Pianist Grant Johannesen, one of the pre-eminent musical artists from Utah, died Sunday in Berlin at the age of 83.
"He is, undoubtedly, one of the finest musicians that ever achieved international fame to come from Utah," said Roger Miller, University of Utah music professor. "He was just an extremely intelligent and refined musician. His sense of line, his formal structural approach to music and warm, intimate way of playing was extraordinary."
Miller said Johannesen was actively engaged in performing right up to his death.
Born in Salt Lake City on July 30, 1921, Johannesen said in a past interview that he was discovered by a neighbor who taught piano. "Apparently one day she came knocking at my mother's door and said, 'Look, someone in this house is making fun of my practicing.' " he recalled.
"I think I was 5 at the time, and my mother pointed to me I was sitting at the piano and I apparently had tried to imitate her playing, whatever it was she was playing. She said, 'He just loves to sit there, and he hears you across the street, and he does what he can.'
"So that is how I was taken up by a teacher it was an irate teacher at the door."
He went on to study with some of the world's most distinguished artists, including Robert Casadesus , Roger Sessions and Nadia Boulanger. Johannesen made his debut at Times Hall at the age of 23 and won first prize at Concours International piano competition at 28.
He was best-known for his interpretation of French composers. He recorded all of Faure's piano music, as well as the music of such little-known composers as DeSeverac.
Johannesen toured Europe two years in a row with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Dmitri Mitropoulos. Later, he made an extensive tour of the USSR and Europe with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell. "These (conductors) are people who could have anybody in the world," Miller said, "which suggests that, at the top of his form, he was incredible."
He also did solo tours of the USSR in 1962 and 1970. "He was encored 16 times in Moscow," said Miller, "and for his final encore, he did improvisations on 'Come, Come, Ye Saints,' which he later wrote down and called 'Improvisations on a Mormon Hymn.' "
Other achievements include service as director, and later president, of the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Johannesen received honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Utah and the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Although he regularly appeared in the leading festivals in the United States and Europe, he is best known and best loved in Utah for his appearances with and advocacy for the Utah Symphony. "I've done a lot of guesting with the various orchestras," Johannesen once said, "but none more than the Utah Symphony."
"He always was an extraordinarily generous and influential friend of the Utah Symphony," said Miller. "Although he never served on the board, he was kind of an unofficial ambassador, and of course, consultant. He played here many, many times with Abravanel." Miller added the Mr. Johannesen took a personal interest in the music of various Utah composers, particularly Arthur Shepard.Johannesen's first wife, Helen Taylor, was killed in a car crash in 1950. He was later married to cellist Zara Nelsova, with whom he often appeared in concerts and made recordings.Johannesen is survived by his son David Johannesen and two grandchildren, Helen and Christopher.
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