburn electrified the world at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1959 by beating the Russians at their own game, but he eventually withdrew from the concert circuit for reasons that remain mysterious.

This was not a group destined for longevity. But John Browning remains very much a presence at the keyboard in his fourth decade of performing.

"Musical society was in flux, and standards werechanging," says the 58-year-old pianist who will be performing a program of Mozart, Rachmaninov, Liszt and Ravel at 7:30 tonight at MahanHall on the U.S. Naval Academy campus. "But frankly, I think luck has had the most to do with my career.

"I've stayed healthy, I've gotten my share of breaks and I haven't had the injuries that some havehad. I've been fortunate."

Born in Denver and raised in Los Angeles, Browning came to New York in 1953 to study with Rosina Lhevinne, the "grande dame" of the Juilliard School, whose thick Russian accenthe still imitates with great delight.

After Juilliard, his rise was swift and sure: a New York Philharmonic debut with conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos and repeated engagements with Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell in Cleveland and Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia.

It was shortly after his New York debut that Browning was contacted by the great American composer, Samuel Barber. Barber had been commissioned to write a piano concerto in honor of the Schirmer Publishing Co.'s 100th anniversary and felt the young pianist would be the perfect choice to perform it.

"It was written for me," Browning recalls. "Sam calledme when I was doing basic training in the Army and he asked me to dothe premiere. Of course, I said yes, even though I really didn't feel much like a pianist at the time."

Browning learned the piece a few pages at a time as the composer completed its various sections.

"The final movement wasn't finished until two weeks before the concert," he remembers with a smile. "Talk about nip and tuck."

Among the 40-plus concertos Browning plays (most pianists don't have half that number in their repertoires), the Barber retains a special place.

"I'm lucky to be associated with a work that was accepted right away and has remained so popular," he says. Browning has just rerecorded the concerto with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony in a newly released disc from RCA.

Slatkin's conducting meets with Browning's wholehearted approval. "He is marvelous," says the pianist. "Heis a talented, uncomplicated conductor whose ego never gets in the way of the music. I love working with him."

On the RCA disc, the concerto is coupled with Barber's single-movement First Symphony, a work that has received a great deal of attention lately.

Browning could not be more pleased.

"Barber's music was misunderstood for years," he says. "People thought that if American music didn't sound likeCopland, it wasn't really American. But American culture is kaleidoscopic and speaks in many voices. Barber has really come into his own."

Browning is currently working on an anthology of Barber's songs for Deutsche Grammophon, a two-disc set that will include eight songsnever released. The singers are Cheryl Studer and Thomas Hampson, the American artists whose careers have super-novaed in recent years.

"If Sam were alive, he'd be thrilled," Browning says proudly.

Browning has always been noted for the diversity of his repertoire, andhe chuckles as he explains the role the aging process can play in musical tastes.

"I find that I develop courage as I get older. I'm more willing to say, 'This piece just isn't for me right now,' or 'Yes, I'll give this a try.' Things you didn't like or didn't want to play 30 years ago all of a sudden catch fire. You can see virtue where you couldn't see it before."

Is there a common thread connecting Mozart's K. 332 and Rachmaninov's monumental Second Sonata with the Liszt and Ravel he will also play this evening?

"It's all music that I love," says Browning. "That's what counts."

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