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<<  -- 3 --  Gordon Rumson    LEGENDARY ARTIST


Gunnar Johansen portrait ca. 1926.  Photographer unknown. Electronic preparation by Peter Moller, Egg Press, Calgary, Alberta.

Berlin in the 1920s was arguably the pianistic capital of the world. Ferruccio Busoni, Egon Petri, Edwin Fischer, Frederick Lamond, Moritz Rosenthal and others vied for supremacy in the most rarefied conception of artistry. Gunnar was perfectly at home. He studied with Lamond briefly, and when Lamond did not prove to be an inspiring teacher for him, Johansen then auditioned for Petri, playing a piece by Chopin. When he made changes in the finale and Petri asked why, the 14 year old boy said he felt it was his prerogative. Petri turned to the class and cried 'A Bolshevik!'

The young Gunnar absorbed giant chunks of the repertoire. At one lesson he brought 6 Liszt Transcendental Etudes. Petri asked him for the others at the next lesson; needless to say he played them. It was Petri who told him, 'Bach is like an eagle who sets out from a high peak always viewing the goal.' Johansen's sense of forward motion and architectonic direction can all be traced to this one comment.

Example 1: Franz Liszt:
Wilde Jagd from 12 Transcendental Studies
Series: Franz Liszt Complete Piano Works, Album 4
Date of recording: early 1960s

Johansen also studied composition with Paul Juon and instrumentation with Curt Sachs. Indeed there is a fruitful field for investigation of Johansen's Berlin days. By the way, Johansen lived just a couple of doors away from the young Claudio Arrau, though most amazingly they never met.

America beckoned in 1929 and Gunnar Johansen arrived full of hope. That optimism never left him. Johansen loved the open space and freedom of America, living in California and riding his motorcycle throughout the countryside. He taught in San Francisco and gave live weekly broadcasts on NBC radio. He performed with the San Francisco orchestra numerous times including under Monteaux. He gave a performance of the Ravel Piano concerto on a week's notice*.

*In the Johansen literature this is noted as the American première; Johansen noted it as 'première' in his resume. It may have been the first performance in Los Angeles. I am grateful to Ms Almut Boehme, Head of Music, National Library of Scotland; Alford Alden Lathrop, Sound Recording Selector of the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and Diane Ota, Curator of Music, Boston Public Library for their assitance in attempting to verify this information.

After hearing Johansen perform the Historical Recital Series, a new administrator at the University of Wisconsin offered Gunnar Johansen a position as the first performing Artist-in-Residence in America. He leapt at the opportunity. Madison was by no means a backwater. Ole Bull had lived here. Many intellectuals passed through teaching for some period, such as Hayakawa, Maslow, Marshall McLuhan. Nadia Boulanger taught there in the summers. Frank Lloyd Wright was just a short hop away at Taliesin. Johansen probably considered it an ideal base for operations.

Johansen's teaching schedule was not overly demanding and he proved himself a dedicated artist in residence. Surely the University of Wisconsin was amply repaid for Gunnar's position there. He gave over 1000 concerts, many radio broadcasts, performed for classes of elementary age children (I have seen the photos), lectured, taught (Lee Hoiby and James Tocco among them) and organized.

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Copyright © 14 January 2001 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Alberta, Canada






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