Legendary pianist Byron Janis will be honored in a five-day series of events celebrating his 85th year beginning today at 3 p.m. in the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center.
Since his debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony at age 16, Byron has gone on to forge a nearly seven-decade long musical legacy, including such historically significant honors as being the first American pianist to perform in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. His birthday celebration will be composed of an assortment of lectures, master classes, video presentations and Q&A discussions.
"He's going to be talking about his early career," said David Northington, UT professor of piano in the School of Music. "He's played all over the world with every major orchestra in every major concert hall."
Northington, who is coordinating the celebratory event, first studied under Byron Janis as a young Yale student in the 70s.
"He came over and gave a one-week master class session and I was asked to be responsible for taking him back and forth from the hotel and train," Northington said. "He invited me to come take classes from him in New York, and so I'd have lessons in his apartment on Park Avenue. We've been good friends since."
People from across the nation will have the same opportunity Northington once did to learn from a true visionary in the daily master classes he will be offering in conjunction with his presentations.
"We already have over 100 people registered from around the country who are going to perform for him," he said. "He's very sharp and wants to stay engaged, with the piano and with people."
Having not visited Knoxville in the last 30 years, Janis, a New York resident, voiced his approval of the city upon his Thursday afternoon arrival.
"I am very impressed with Knoxville," Janis said. "It's really grown and I feel in the air something about it I didn't before; somehow, its more cosmopolitan. It's really wonderful."
Janis expressed his wonder at having reached his current age and at all of the tribulations and awe-inspiring moments that have comprised his 85 years.
"Sometimes, I shake my head," he said. "Sometimes I feel 85, sometimes I feel about 20."
Beyond a showing of the film "The Byron Janis Story," a discussion of his 2010 memoir, and a tribute to Chopin, Janis will be additionally lecturing on subjects relevant to his life's history, like the healing power of music. In 1984, at a State Dinner at the White House by invitation of President Reagan, Janis first publicly revealed he had been suffering severe arthritis throughout much of his illustrious career.
"It started in 1973 in one finger, and then it gradually spread to all my fingers and wrists," Janis said. "The doctor said, 'Well, I can treat them, but you won't be able to play.'"
Janis, who has since dedicated much philanthropic effort to the assistance of others suffering early onset arthritis, said he believes will power helped him overcome physical obstacles in order to continue his passion for the piano.
"I believe in mind over matter," he said. "It works a lot more than most people realize."
Byron Janis' wife of nearly 48 years, Maria, said she is in "untold admiration" of her husband's persistence.
"I've seen the struggle and I've seen all the work and the discipline, given the health issues my husband has had to face," she said. "He's never given up and has always had this sort of torpedo, full-speed-ahead kind of an attitude because of his own passion and love of music.
"He's let nothing stand in his way."
Maria Janis will also be presenting a lecture, "Reflections on Life With Creative Artists," a subject she has much experience in, with actor Gary Cooper being her father. A painter herself, she voices veneration at her husband's dedication to his craft.
"His favorite expression is 'passion and perseverance,'" she said. "I think his life exemplifies that."
Byron Janis, his voice full of memory and assurance, admitted he believes his passion has been well-placed.
"At this point, I say whatever happens to me now, it's OK," he said, "because I've lived a fantastic life."
For a full schedule of Byron Janis' birthday celebrations, visit the School of Music's website, http://www.music.utk.edu/janis/.