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Gunnar Johansen, Musician, Teacher, Friend

Can there be, I wonder, a fully adequate way to mark the passing of a great artist, a great teacher, and a great friend? Probably not, but friends, former students, colleagues, and fellow artists gathered in Mills Concert Hall Sunday afternoon to pay tribute in words and music to Gunnar Johansen, to celebrate the irresistible life-force that he manifested and that lives on in all who knew him. As befits such an occasion, there was much joy to dilute the sorrow at the realization that he is no longer among us. Joy, love, and respect flowed freely from the spoken tributes. Johansen was more than a pianist, more than a composer, more than a musician; he was, simply, a phenomenon, a true humanist, an idealistic seeker for truth and innovation. One can only echo humbly the unadorned testimony of his long-time friend and frequent faculty collaborator, Bettina Bjorksten: "He was beautiful outside, and he was beautiful inside. I thank him with all my heart."

Johansen's assistant in the famous "Music in Performance" class for many years was James Colias. Colias recalled the wonderful puns that used to make the teacher roar with hearty laughter and delivered accolades gathered from friends who could not be in Madison for this event. Far more importantly, he cited the wide range of Johansen's interests and passions, pointing out that it was not a digression from the current lesson for him to tell the 600-plus students gathered there every Friday afternoon about liquid hydrogen fuel, about hypersonic aircraft, about any of a dozen other subjects close to his heart. For he believed that all things are interconnected: that music, art, science, ecology, politics, economics, and history were all part of a harmonious whole. It was a philosophy he brought to many thousands of students and one he lived to the fullest.

The theme of Johansen's inclusive scope was echoed by H. Edwin Young, who in Johansen's time had been Dean of Letters and Science, Chancellor of the Madison campus, and President of the University. Young spoke of Johansen's faith and his doubts, recounting how often Johansen would drop in at his office, fired up with enthusiasm for still more projects for which funds could scarcely ever be found. The most ambitious of all of Johansen's projects was the Leonardo Academy, an institute for advanced studies in the humanities, which he saw as an on-going collaboration of the best minds available in a wide range of humanistic endeavors. Of Johansen's faith in such projects, Young observed that it "was a force to take a lesson from."

Although he was best known to Madison audiences as a performer -- he gave more than 1,000 concerts here -- Gunnar Johansen was an incredibly prolific composer. Gordon Rumson, a young composer-pianist from Calgary, Alberta, has embarked on the huge project of publishing all of Johansen's notated compositions (there are over 500 works composed directly onto tape as well). In his remarks, Rumson said that before he met Johansen, he was "sure this must be at least six or seven different people, all operating under the one name." Many who've never met him would likely agree with that impression, so incredible was the rate of his creative output. After all, he had in addition to everything else recorded the entire keyboard works of Bach, all of the piano music of Liszt and Busoni, and his famous series of twelve recitals spanning the whole history of western music.

Rumson then performed the Toccata in the Phrygian Mode, written in 1932, when Johansen was 26 years old. In both this work and in Johansen's Vokaliser (1975), which oboeist Marc Fink and Rumson performed together, there is the simple folk-song sweetness, a rather melancholy melodiousness, embellished with pianistic figurations very much in the composer's own unique playing style, and set in a harmonic language that has always seemed to me to recall the music of France in the first half of the 20th century: an amalgam of Ravel, Poulenc, and Satie. The oboe piece, originally cast for high soprano, was new to my ears and beautifully played, but the Toccata I had heard many, many times, and I can't describe in words how it felt to hear it again so movingly interpreted.

The closing work on the program was César Franck's Piano Quintet in F Minor, performed by Howard Karp and the Pro Arte Quartet. This quintet, Karp told us, was one of Johansen's favorites. Not many groups can play this piece, which is inordinately demanding technically. Few works would be a more fitting tribute to the vast repertory and the enormous power of Gunnar Johansen the pianist than this seldom-heard, lyrically sweet yet sad, large-scale quintet. Even superlatives are not enough to describe the performance itself. One had to be there.

Finally, Gunnar Johansen was also my teacher, and for 33 years, my friend. Indeed, apart from my mother, he was the single most influential person in my life. As the three wide-spaced, open F-minor chords ended the first movement of the Franck Quintet, what I heard was a sombre bell that tolled, "Now he is gone." I'm sure that each of us who knew him, as a musician and as the source of unlimited inspiration, hopes to carry at least a little of his great light within ourselves, that we may yet shine it back upon the world that once contained such an incomparable artist. It's the least one can do, when one has been given so much. Though the man Johansen is gone, having died in May after 85 years on this earth, what he was and what he meant to so many people will last a long, long time.
-- Jess Anderson

Isthmus, November, 1991
Copyright 1991 Jess Anderson

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