J. Browning, 69; Pianist of Brilliant Technique

Times Staff Writer

John Browning, a pianist whose trademarks were elegance and brilliant technique, died Sunday at his home in Sister Bay, Wis. He was 69.

Browning died of heart failure, his agent, Shirley Kirshbaum, said Wednesday.

Like many other pianists of his generation, including Leon Fleisher, Malcolm Frager, Gary Graffman and Byron Janis, Browning was overshadowed by Van Cliburn, a classmate at the Juilliard School, after the young Texan won the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

Still, Browning made a major career, playing in virtually every musical capital of the world with most of the world's major orchestras.

He made a special impact in 1962, when he premiered Samuel Barber's Pulitzer Prize-winning Piano Concerto, which was written for him, with the Boston Symphony conducted by Erich Leinsdorf as part of the opening ceremonies at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. Browning estimated that he went on to play the work, which is far spikier than most of Barber's other lyrical works and was completed only two weeks before the premiere, more than 400 times over the next 20 years.

Browning cut back on performances in the 1970s, but over the last decade had begun playing more frequently.

A Chicago Tribune reviewer wrote in 1998: "At age 65, Mr. Browning is still capable of brilliant technical feats that would defeat pianists many years his junior."

Born to a musical family in Denver in 1933, Browning began taking lessons at age 5 and appeared as a soloist with the Denver Symphony at the age of 10. In 1945, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he attended John Marshall High School and studied piano privately. He spent two years at Occidental College before transferring in 1950 to the Juilliard School in New York City, where he studied with Rosina Lhevinne.

In 1955, he won the Leventritt Competition in New York City; he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos a year later. In 1956, he also won the silver medal at the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition in Brussels, where Vladimir Ashkenazy won first prize.

Browning was scheduled to play 22 concerts this season -- none in the Southland, according to his publicist -- but he had begun canceling them because of back problems before his heart problems surfaced in November.

Browning is survived by a sister, Elizabeth Witchey of Santa Rosa.

A memorial Mass will be said Feb. 13 at St. Mary's of the Lake Roman Catholic Church in Bailey's Harbor, Wis. A memorial concert will be played in August by the Wisconsin Peninsula Music Festival Orchestra, with which Browning often performed.

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