Friday, December 16, 2011

Randolph Hokanson's With Head to the Music Bent: A Musician's Story

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi introduced me to this book through a blog post, and I am sincerely grateful to have had the opportunity to read it. Not being from the American West Coast, I hadn't heard of Randolph Hokanson when I was growing up, but I certainly knew of two of his closest friends and teachers: Dame Myra Hess and Howard Ferguson.

I first encountered Ferguson's music a few months ago on a recording from a concert Hess played with violinist Isaac Stern on August 28, 1960 at Usher Hall in Edinburgh that was just issued by Testament (I just noticed that one of the quotes from reviewers on the website for this recording is from me!), and was overwhelmed by everything about the performance.

Hokanson had the great fortune to leave the state of Washington in 1936 (when he was 20), and become immersed in and embraced by the world of England's musical and literary intelligentsia (he met G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells at the same party). In this memoir he chronicles the highlights of his musical education, giving specific (and extraordinarily useful and insightful) examples from Myra Hess and Wilhelm Kempff about the what, how, and why of music.

He manages to condense 70 years of experience into less than 200 pages, and along the way he describes some of the artistic and geographical wonders of Europe, his impressions of what Germany felt like right before WWII (he attended a Furtwangler performance where Hitler was in the audience, surrounded by flags), and what it was like to tour for "Columbia Concerts," an organization that sent New York musicians (Hokanson was living in New York during the 1940s) on long trips to far away places to play concerts for very little take-home pay. Hokanson gives the rollicking details of one such concert in a place he calls "Nowhere," where a terribly out-of-tune piano was put on a "raked" stage (one that was sloped upwards towards the audience).

One of the photos (there are a few pages of photos) has Hokanson with his piano student Corey Cerovsek (who looks to be about nine years old). Now I understand one reason that Cerovsek's Beethoven Violin Sonatas are so spectacular.

Hokanson, who is now retired in Seattle, but is still paying, is a "music first" sort of person and an excellent writer. His memoir makes me long for the musical world of days gone by, when substance separated the competent from the committed, and accomplished musicians seemed to care more about their quest to understand the music they played than about the size and shape of their careers. But he makes it clear that the what, how, and why of music that will always matter, and that the quest to be come a "Beethoven player" is one that does take a lifetime, and one that makes a lifetime worthwhile.

The book is a print-on-demand book that is available through the University Bookstore in Seattle (1.800.335.7323).

I found this wonderful recording of the first movement of the Mozart A minor Piano Sonata, K. 310 on line. The playing says everything.

[N.B. Here's a link to more recordings, and a link to still more!]


Marjorie said...

Hi Elaine,

I absolutely cannot wait to share this article with Randy!I too long for the musical world of days gone by. We must savor every opportunity to work with these legendary musicians. When I visit Randy nowadays, we sometimes just listen to recordings together with scores on our laps. With great music, one never ceases to learn. It's a never ending journey and delight.

Thank you for your beautiful blog, Elaine.

Elaine Fine said...

Tell him that any friend of Frederik Prausnitz is a friend of mine!