Mention the name Leslie Howard to most people and they probably think of the movie actor, best remembered, I expect, as the golden-haired Ashley Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind." To area pianophiles, however, the name is as likely to call up memories of a red-maned Australian pianist and, not incidentally, some transcendent evenings in the recital hall.
Needless to say, it is that Leslie Howard who returns to Utah this week for a recital Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Kingsbury Hall. Characteristically his program is an unusual one, in this case "Liszt at the Opera," a full evening of operatic fantasies, transcriptions and paraphrases by that luminary, including the "Reminiscences de Don Juan" (after "Don Giovanni"), the Polonaise from "Eugene Onegin," the "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" and the Overture to Weber's "Der Freischuetz.""There are about 60 of the bloomin' things," Howard observes in typically irreverent fashion by telephone from Kansas City, one of several stops on his current U.S. tour. "Basically they fall into three sorts: First, the straight transcriptions, such as the `Tannhaueser' and `Freischuetz' overtures; second, where he more or less takes a section of the piece and permits himself a certain amount of elaboration, like the Sextet from `Lucia' or the Polonaise from `Onegin'; then third, where he takes the themes of the opera and puts his own structure on them either by virtue of writing variations or by creating a `symphonic synthesis,' as Leopold Stokowski might have put it. When he does that, very often he tries to convey some part of the essence of the original, as in the `Don Juan' Fantasy or the `Norma' Reminiscences."
Certainly the "Don Juan" Fantasy is no stranger to our concert halls, especially in recent years. There was a time, moreover, when nearly every pianist's repertoire included at least a few of the Liszt operatic transcriptions.
"Even then," Howard says, "there were some that never got done. The Prelude to Act 3 and the Bridal March from `Lohegrin,' for example, which I've never heard anyone play. I think the reason is that we're all used to the Toscanini tempo, whereas the transcription makes it clear that when Liszt conducted it at Weimar he must have gone slower. I can't imagine two hands could ever have played it at the speed of the Toscanini recording.
"Then in the puritanical age of the '50s nobody would touch them because they thought they were cheap. But I think a lot of the time that was an excuse not to have to study them in the first place."
Since he relocated to London and began forging an international career for himself in 1972, Howard has never shied away from the difficult or the obscure. Indeed, for a while it seemed as though most of his programs were made up of largely unfamiliar music. Did he deliberately set out to focus on rarities?
"Yes, I did" he replies. "I was never very interested in making progress through competitions, where you have to play the same music everybody else plays and in a manner to offend the smallest number of people. Then, too, it always distressed me that, the piano repertoire being as vast as it is, so little of it was being scratched. It isn't that I go around digging up stuff that on the whole isn't worth a hearing - it's that there's really some great music out there nobody ever hears."
A lot of it, moreover, seems to have been written by Liszt. Howard himself decided as far back as 1983 that in 1986, the centenary of the composer's death, he would perform all of Liszt's original piano pieces, not including the transcriptions. The result was 10 recitals that earned him the Liszt Medal of Honor bestowed by the Hungarian government, and the first of what promises to be a similarly comprehensive series of recordings for Hyperion.
That first Liszt collection consisted of all the waltzes. The next installment brought together the Ballades, Legends and Polonaises, some of which Howard had performed the previous summer on Temple Square. Similarly Tuesday's recital comes in the middle of a group of sessions devoted to the operatic transcriptions, six of which were recorded in London last January.
"To my knowledge nobody's ever done a program like this before, meaning just the operatic transcriptions," Howard says. As the recently installed president of the Liszt Society in London, he should know.
At present it will mark his fifth visit to Utah, beginning with an Alpine Concert Series recital several years ago. "I made so many friends in and out of the Mormon community when I was on the Bachauer jury in '86," he says of his frequent returns, "and they've always seemed keen to have me back."
Tickets to Tuesday's recital are $10 ($8 students) with tickets available at the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition offices, Discriminator Music, Le Disque, Beesley Music, Broadway Music, Raspberry Records, Waking Owl Books and, of course, Kingsbury Hall.
And has he ever been confused with the other Leslie Howard? "Only once that I know of," he says, "when a little old lady wrote the BBC after they had broadcast one of my recitals, saying she had always loved my films but didn't know I was such a good musician."
At that even the somber-faced Ashley might have smiled.