Victor Borge's appearance November 19 at the Oscar Mayer Theatre will provide a number of important opportunities, not least of them to enjoy the scintillating wit and vivacity of Borge's unique comedic style, but also to honor the memory of Borge's great friend and countryman, the pianist Gunnar Johansen, who was for many years artist-in-residence at the UW's School of Music. Borge's appearance is part of a larger Music School project connected with Johansen, the effort to raise substantial amounts -- as much as $100,000 -- to fund student scholarships, to catalog the extensive collection of Johansen's scores, recordings and other materials at Mills Music Library, and to bring in guests for recitals and lectures.
Borge told me that he and Johansen had been friends since at least their teen years, Johansen's violinist father having revered Borge's violinist father as his great master. Not long after the beginning of World War II in Europe, Borge left Denmark for the States. He and Johansen again met up in California, Borge coming backstage after one of Johansen's concerts. According to Johansen's account, he asked Borge what he was doing in the States. "I don't know," Borge replied, "looking for work." Shortly afterward Borge's career took off like a skyrocket that is still arcing upward more than 50 years later. "I respect Johansen as an artist, as a human being, and as a master," Borge told me. I asked him if the Madison program would be special; "I'll do my regular show," Borge said, "for that is what I do best and would be the most fitting gesture to the memory of my friend." Borge's reverance for Johansen's artistic accomplishments is obviously genuine. "In Copenhagen when we were young," -- Borge was three years younger than Johansen, which means he would now be 87 -- "people would pack the hall to hear Johansen play, for even at his young age he was considered a great master, both in Copenhagen and in the rest of Europe." Borge also revered Johansen's mind, which was avid about virtually everything. Madisonians who attended Johansen's recitals here will well recall his habit of making extensive remarks about anything and everything before sitting down to play. He was keen about many scientific and technological topics, and was as apt to hold forth on hypersonic flight or fusion energy sources as upon the music of Bach or Reger.
In introducing Johansen before a 1983 concert in Greenwich, Connecticutt, where he now lives, Borge told the audience that Johansen was considered, "...and still is, among the world's most outstanding pianists," and that critics had "raved about Gunnar's presentations of Bach, Liszt, Busoni and whatever else he has recorded." Borge and I reminisced, too, about Johansen's incredible generosity of spirit. "He inspired others," Borge said, "by stressing what was worthwhile in each person. He never spoke ill of anyone, not once in all the years I was privileged to know him." Of the many things I myself learned from Johansen during the four years I was his student and the 30-some years we were friends, nothing inspired me more than Johansen's gift for finding the best in each person. I don't think anyone would be better able than Victor Borge to exemplify the charm, wit, musicianship, and elegance that Gunnar Johansen manifested as a performer, a teacher, and a friend, be it as a youth on the streets of Copenhagen or as a great master pianist blessed with an encyclopedic mind and limitless kindness to others.
Isthmus, November, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson