The scene was the Leo Baeck Temple in Brentwood, at last week’s invitational
tribute to Leonard Bernstein. The veteran pianist Leo Smit came onstage to play
the opening work, tried to strike a few notes, and stopped. Something in the
Yamaha grand piano, furnished for the concert by David Abell, was decidedly
off-key. Smit tried a second time; no luck. “Is Leon Levitch in the house?”
the master of ceremonies called out.
There was a stir up back; Leon Levitch was definitely in the house. Down the
aisle he came, the smiling, diminutive, white-haired man of all pianos, looking
for all the world like Central Casting’s idea of a kindly old-world craftsman –
– which, indeed, he is. He twirled a couple of wing nuts under the piano, and
before you could say “Mieczyslaw Horszowski” he had the entire innards of the
instrument spread across the floor of the stage.
A dab, a twiddle, and Levitch had the piano back together again. “I don’t know
what I did,” he shouted out in all innocence, “but it seems to work.” Chalk
up another Leon Levitch victory.
Every city has its legendary piano wizard, about whom tales are told with
laughter and awe. Levitch, who now lives in Pacoima, is that man for Los
Angeles. Born in Yugoslavia 63 years ago, Levitch taught himself the rudiments
of piano building while interned in an Italian prison camp during World War II.
After Italy’s defeat, the Levitch family was part of a token group of freed
prisoners brought to the United States by Franklin D. Rossevelt and quartered –
– behind more barbed wire — in an abandoned army camp in upstate New York.
Word got out that the camp had among its inmates a teenage piano tuner, and
Levitch was frequently smuggled out under darkness, crawling through a break in
the barbed wire, to repair pianos in nearby Oswego.
Along the way, Levitch also studied composition, later working with Roy Harris
at UCLA. Several of his chamber compositions have been recorded, and he is now
at work on a Requiem, to be performed next year at the opening of a museum in
Oswego commemorating the wartime encampment.

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