June 26, 1920 - October 23, 2006
Leonid Hambro was a Russian-Jewish American concert pianist and composer of note, with over 100 released records to his name and a successful career in teaching music at the California Institute of the Arts.
Leonid Hambro – The Musical Phenomenon
Hambro was the son of Russian Jews who immigrated to America under the circumstances covered in mystery.
It is known that his father was a pianist accompanying silent films, and probably that is where Leonid's love for music comes from. It is rumored that Hambro senior escaped the Russian Empire using documents he simply bought, and that forced him to change his last name to match the name in the papers.
In 1946 he graduated from the famous Juilliard School (New York), winning First Prize at the prestigious National Naumburg Competition and demonstrating an astounding musical memory, sometimes startling even his most experienced of his teachers.
His phenomenal memory allowed him to 'create a miracle' in 1952, when he, without any rehearsals and having at his disposal only one day, studied, memorized and successfully conducted - in place of a conductor who had suddenly fallen ill - an extraordinarily difficult orchestral piece by Paul Hindemith!
During the 60s he was a steady sidekick of the famous pianist and showman Victor Borge; the duo never shied away from on-stage antics, to lighten up the mood after a classical performance. One of their most outrageous and famous routines was performing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 on the same keyboard, then falling off the piano bench!
It was during that period that Hambro wrote his signature lighthearted compositions, including the Happy Birthday Dear Ludwig variations based on the Happy Birthday To You tune, mixed with most recognized of Beethoven's pieces: Für Elise, Moonlight Sonata and others.
Later he decided on a career in teaching and in 1970 became the Head of the Piano Department of the California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, California). Soon his abilities as an educator made him the Assistant Dean of the School of Music; he would hold this position until retirement in 1992.
While teaching, he never forgot his original calling: Leonid would continue to perform as an Artist in Residence of the Aspen Institute, as well as the official pianist of New York's WQXR radio channel. In addition, he published well over a hundred recordings, including several serious musical works, such as A Perspective of Beethoven-Pianoforte and Cook's Tour of High Fidelity, released by Cook Records.
He never shied away from unconventional currents in classical music, though, recording a duo album Switched-On Gershwin (AVCO Records in 1970), in which his classical piano was harmoniously blended with synthesziers of Gershon Kingsley.
Even more, Hambro played at the annual Ig Nobel Prize awards ceremony – awards for most perplexing yet thought-provoking inventions.
Hambro was actively performing until very old age, entertaining the members of the New York Atheists Inc. at their first annual meeting when he was already 83 – he was raised (and remained until his death in 2006) a convinced atheist.
The great musician was survived by his wife Barbara, a son and a grandchild.
Hambro Discography on Folkways
New York City Atheists Newsletter – 1, 2004
Obituary, Jewish Chronicle, January 19, 2007 p. 45
<< back <<