Best-selling classical pianist studied at USC

Times Staff Writer

Pianist Leonard Pennario, a best-selling recording artist who made his concert debut with the Dallas Symphony at age 12 after learning Grieg’s Piano Concerto in a week so he could play it from memory, has died. He was 83.

Pennario died Friday at his home in La Jolla after a long illness, according to his biographer, music critic Mary Kunz Goldman. He had been battling Parkinson’s disease, she said.

“Playing with this musician has been one of the joys of my life,” Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos once said of Pennario. “He has technique, but he has what is more important, a soul.”


Writing in a London paper in 1952, critic Andrew Porter said, “Pennario’s playing knows no limit. The technique is magnificent and unshakable.”

Pennario was one of only two pianists named permanent members of the jury of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. (The other was Hungarian-born Lili Krauss, who died in 1986.)

He was born July 9, 1924, in Buffalo, and when he was 10 moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he lived until he retired in 2005 and moved to La Jolla.

He studied piano at USC with Guy Maier and Isabelle Vengerova and composition with Ernst Toch. In 1939, when he was 14, he made his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut playing the Grieg concerto under the baton of Otto Klemperer. He would go on to perform with the orchestra more than 70 times.

He made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943, playing Liszt’s First Piano Concerto while still in uniform as an Army private. He went on to play with the other “Big Five” orchestras -- the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra -- as well as many others across the country and in Europe and Asia.

The list of world-famous conductors he performed under includes Eugene Ormandy, Sir Georg Solti, Zubin Mehta, Fritz Reiner, Leopold Stokowski and Sir John Barbirolli, among many others.


Pennario was also famed for his chamber music performances, as a replacement for Arthur Rubinstein, in a trio with violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

“Recording with them, getting ready with them, was the biggest thrill of my life,” he told Goldman in a Buffalo News profile last year.

In 1959, both the New York Times and Musical America named Pennario the best-selling American-born classical pianist. Between 1950 and 1960, he was the sole classical pianist for the Capitol label and made more than 40 recordings. He went on to make more than 20 others for Angel, Seraphim, RCA, Columbia, Vox and Pantheon.

Still, some fans were unhappy when he seemed to get too involved with Hollywood, recording such albums as “Concerto Under the Stars” and composing “Midnight on the Cliffs” for the 1956 Doris Day movie “Julie.”

Film composer Miklos Rozsa wrote his 1967 piano concerto and 1948 piano sonata for him.

“Pennario was not a profound pianist,” former Miami Herald music critic James Roos wrote in 2000. “In fact, he could be blandly uninteresting in solo recitals. But he was a dazzlingly polished pianist, a true virtuoso, who could be a sensation with orchestra, playing any glittering concerto. He played with the clarity, the speed and the accuracy of a machine gun, with runs and octave passages of hair-raising brilliance.”

Pennario was also an accomplished amateur bridge player. Although he didn’t begin playing until he was in his late 20s, he was named a Life Master in 1980. Rumors of all-night bridge parties were part of the Pennario folklore.


A prodigious sight-reader, he continued to perform until the late ‘90s and made his last Los Angeles concert appearance in 1992 with the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra led by Daniel Hege at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Pennario is survived by his brother, Dr. Joseph Pennario, a retired pediatrician of Del Mar, Calif. Funeral arrangements are pending.