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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Peter Nero, pianist who straddled genres, is dead at 89

The pianist Peter Nero in an undated photo. A remarkable interpreter of Gershwin, he was also a natural showman.

By Robert D. McFadden

Peter Nero, the concert pianist who soared to popularity in the 1960s with a swinging hybrid of classics and jazz and kept the beat for nearly six decades with albums, club and television dates, and segues into conducting pops orchestras, died Thursday in Eustis, Florida. He was 89.

His daughter, Beverly Nero, said he died at the At Home Care Assisted Living Facility, where he had lived in recent months.

It was not quite accurate to say, as a New York newspaper, The World-Telegram and Sun, did in 1962, that Peter Nero played classical music with his left hand and pop-jazz with his right. But that was only a paraphrase of his own primer for audiences.

“We shall play ‘Tea for Two,’” he would say. “Since our arrangement is complex, we’d like to explain what we’ll be doing. My right hand will be playing ‘Tea for Two,’ while my left hand will play Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. My left foot will be fiercely tapping out the traditional rhythm to the Tahitian fertility dance. My right foot will not be doing too much. It will just be excited.”

To generations of fans, Nero was a national treasure. He appeared with Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis and other headliners; released 72 albums; conducted the Philly Pops for 34 years, often with one hand while the other played a piano; and delivered a nostalgic mix of jazz and classics that let listeners reconnect with the soundtracks of their youth.

A remarkable interpreter of George Gershwin, he was also a natural showman — bantering with audiences, making up the program as he went along, tearing through medleys of Liszt, Prokofiev, the American songbook and mesmerizing variations of “I Got Rhythm,” and pounding home with a blowout finale of “An American in Paris.”

In midcareer, Nero quit smoky piano lounges for the concert stage and reinvented himself as a player-conductor of the Philly Pops and other orchestras. He wrote a cantata based on the diary of Anne Frank, marked national holidays with patriotic musicales in Philadelphia, and for decades packed them in at symphony halls, college unions and small-town community centers.

“Still touring the country at 80, Nero presented a dazzling display of talent and showmanship,” The Times-Enterprise of Thomasville, Georgia, (population 18,000), said in a 2015 review. “Nero’s stamina was incredible, his nimble fingers dancing gracefully, then racing madly, then dancing gracefully again across the keys to sublime effect.”

He won Grammys in 1961 (best new artist) and 1962 (best performance with an orchestra, for “The Colorful Peter Nero”) and was nominated for eight more. He appeared often on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” In 1963, he wrote the score for the film “Sunday in New York,” a romantic comedy starring Jane Fonda, Rod Taylor and Cliff Robertson. (Nero appeared briefly as himself.)

His career took off. He had a million-selling single on Columbia Records with an instrumental version of the theme from “Summer of ’42,” the 1971 blockbuster film, with a score by Michel Legrand, about the end of one young man’s adolescence as America plunged into World War II. His album of the same name also sold 1 million copies.

In the 1970s, Nero quit nightclubs and turned to composing for, and conducting, orchestras.

Anne Frank’s posthumously published “The Diary of a Young Girl,” which told of two years of hiding during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, provided lyrics and scenario for Nero’s first composition for a full orchestra. He used her words for 15 songs and vividly recalled his collaboration with a girl who had died in a concentration camp a quarter of a century earlier.

“Writing ‘Anne Frank’ was perhaps the most emotional experience of my musical life,” Nero said in a 2018 interview for this obituary. “I was so moved by the diary, I wanted to do something almost biblical. I wrote the bulk of it in just three weeks. Once I got on a roll, I couldn’t stop. Everything just fell into place.

“Anne was way advanced for her years,” he continued. “She was not just religious or spiritual. What came through was her faith in the goodness of man.”

Nero’s was the first musical treatment of a story widely known from film, television and theatrical dramas, and from books in many languages. A blend of rock, symphonic and traditional Jewish music, it had its debut at a synagogue in Great Neck, New York, on Long Island, in 1971, and was performed under his baton in several cities. In 1973, he conducted the Greater Trenton Symphony in a version that featured his 15-year-old daughter, Beverly, in the title role.

In 1979, Nero was named musical director and player-conductor of the Philly Pops. He moved to Media, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, and for 34 years was the Pops’ star attraction. Audiences marveled at his ability, standing up, to play the piano with one hand while seamlessly conducting the orchestra with the other. He also conducted orchestras in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Washington, South Florida, St. Louis and other cities, often performing 100 concerts a year.

He had his detractors. Some deplored the liberties he took in blurring the lines between classical and jazz, although what he did was hardly new; the Gershwins had done it, as had, among others, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Nero made light of his critics.

“I did an arrangement that mixed the ‘1812’ Overture and ‘Over the Rainbow,’” he recalled. “Somebody called and said, ‘How can you do that to “Over the Rainbow”?’”

He was born Bernard Nierow in Brooklyn on May 22, 1934, one of two sons of Julius and Mary (Menasche) Nierow. His father was a deputy commissioner of the New York City Youth Board. His mother taught Spanish at James Madison High School in Brooklyn.

Bernard began piano lessons at 7 and showed extraordinary ability. His parents bought him a used Steinway. “It was $1,100, which was a lot of money back then,” he recalled. “It was the only time they borrowed money.”

He attended the High School of Music and Art (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts), studied part time at the Juilliard School of Music and took private lessons from esteemed pedagogues Abram Chasins and Constance Keene. He attended Brooklyn College — he studied psychology but not music, he said, because he didn’t need to — and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1956.

That year he married Marcia Dunner. They had two children, Jedd and Beverly, and were later divorced. His 1977 marriage to Peggy Altman and his later marriage to Rebecca Edie, a Philly Pops pianist, also ended in divorce.

Besides his daughter, Nero is survived by his son, Jedd; three grandchildren; and his brother, Alan.

Nero left the Philly Pops in 2013 in an acrimonious dispute over his $500,000-a-year salary. The orchestra, whose fading audiences prompted it to file for bankruptcy, asked him to take a big pay cut, but he refused. Despite its shaky finances, the orchestra has survived, although it was recently evicted from its longtime home and its future looks uncertain.

Nero returned to the concert circuit with his longtime bassist, Michael Barnett. They played their last gig on Valentine’s Day 2016 at a Central Florida retirement community, the Villages. Nero had lived there since 2018.

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