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Remembering Leonard

by Phil Leon

For thirty-eight years I was privileged to share an extraordinary friendship with Leonard Pennario, years rich in anecdotes, some of which I would like to share with his family and friends. Some musical memories both amusing and reflective of his remarkable gifts would be a suitable beginning.

How about a recent visit in his wheelchair with brother Joe for a showing of conductor Peter Oundjian's Toronto Symphony documentary? Upon learning that Leonard was in the audience, he beckoned Leonard to the stage and proclaimed, "Leonard Pennario, you are a legend!"

Leonard and Leon Fleischer adjudicated a Van Cliburn competition at which a Japanese virtuoso named Nojima ripped off a Lisztian difficulty that Leonard said took his breath away. At that point Leonard was nudged by Fleisher's elbow as he said, "Let's forget we ever heard that, Lenny. Remember Pearl Harbor."

After an Atlanta recital, a well-meaning but naïve woman said to Leonard in his dressing room, "That was the most beautiful piano playing I have heard since my mother died." I said, "Leonard, you shouldn't have been offended. Perhaps her mother was Clara Schumann."

The first time I attended, in Leonard's company, a performance by another pianist, in this instance Sir Clifford Curzon, who had just played what I thought was a perfect performance of Mozart's great C minor piano concerto, I was curious as to how Leonard perceived the event. I didn't get a chance to ask. He volunteered, "His performance was impeccable, pristine, crystalline. It cannot be played better." He was generous in praise of others: Myra Hess, Solomon, Rubinstein, Firkusny, Ohlsson ...

Then we have Pennario, genius of 'lighter music'. Those rich and gorgeous renderings of such as Midnight Cowboy, Porter, Gershwin, and perhaps best of all Michel Legrand. He would invite requests and weave them into miraculous medleys of such beautiful expression and amazing virtuosity that these impromptu performances were as if they had been engraved in stone by Rachmaninoff decades ago.
There was the late wonderful tour with the Budapest Symphony of concerti by Khachaturian and Rachmaninoff, and to reward the ovations, encores of Scriabin's Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone, and his signature piece, Banjo, by Gottschalk. Leonard's two CDs of the latter's music were deemed, in full page reviews by Robert Offergeld, the reigning authority on Gottschalk, as the greatest ever recorded.

The current issue of Opera news was on my desk to send to Leonard because it is devoted to Puccini, one of Leonard's passions. He had the courage and integrity to state that, "I love Puccini more than Verdi, because that is where the heart is." Unfashionable opinion, but honest and caring.

Leonard's splendid recording of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini elicited a break in rehearsal when the conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, said to hs Los Angeles Philharmonic, "Ladies and gentlemen, I hope that you listened carefully to what you just heard because you will never hear it played better."
An extraordinary testimonial follows:
6 November, 1957
Dear Mr. Pennario,
Your performance last night of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini was so powerful and brilliant that it reminded me of the composer's playing of this beautiful music. You expressed so eloquently the lyrical parts which were always played with such deep feeling by Rachmaninoff. I cannot thank you enough for such a memorable musical experience.
Sincerely, Leopold Stokowski


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A curious aspect of Leonard's varied interests was his broad and profound knowledge of motion picture esoterica. Famous movie friends were amazed by his command of film lore beyond their own, just as he was often astonished by movie folk, such as Lew Ayres' exhaustive familiarity with classical music.

One will cherish always touching and prideful 'dates' with Leonard's beloved mother at Claremont College and elsewhere -- she looking regal and beautiful in stole embellished gowns befitting the artist's mother.

And of course, attention must be paid to Leonard Pennario, noted bridge player. He achieved Life Master status as a consequence of his self-proclaimed habitual 'bad Karma'. We started out for the Fresno national tournament on the San Diego freeway when I said to him, "It's your state, not mine, but why are we heading towards San Diego when Fresno is north of L.A.?" "It's my karma, my invariably bad karma that I must do these things." So we arrived at the tournament after entries for the game were no longer being sold, but an admiring director was found who contrived to manipulate us into the game with an entry in a smoking section, -- horror and bad karma! But the karma wasn't so bad after all, we finished second overall for a massive total of masterpoints, enabling Leonard to get the few remaining needed points with Mike Savage the next day. Rich in achievement, we left the tournament days early in order to work on his Beverly Hills home, one of three I decorated for him as well as two for brother Joe.
Perhaps Leonard's greatest bridge achievement was on the last day of a North American bridge championship in Las Vegas when he had the grand total of five masterpoints, none of which were the difficult to obtain Gold. With teammates Dick Levick and Irving Steinfeld, we achieved second place, winning all of the gold points he would ever need. This elicited from the illustrious Kathy Wei, whose team included Benito Garozzo, and who won the event, "It's the only tournament I ever heard of in which everyone remembers who was second and no one remembers who won."
There were also late bridge successes in knockout events at nationals with Pennario family teammates, Billy and mom Lou Ann Leonard.

And of course there was Leonard's legendary housekeeper, Johanna Zehnpfennigs (ten pennies) who confronted him at the breakfast table one morning, pointing at the LA Times headline Liberace Dead, and triumphantly pronouncing, "Now you are number one."

Leonard valued more than any contribution I made to his life my introduction to him of Leigh Munro, whom he adored during her four year run in L.A. in Phantom of the Opera. Leonard -- pianist, composer, bridge nut, film buff and participant, but perhaps above all a people person. We mourn our loss but are grateful for his recorded legacy and precious memories such as these. Let's hope that for him there are foursomes with Sheinwold and other departed bridge eminences, and that he is making heavenly music with Heifetz, Piatigorski, Schubert, and Chopin and all the others whose music and collaborations he interpreted so nobly.
Phil Leon .
Grosse Pointe Shores MI.
2008-06-27