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Maria Watts is a musicologist and lecturer and currently resides in San Francisco, California.
'I believe that a performer must be a clear channel for the composer's message and not allow his or her own personality to interfere with the composer's intentions... A performer should extend not absorb.'
This credo which Sari (pronounced Sha-ri) Biro discussed in so many of her television, radio, and personal interviews, infused her approach to music. 'Every composer speaks to me in his or her own distinctive idiom... each piece is an expression of both intellect and emotion, but stated in musical terms and each composer has a unique way of communicating his or her thoughts and feelings. A piece can be played several different ways, but it can have only one musical meaning.' The New Orleans Times-Picayune observed: '...She interposes no stylistic or interpretive (sic) barriers between the composer she is serving and her listeners. She is a greatly endowed and deeply sincere artist.'
Sari Biro's talent was manifest at the age of four, when she played, from memory, pieces her older sister performed. She began her piano lessons privately at the age of six in her native city of Budapest and then received a scholarship to study at the Franz Liszt Academy. At a young age, she was a soloist with Ernst von Dohnányi conducting, and she performed in an opening concert of the Hungarian national broadcasting system. Vincent d'Indy heard her and declared, 'To hear Sari play makes one a better human being.'
After graduating from the Academy with highest honors, she toured the music capitals of Europe, Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, London, Milan, Paris, Prague, Rome, Stockholm, Vienna and Zurich. Wrote Die Stunde: 'Sari Biro is the foremost among the young European artists of our generation.' She also appeared as soloist with such orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic, Paris Orchestre National, Vienna Philharmonic, Warsaw Symphony; and she introduced to European audiences the Concertino written in 1926 by Leon Weiner, with whom she studied chamber music at the Academy. During the 1930s, her recitals on Hungarian Radio were broadcast throughout Europe.
In the winter of 1939, Sari Biro left Hungary and arrived in New York City. She made her debut at Town Hall in May of 1940. Coming completely unheralded at the end of the season, and at a time when many other leading European artists were also seeking a haven in New York, Sari Biro immediately established herself as 'indubitably one of the most gifted pianists of her sex.' (New York Herald Tribune) Extolled the New York Times: 'Sari Biro must be reckoned among the foremost women exponents of the keyboard of the time.' Seldom does a pianist elicit the unanimous acclaim that greeted this debut, which launched her career in America.
For the next 18 years, Sari Biro resided in New York and performed extensively in the United States, Mexico and South America. She appeared on television in New York during the late 1940s and early '50s, and gave several recitals at Carnegie Hall. In 1947, she inaugurated commercially-sponsored broadcasts on a New York FM station with a series of thirteen live, half-hour studio recitals, each offering a different programme, ranging from Rameau and Scarlatti to Bartók, who particularly praised her interpretation of his works. Sari Biro appeared as soloist with, among others, the Chicago Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, Kansas City Philharmonic, New Orleans Philharmonic, the Rochester Philharmonic (under Eric Leinsdorf, with whom she introduced the Weiner Concertino in many cities); and with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Wrote Ormandy of her playing: 'She made a deep impression on audiences, music critics, and every member of the orchestra with her brilliant technique and sincere approach to Bach.'
In 1949, the American State Department named Sari Biro the most distinguished new citizen of the year. Also in 1949, she became the only woman to perform nine piano concerti in a series of three concerts at Carnegie Hall. Every concert presented a piece from the classical era, introduced a 20th century work, and concluded with a work from the Romantic repertoire. Sari Biro gave both the Weiner Concertino and the Milhaud Concerto No. 2 their New York premieres during this series. She also played GianCarlo Menotti's Concerto with the composer in attendance...
In 1956, she made her American West Coast debuts in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle reviewer declared, 'Sari Biro is the kind of pianist whose work is impossible to separate into the usual categories of technique and interpretation. Her technique is so brilliant, so all-encompassing, many-sided, and electrifying as to provide endless fascination in itself. But this transcendental command of the keyboard is put to the service of highly poetic musical ideas... Among the encores was Liszt's 15th Hungarian Rhapsody, the Rákoczy March. It has probably not been played with so corrosive a flame since the days of Liszt himself.'
In the years that followed, during which Sari Biro lived in San Francisco, she introduced to West Coast audiences the Menotti Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony 'Pops' under Arthur Fiedler. The San Francisco Examiner wrote, 'One reason why the Menotti piece proved delightful was the the blonde Miss Biro played it magnificently... Her touch was sensitive and brilliant. Her pianistic gusto and rhythmic attack - for instance, in the first movement cadenza and the lively parts of the Finale - were truly exciting.'
In 1958, San Francisco's Public Broadcasting System station featured Sari Biro in her own series of half-hour live television shows, in which she discussed the works she performed and the importance of music.
' I believe in the tremendous power of music to transform people's lives; enrich their hours of solitude, console, change or match their moods, and elevate their consciousness. Music puts them in touch with harmonious vibrations; it transports them to a more beautiful world.' As one American newspaper put it: 'What constitutes the individual style which makes Biro... different from the general run of concert pianists is almost too subtle for analysis. A sort of other-wordly quality pervades her music, appealing to the imagination and stirring the heart.'
Sari Biro was deeply committed to sharing her musical gifts: 'When one is born with a special talent, one is entrusted with a sort of mission - for the sole purpose of sharing it with everyone... We owe a great deal to others, especially if we posses a talent that can enrich their lives, as well as our own.' She fulfilled this mission also through her exceptional gift for teaching often without remuneration. Sari Biro possessed a singular ability to create a rapport with her listeners, through music. The passion, intensity, and élan of her playing were distinctive, and she lived her life the same way, often giving up opportunities to perform rather than neglect a person in need. She was noted for invoking the special quality of sound, as well as musical style, which is unique to each composer. Among her often quoted remarks: 'Music is the most faithful mirror of the times... While composers' inspirations, I believe, come from a higher sphere of consciousness, their musical palettes are made of the sounds that surround them.' She gave her last New York recital, in Alice Tully Hall in 1972, and contained to give master classes until 1990.
From the beginning of Sari Biro's American career, writers contrasted her fragile, almost ethereal appearance with the power of her playing. In the 1940s and '50s, the stereotypical perception of women musicians still prevailed. The great praise was 'She plays like a man.' or 'As much as it must irk Miss Biro to have it said of her, her technique is man-sized, as she amply demonstrated in ploughing up a fine Lisztian spray all over the keyboard last night...' (Hartford) or '... her playing proved a surprise to a large part of the audience which still held to the popular fallacy that there is no comparison between the playing of a woman and such men as Rubinstein... This illusion was effectively and completely dispelled by the quality of Miss Biro's playing... She is capable of lifting the audience out of themselves and transporting them with her to the realm of pure music.' (Burlington Free Press)
Clearly, Sari Biro helped to blaze a special path, proving that women pianists must be judged by the same artistic standards as men, and that they can emerge triumphant.
© 1996 Maria Watts
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