NEW YORK (AP) – Leonid Hambro, a concert pianist with the ability to commit to memory a huge repertoire and who served as Victor Borge’s comedic sidekick during a decade-old collaboration, has died. He was 86.

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

Hambro’s ability to memorize complicated and numerous pieces was used in impressive ways, most notably during a 1952 Town Hall performance in which he was asked to fill in for another pianist. He had learned the complicated piece in just 24 hours, leading the conductor to tell the audience that they had just witnessed a “kind of miracle.”

Hambro amassed a repertoire of over 200 compositions during his career, from simple etudes to full-length concerti. In a tour de force concert he called “Command Performance,” he invited the audience to select from over a hundred pieces of music and he would then play 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, and then falling off the piano bench. The Times called Hambro “the laughingest straight man you ever saw.”

Hambro also had a 16-year career as pianist for WQXR, The New York Times radio station, where he played live weekly broadcasts and chamber music recitals.

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

He was known as a skilled chamber musician, who collaborated with Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern and others. He performed under the batons of Toscanini, Mitropoulos, Bernstein, Ormandy, Stokowski and many other distinguished conductors.

Bela Bartok’s son selected Hambro to record all of his father’s piano music, including the premiere recording of the First Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony. Edward Jablonski, George Gershwin’s official biographer, asked Hambro to record 18 of the composer’s songs as Gershwin himself had played them, and to introduce them at the Prague Spring Festival.

Born in Chicago, Hambro was a piano prodigy who played his first recital at the age of five. 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 1970, he joined the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts as it was being founded, and served there as associate dean for 20 years.

In addition to his wife, Hambro is survived by a son, Simeon; a sister, Darya Hambro Rodnon; and a granddaughter, Ella. A daughter, Aralee, died about 10 years ago.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.


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