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Eugene Istomin, 78; Pianist Best Known for Chamber Recordings

October 13, 2003|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Eugene Istomin, a leading classical pianist best known for his chamber work with violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose, has died. He was 78.

Istomin died Friday of liver cancer at his home in Washington, D.C.

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Istomin gave more than 4,000 concerts with many of the leading conductors of the time, including Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner, Leopold Stokowski and George Szell.

Istomin also had a successful solo career and, starting in the late 1980s, began the unusual practice of transporting his own pianos -- as well as a piano tuner -- with him to concert dates.

"We pianists are the only people deprived of knowing the instruments we perform on," Istomin said.

Istomin was born in New York City. His parents were Russian and were professional singers. Istomin's talent was recognized when he was 12, and he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He studied there under Rudolf Serkin.

At 17, Istomin won two prestigious competitions -- the Leventritt Award, which included a chance to perform with the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Award, which included a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

At the age of 18, Istomin made sensational debuts in the same week. He played the Chopin Concerto in F Minor with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Ormandy and, a few days later, played Brahms' Second Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Artur Rodzinski.

Istomin became involved with chamber works in the 1950s when he was a protege of the cellist, conductor and composer Pablo Casals. He was a regular participant in classical festivals in Prades, France, and Puerto Rico, both organized by Casals.

Istomin also met Stern in the early 1950s at a festival, and the pair soon decided to form a trio and asked Rose to join them.

Their initial forays were not well received by critics, however, so they discontinued their efforts until 1961, when their performance at the Israel Music Festival was met with wide praise.

Gary Graffman, president and director of the Curtis Institute, told the Associated Press on Friday that Istomin would be remembered for this work.

"These [recordings] will stand out forever because they are incredible performances by three great artists....

"This will be the standing by which all others will be judged."

The trio won a Grammy Award in 1970 for best chamber music performance for their "Beethoven: The Complete Piano Trios."

Istomin married Marta Casals, the widow of Pablo Casals, two years after Casal's death in 1973. She is the president of the Manhattan School of Music, where Istomin was on the piano faculty. They had no children.

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