It's been more than two decades since Utah last heard pianist Byron Janis in the flesh. Nonetheless, he returned last weekend to take part in an artists-and-the-environment conference and, in another context, to talk about an upcoming concert.
Under the title "Survival and the Arts," the conference concluded this past week at Sundance, where the 63-year-old Janis joined such notables as actor Ron Silver, operatic mezzo Brenda Boozer, novelist Gay Talese and the Russian poet Andrei Vosnezenski to discuss everything from homelessness to alternative energy sources. Together with Silver and actor Robert Redford, Janis was one of the three chairmen of the event, in his role as arts co-chairman of the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders for Human Survival, which held its first international conference at Oxford University three years ago.Typically, Janis says, "my involvement started in a musical way. They were looking for an instrumental theme and didn't find one and approached me to write one. They opened the conference with it and adopted it as their theme." But it was the other things he heard at that meeting that really captured Janis' attention.
"I was absolutely stupefied by some of the problems we were facing," he recalls. "The depletion of the ozone layer. The rate at which we are killing our trees. One Russian scientist even arrived with film of Chernobyl under his arm."
In connection with the Sundance conference, Janis' theme got yet another outing on last Sunday's Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast. "It was the very first performance of the choral arrangement," Janis says of the piece, titled "The One World," with lyrics by Sammy Cahn and due to be published soon.
That's one way art can help heighten public awareness, he says. Others include "using the media to help us get the urgency of this across and getting corporations involved."
Resolutions to come out of last week's sessions include one to establish a traveling arts exhibit, called "East Meets West," representing various countries and cultures; another to establish a traveling theater company, to be called Crossing Borders, to "speak to the disenfranchised, the outcasts and aliens of various kinds to cultures that do not accept them fully"; another to create an "environmental calendar" featuring artwork and poetry to be distributed worldwide; and yet another to focus on the relationship between children and the environment and "improve the quality of life for children all over the world."
Nor is the environment the only cause Janis is involved in. Since 1985 he has also served as national spokesman for the Arthritis Foundation, and plans a Salt Lake visit in October to play a benefit for that organization.
The pianist let his painful secret be known following a concert at the White House in February of that year. "Until then," he says, "I had played for maybe 10 years with non-bending fingers and nobody knew it." During that time he tried every treatment in the book, and some not, vowing that "anytime I felt my standards lowering I would stop. But in fact I played some of my best concerts in those years, and got some of my best reviews. Eventually, however, it got to be too much."
At the time, Janis says, "I thought at least that way I would be able to play a bit. Somewhere in the back of my mind, however, I knew that while music was my life there was more in my life than music. There had to be more important things than just going around the world playing on stages, hoping I got a good piano and hoping I played well."
As it happens, he has continued to play, albeit "only when I feel like it," and has diversified his interests to include not only medical and environmental problems but books and, some years ago, a film on Chopin that was aired nationally over PBS.
"People ask who my favorite composer is, and I say, `That's impossible,' " Janis says. "But if they ask me who my favorite person is, well, that's Chopin."
In that context he has had unusual luck, not only becoming one of that composer's most celebrated exponents but, some years ago, turning up previously undiscovered manuscript copies of several of the waltzes.
"One I found in a chateau just outside Paris," he recalls. "Then five years later after a master class at Yale, they asked me if I'd like to see some of their old music. Well, just before leaving I pointed to something on one of the shelves and, when they took it down, there, with five professors around me, were two of the same waltzes, only in different editions. Somehow they had never been catalogued."
Janis says he has a couple of Chopin projects in the works, including a solo recording. At the same time some of his earlier RCA and Mercury recordings have, at long last, begun to resurface on CD.
Oddly these do not yet include several of his favorites among his recordings, or for that matter mine. We both lament the absence of his Rachmaninoff First and Prokofiev Third concertos, recorded in connection with his historic visit to the Soviet Union, as well as an earlier Rachmaninoff First and Strauss Burleske with Fritz Reiner.
As for another famous recording with Reiner, the long-suppressed Shumann Concerto, it turns out Janis himself was responsible for its not being approved.
"I thought it was OK when we did it, then we went back to the listening room and it had no line, no profile. It just seemed dead to me. Some years later someone sent me an LP of it the Chicago Symphony was using to raise money and I couldn't believe my ears. `Why did you ever turn this down?' I asked myself. Then we went back to the master and I heard exactly the same thing I had heard before. So I said to Dick Mohr and Jack Pfeiffer, `What's the difference between this and what's on that record?' And they moved one lever about a quarter of an inch and there was the record, with all its life and color."
Currently, Janis reports, all his RCA recordings are planned for CD reissue, presumably including a "Rhapsody in Blue" (with Hugo Winterhalter, of all people) and another of his favorites, the Schulz-Evler transcription of "The Blue Danube" Waltz.
That, one gathers, was done pretty much in the tradition of Lhevinne and Horowitz, two of his teachers. Nor can the latter's influence especially have been easy to escape.
"In later years we became good friends," he says of Horowitz, "but it must have taken me eight or 10 years to break free. He was such a great artist and personality and I knew exactly how he played everything. With all that in my ear, it was just too easy to go his way, yet there was a part of me that was very different. Once he told me that the first time he heard me play, at age 15 in Pittsburgh with Maazel, I reminded him of himself at that age with all that nervous energy. But I remember when I presented him with one of my early Beethoven sonatas - the "Tempest," I think it was - he wasn't interested and that really shattered me. I had a lot of Mozart and Beethoven in my background."
But the greatest compliment may have come more recently. "About two years before he died he came to my apartment and we played some four-hand Mozart, Schubert and Rachmaninoff - the `Symphonic Dances,' " Janis recalls. "And when we were finished, he said, `You know, the last time I played that with another pianist was with Rachmaninoff.' "
Too bad somebody didn't have a tape machine running on that one as well.