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Obituaries

Margaret R. Harris; Pianist, Pioneering Conductor

March 23, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Margaret Rosezarian Harris, a child prodigy pianist who grew up to become the first black woman to conduct such major orchestras as the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has died at 56.

Harris, the music director of the innovative Broadway rock musical "Hair," died March 7 in New York City of a heart attack.

The precocious pianist played her first recital at age 3 in the Cary Temple Auditorium of her native Chicago. Dressed in a white satin dress, with her favorite doll perched next to the baby grand piano, she enthralled her audience as she played, from memory, 18 works by Bach, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Brahms. She yawned at one point, but never missed a note, and when the concert ended, she picked up her doll and ran to her mother.

Somebody immediately offered her parents, Dewey and Clara Harris, $13,000 for their only child to play the piano on television.

"The funny thing was that they knew I could have done it," she told The Times in 1972 when she first performed in Los Angeles. "But they turned it down. This girl had more important things to do. Like go to school."

And go to school she did. With the help of a scholarship she earned playing with the Chicago Symphony, she entered the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at age 10. By age 12 she was in the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Her bachelor's and master's degree programs at Juilliard were paid for by a grant from the Leopold Schepp Foundation, which she later served as a trustee.

An eclectic musician, Harris played, composed and conducted across a broad spectrum of musical styles from classical to rock. For "Hair," she both played piano and conducted the orchestra--seven men all older than she--from her keyboard. She later returned to Broadway to work on the musical "The Two Gentlemen of Verona."

"Music is to move, to entertain," she told The Times in 1972. "All I care about is that music be good, and that it communicate with a broad public, without special introductions or apologies. All those barriers between pop and classical are snobbish, artificial."

Harris made a dazzling impression on the staid Los Angeles Philharmonic audience with her debut on June 3, 1972, playing the world premiere of her own Piano Concerto No. 2 at the orchestra's workshop in USC's Bovard Auditorium.

She returned that August to conduct the orchestra in a Hollywood Bowl concert, becoming one of the few women to have wielded the Los Angeles Philharmonic baton.

Despite her firsts as a black person and a woman, Harris considered herself a champion for neither.

"When people get to know me," she said, "they understand that, deep down, I don't really represent a race or a sex. Not significantly, anyhow. I just represent me."

Over her half-century career, Harris taught music, played solo recitals from London to New York to San Francisco, conducted the orchestras of 16 American cities and several ballet companies, and composed television scores, two piano concertos, two ballets and an opera.

Five years ago, Harris went to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, at the invitation of the U.S. Information Service as cultural specialist for a production there of "Porgy and Bess."

Harris recently had been appointed associate dean of the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster, Pa., a position she was to assume in June.

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