Obituaries

Zita Carno, Concert Pianist, Coltrane Scholar and More, Dies at 88

Zita Carno in 1960 with the composer Wallingford Riegger. The critic Harold C. Schonberg called her the “perfect interpreter” of Mr. Riegger’s technically difficult “Variations for Piano and Orchestra.”Credit…Whitestone Photo

When the Bronx-bred pianist Zita Carno auditioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1975, she played short excerpts from the orchestra’s repertoire for the music director, Zubin Mehta.

“Then Mehta said, ‘Come back tomorrow. I want to hear you play the Boulez,’” she recalled years later, referring to the French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez.

“Well, I said, ‘I eat that stuff for breakfast,’ which made him laugh.”

Ms. Carno was hired and spent the next 25 years as the orchestra’s pianist, capping a career as a widely praised classical keyboardist (she also played the harpsichord and organ) who was also an expert on the music of the innovative jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

Ms. Carno died on Dec. 7 in an assisted living facility in Tampa, Fla. She was 88.

Her cousin Susanna Briselli said the cause was heart failure. Ms. Carno had moved to Tampa with her mother after her retirement from the Philharmonic to be near the spring training facility of the Yankees, her favorite baseball team.

Ms. Carno was known as much for her eccentricities as for her musicianship.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director from 1992 to 2009, said in a phone interview that Ms. Carno “had an extraordinary capacity as a musician,” adding, “She could read basically everything — not only Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms but pieces by Hindemith and Richard Strauss, with all sorts of complex transpositions, and play them in real time and in tempo.”

Mr. Salonen said that Ms. Carno’s talents transcended sight-reading piano pieces and extended to calculating a full orchestral score in her head. “She had a particular kind of C.P.U. that could process a lot of information in real time,” he said. “She had that kind of unusual brain.”

She also frequently used the phrase “Yoohoo, bubeleh!” — “bubeleh” is Yiddish for “sweetheart” — as a greeting in her booming voice.

“Those words came out of her with startling regularity,” David Howard, a former clarinetist with the Philharmonic, said by phone. The two collaborated on an album, “Capriccio: Mid-Century Music for Clarinet,” released in 1994.

During a rehearsal when Mr. Boulez was conducting the orchestra, Mr. Howard recalled, “He asked Zita to play something a little bit softer and she said, ‘Sure, bubeleh!’

“Boulez was as serious and solemn a music figure as ever lived,” he added. “We had to grit our teeth to keep from laughing.”

She also used the words “yoohoo” and “bubeleh” in musical scores, To Ms. Carno, “yoohoo” denoted a duplet (a group of two notes), and “bubeleh” was her word for a triplet (a group of three).

Joanne Pearce Martin, Ms. Carno’s successor at the Philharmonic, wrote on Facebook after Ms. Carno’s death that she “never erased a single mark of Zita’s in any of the LA Phil keyboard parts. Seeing those ‘Bubulas’ and ‘Yoohoos’ peppered throughout the parts brings a special smile to my face — how could it not?”

Ms. Carno, right, performed in an elimination round of the Leventritt Competition, a prestigious international contest for pianists and violinists, in 1959. To her left was Harriet Wingreen. Credit…Sam Falk/The New York Times

Zita Carnovsky was born on April 15, 1935, in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. Her father, Daniel, who immigrated from Poland, was a pharmacist. Her mother, Lucia (Briselli) Carno, who was born in Odessa, Russia, was a homemaker whose piano playing Zita began to imitate when she was quite young — anywhere from 2½ to 4 years old, depending on the account.

From ages 4 to 6, Zita traveled with her parents to Philadelphia, where she played duets with her uncle, Iso Briselli, a violin virtuoso, who also coached her, Ms. Briselli, his daughter, said in a phone interview. At 10, she finished writing her first fugue.

She graduated from the High School of Music and Art (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) in New York and, in 1952, received honorable mention for a piece she wrote for violin and piano in a composition contest conducted by the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts.

She attended the Manhattan School of Music, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1956 and her master’s the next year.

When she made her debut at Town Hall in Manhattan in 1959, the New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote that she was “without a doubt one of the major young American talents, with splendid technical equipment, brains and finesse.”

In October 1960, she was the soloist in a program of Romantic music during four concerts with the New York Philharmonic, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. Mr. Schoenberg called her the “perfect interpreter” of Wallingford Riegger’s technically difficult “Variations for Piano and Orchestra.”

In the 1960s, she was a member of the Pro Arte Symphony Orchestra of Hofstra University and the Orchestra da Camera, both on Long Island. She was also in demand for recitals and concerts around the United States. She joined the New Jersey Symphony in the early 1970s and stayed until she left for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

She was also intrigued by jazz. (“She was always interested in cutting-edge music,” Ms. Briselli said.) In 1959, she wrote a two-part article about John Coltrane in The Jazz Review. Explaining his technique, she wrote, “Tempos don’t faze him in the least; his control enables him to handle a very slow ballad without having to resort to the double-timing so common among hard blowers, and for him, there is no such thing as too fast a tempo.”

Ms. Carno, who was introduced to Coltrane by the bassist Art Davis, was able to transcribe his solos while listening to him perform.

“I used to go equipped with music paper and a few well-sharpened pencils and I would take them down during the performances, which amused Trane no end,” she told Lewis Porter, the author of “John Coltrane: His Life and Legend” (1998).

She wrote the liner notes to “Coltrane Jazz,” Coltrane’s second album for the Atlantic label, which was released in 1961.

No immediate family members survive.

In addition to her musical pursuits, Ms. Carno was an amateur baseball scholar. She wrote articles for the Society for American Baseball Research (about the pitcher Eddie Lopat) and the Baseball Research Journal (about pitchers who were notoriously tough on certain teams).

She was also a science fiction fan and frequently commented online about the “Star Trek” television series and films.

In a post on the science fiction author Christopher L. Bennett’s website in 2018, she said that she had been researching the Vulcan mind-meld and the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock’s advanced telepathic abilities. “As a result,” she wrote, “I have gained a whole new appreciation of the power of the mind — ‘wuh tepul t’wuh kashek’ in Vulcan — and how Spock was able to use it, especially when it came to getting himself, Captain (later Admiral) Kirk and the great starship Enterprise out of one jam after another.”

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