Concerts, events mark Johansen centennial year
Sept. 5, 2006
At one point in his life, the late composer-pianist Gunnar Johansen reportedly had license plates on his car that read “HYDROG,” meaning hydrogen, which he ardently believed to be the only viable energy source for the 21st century.
Ideas of all stripe were Johansen’s intellectual and artistic currency, and he gave them clear and unmistakable voice through music. In the process, he became a seminal figure of 20th century music.
Johansen joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1939 as the nation’s first musical artist-in-residence. He remained active in the School of Music until his death in 1991. During his tenure, he emerged as one of the most productive, respected and beloved figures on campus.
On Fridays, for example, his weekly Music in Performance course drew capacity crowds no matter how beguiling the weather outside, lured there by his storytelling, insights into music and, of course, his own live performances augmented by an array of guest artists.
The School of Music will commemorate the centennial of Gunnar Johansen’s birth with a weekend of events honoring his memory and achievements, Sept. 15-17.
Image courtesy Gunnar and Lorraine Johansen Trust, James P. Colias, Trustee
His studio in Blue Mounds, converted from a stone farmhouse, became something of a salon for admirers and students, but also a sanctuary from which he issued a stream of renowned compositions and embarked upon countless concert tours. It was there that Johansen recorded the complete keyboard works of J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt and Ferruccio Busoni, among others.
“In his own performances, he dove more deeply than most others into the possibilities of the instrument and the score, using every available means to discovery, including historical research,” says former student (1958-62) Jess Anderson, formerly a classical music critic for Isthmus and a well-known concert harpsichordist in his own right.
This year marks the centennial of Johansen’s birth in Denmark, and the School of Music will commemorate the occasion with a weekend of events honoring Johansen’s memory and achievements.
“Gunnar was unfailingly kind and generous,” Anderson recalls. “He addressed problems in my playing in directly musical terms, rather than by means of theory or abstraction. That’s not the best approach for every student, but for me it was ideal. Playing a passage himself, he would suggest an alternative that made the nearly impossible seem altogether attainable. The result, then, was inspiration. I would leave the lessons bursting with enthusiasm, with a zeal to incorporate and expand upon everything I’d just experienced. Only my mother had a greater influence on my life than Gunnar did. To say I am everlastingly grateful doesn’t begin to cover it.”
The SOM tribute to Johansen, Friday-Sunday, Sept. 15-17, will feature three major concerts, a lecture-recital and a film screening:
- SOM faculty will perform music by Johansen himself, Ignaz Friedman, Liszt and Max Reger. 7:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 15.
- Wisconsin concert pianist Solon Pierce presents a lecture and recital, preceding a documentary on Johansen. 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16.
- More works from Johansen, plus Bach, Busoni, Chopin, Liszt and Alexander Scriabin, performed by guest pianists including UWUW-Madison–Madison alumnus Cecil Lytle, Maryle’ne Dosse, Gordon Rumson and James Tocco. 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 16.
- Works by composer Lee Hoiby, longtime friend of Johansen, will be presented by Hoiby and UWUW-Madison–Madison faculty. 3 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 17.
All events are free and open to the public, and will take place in Mills Hall at the Mosse Humanities Building.
Anderson, who retired from the Division of Information Technology in 1999, says that the centennial events will reflect Johansen’s artistically and intellectually eclectic spirit.
“A foundation of Gunnar’s whole being, I think, was his keen desire to reveal everything that could be brought to real-world awareness about sometimes abstruse of complex matters, be they musical, intellectual, theoretical, whatever,” Anderson says. “Although he was a specialist on countless levels, adept at a seemingly endless range of subjects, he was able to draw others in, to make everything fascinating.”
For more information on the centennial, or upcoming SOM concerts, call the Concert Line at 263-9485 or visit http://www.music.wisc.edu.