Grant Johannesen: Mormon Musician
Grant Johannesen was a concert pianist recognized internationally and best known for his interpretation of French composers. He recorded all of Gabriel Faure's piano music, as well as the music of such little-known composers as DeSeverac.
He was born on July 30, 1921, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He said a neighbor who taught piano discovered him:
- Apparently one day she came knocking at my mother's door and said, “Look, someone in this house is making fun of my practicing.”
- 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.
Johannesen studied with some of the world’s most distinguished artists, including Robert Casadesus (at Princeton University), Egon Petri (at Cornell University), Roger Sessions, and Nadia Boulanger. Johannesen made his debut at Times Hall in New York at the age of 23 and won first prize at the Ostend Concours International piano competition at 28.
He toured Europe with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1956 and 1957 and toured the USSR and Europe with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1968. Roger L. Miller, a University of Utah professor emeritus of music said, “These (conductors) are people who could have anybody in the world, which suggests that, at the top of his form, he was incredible.” He did a solo tour of the USSR in 1962 and 1970 and was encored sixteen times at one performance. For his final encore, he did improvisations on “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” which he later wrote down and called “Improvisations on a Mormon Hymn.”
Johannesen received honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Utah, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the Hartt School of the University of Hartford. From 1960 to 1966, he taught at the Aspen (Colorado) Music School. In 1973, he became music consultant and adviser of the Cleveland Institute of Music, became its music director (1974–1977), and ultimately the Institute’s president (1977–1985). He also taught at the Mannes College of Music in New York and at the Salzburg Mozaneum. He regularly appeared in the leading festivals in the United States and Europe and is well known and loved in Utah for his appearances with and advocacy for the Utah Symphony, with whom, he once said, he had appeared the most.
He has many CDs to his credit, including Grant Johannesen Plays French Piano Music, Discovering Helen Taylor, Faure: Complete Piano Works 1, 25 Piano Favorites, Grant Johannesen Plays Poulenc, Rare Russian Repertoire, Chopin Polonaisses, 25th Anniversary Concert of Grant Johannesen, Grant Johannesen and Peter Serkin in Concert, and Grant Johannesen Plays Bach and Mozart, among numerous others. He collaborated on Mormoniana, which featured sixteen American composers who, as Johannesen, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He recorded it in 2003 at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.
Johannesen and his wife, composer Helen Taylor, were the parents of one son. After her death in 1950, he was married to cellist Zara Nelsova for ten years. He died in Germany in 2005, where he had been visiting friends.
His son, David Johannesen, completed the manuscript of Grant Johannesen's autobiography, wrote its foreword, and worked together with Peter DeLafosse at the University of Utah Press to publish Journey of an American Pianist in 2007.