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Leonid Hambro, 86; concert pianist was Borge's straight man

October 28, 2006|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Leonid Hambro, a concert pianist who had the ability to commit to memory a huge repertoire and served as Victor Borge's comedic sidekick during a decade-long collaboration, has died in New York. He was 86.

Hambro died Monday at his Manhattan home of complications from a fall, his wife, Barbara Hambro, said.

He taught piano for 20 years at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, starting in 1970, and for a time had a weekly radio show on KPFK-FM (90.7). In the 1980s and '90s he toured with the Hambro Quartet of Pianos.

Hambro's ability to memorize complex pieces was impressive, notably during a 1952 Town Hall performance in New York in which he was asked to fill in for another pianist. He had learned the complicated Paul Hindemith piece in just 24 hours, leading the composer, who was conducting, to tell the audience that they had just witnessed a "kind of miracle."

Hambro amassed a repertoire of more than 200 compositions during his career, from simple etudes to full-length concertos. In a tour de force concert he called "Command Performance," he invited the audience to select from more than a hundred pieces of music and he then played their top requests, on the spot, from memory.

But it was his 10-year partnership with Borge, beginning in 1961, that earned him the most visibility. Borge's piano comedy act had Hambro playing the straight guy to his antics. One routine had the two men performing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 on the same keyboard, then falling off the piano bench.

Hambro made more than 100 recordings and toured worldwide, appearing as a soloist with orchestras including those in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and London.

He was known as a skilled chamber musician and collaborated with Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern and others. He performed with Arturo Toscanini, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski and many other distinguished conductors.

Born June 26, 1920, in Chicago, Hambro was a piano prodigy who played his first recital at age 5. He attended the Juilliard School and in 1946 won a Naumburg Foundation award. He subsequently was designated the pianist of the New York Philharmonic.

In addition to his wife, Hambro is survived by a son, Simeon; a sister, Darya Hambro Rodnon; and a granddaughter.

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