Leonid Hambro has always displayed a fondness for anything unusual, and maybe even a little silly, in the often stuffy world of music-- serious music.
For more than a decade the pianist toured with comedian Victor Borge. He has also traveled with another musical funster, Peter Schickele, a k aP.D.Q. Bach. And his more recent solo forays into radio, television and recital halls have often leaned heavily on his flair for the amusing anecdote.
So you might naturally think that his latest offbeat scheme of touring with a quartet of pianos--and the pianists to play them--was his brainchild. But it wasn't. The veteran musician-raconteur says it was all his New York manager's idea.
" 'Groups were in. Soloists were out.' That's what they told me," the affable pianist explained during a break from rehearsals for a 66-date cross-country tour that begins todayat Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. (Other local dates are Sunday at Glendale High School Auditorium and Dec. 7 at Ambassador Auditorium.)
" 'How about Leonid Hambro and his Big Band?' my manager suggested. I didn't like that. 'The Leonid Hambro Choir?' No. 'What about the Leonid Hambro Quartet of Pianos?' Now that I liked."
Almost instantly, he says, Hambro knew just who the remaining three-quarters of the ensemble would be: Adam Stern, Bin Wang and Yoon-Sung Shin. "Adam is a kind of phenomenon," Hambro enthuses. "He's one of those brilliant players who's had maybe two formal lessons in his entire life. And Bin and Yoon (who, like Stern, studied with Hambro at CalArts), well, they're tremendous finger-wigglers. They learn very fast--and what perfectionists!"
Of the quartet's programs, the pianist enthuses, "It's a great way for audiences to hear familiar music in an unfamiliar setting. People will hear other things (in the arrangements). There's a different timbral sound.
"You know, someone once asked Wagner why he used such a huge orchestra. He told them that he wanted to make sure the pianissimos were effective. Now with four pianos, we can get a very small pianissimo--and we can get a wonderful, full-bodied sound."
Hambro agrees that the concept of four pianists pounding away on stage may seem gimmicky, but he is swift in dismissing a comparison with the "Monster Concert" craze a few years ago, which reached a zenith of sorts at the '84 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies when 84 pianists performed "Rhapsody in Blue."
Music for four pianos, confesses Hambro, "is an artificial thing. There isn't anything we play that is specifically written for this combination (Stern has arranged the entire repertory, from Mozart to Leroy Anderson). But so what? Bach wrote concertos for four harpsichords, and that, certainly, was a gimmick.
"Our intent is always to be primarily entertainment," he stresses. "We'll do fun stuff like an arrangement of Beethoven's 'Ruins of Athens,' (the "Turkish March") in which I'll start off and, one by one, the others will stroll on stage until all four of us are playing--on the same piano! Plus, of course, I'll provide a few fun stories about the music."
Hambro and cohorts remain constantly mindful of serious musical matters. "We take great care with the dynamics, the nuances in the score, that sort of thing. I'll tell you something: Leonard Bernstein heard a tape of Adam's setting of his 'Candide' overture (the opening work on the tour agenda) and he told me he liked it better than the original."
Hambro claims that the four-keyboard format also lends itself to serious music. "Adam is going to write a four-piano concerto for us. And we're toying with the idea of arrangements of Stravinsky's 'Sacre,' Ravel's 'La Valse' and 'Daphnis et Chloe' and maybe Debussy's 'Fetes.' "
For now, the tour repertory is decidedly pops-oriented: "The Sorcer's Apprentice," "Rhapsody in Blue," a trio of Leroy Anderson pieces, including "The Typewriter" (with Stern as typist), etc.
A little something for all popular tastes. "I think everyone will enjoy it," Hambro suggests, "but then there's my wife, who hates the sound of two pianos. And she hates four pianos twice as much."