Friday, November 18, 2011

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

Randolph Hokanson  (photo by MKT)
Confession. For many years after relinquishing my identity as a "concertmaster" or first chair player, I took cover whenever I spotted someone from my glorious past. It might have happened anywhere; the grocery store, the library, neighborhood street; simply put, I didn't want to be confronted or pitied, so I'd hide. A few months ago, my youngest daughter and husband witnessed my unusual behavior as I glimpsed, out of the corner of my eye, at the grocery store parking lot, my dear friend and former musical collaborator, pianist Randolph Hokanson, now 96 years old. I thought my daughter might cry, as she gleaned that a precious moment was about to be lost; one that might never be recovered if I stubbornly sat in the car. And while she begged me to reconsider, to leave the car, and greet the master musician, I refused. But I recalled with great emotion, the transformational experience of having performed all ten of the Beethoven Piano and Violin Sonatas with Mr. Hokanson. We had offered an entire Beethoven cycle over the course of three evenings at Seattle's Sherman Clay, back in 2005. I returned home bereft of not only a hug from my patient friend and colleague, but what may have been a meaningful conversation.

As good fortune would have it, I learned a few days later that Mr. Hokanson had just completed and published his memoir: With Head to the Music Bent; A Musician's Story. Instantly I knew that I must get a hold of this book from the author's own hands, and journey with Mr. Hokanson through his years of study with Harold Samuel (one of the first pianists of the twentieth century to focus on the works of Johann Sebastian Bach), English composer Howard Ferguson, Dame Myra Hess, Carl Friedberg (who during his teens studied regularly with Clara Schumann and enjoyed a friendship with Johannes Brahms), and Wilhelm Kempff. I placed a call to the master, and after an invitation for coffee and cake in his studio, I held a beautifully inscribed copy of his memoir.

Mr. Hokanson's gentle and thoughtful narrative rings with as much clarity and insight as his beautiful piano playing. This memoir, with candor and humility, pays hommage to those noble beings who profoundly influenced and shaped his own artistry. In "With Head to the Music Bent," the reader discovers the secrets to contemplative study or what Myra Hess called "complete immersion"; the book guides the reader through the consciousness of sound: "I want to feel that my arm is in the bow, my fingers at the end of it, in direct contact with the strings of the piano."

In the late 40's, after an extensive contract with Columbia Artists which led to solo engagements under Sir Thomas Beecham, Pierre Monteux, Arthur Fiedler, Walter Susskind, and Milton Katims, Hokanson was offered a professorship at the faculty of University of Washington. This, in my estimation, might have been the university's musical heyday. The UW faculty included violinist Emanuel Zetlin, cellist Eva Heinitz,  violist Vilem Sokol, and conductor Stanley Chapple. Hokanson devotes an entire chapter to his teaching philosophy and principles, most notably: "The ear governs the act". He invokes Myra Hess' dictum, "Think three times before you play a note!".

Mr. Hokanson brings his memoir to a heartfelt coda: "I find now that it needs only a few of the right words to change an attitude or instill a belief—but it has taken a lifetime of engagement with the world to arrive at that simplicity."

His words have taken effect. I returned to Mr. Hokanson's studio today with a pile of music: Bach, Mozart, and Brahms Sonatas. "I prefer to play music with those I love," I told him, and he agreed. We will be meeting for weekly sessions. To hear Randy Hokanson render a phrase is to behold a living link with tradition, all the way back from Carl Friedberg to Schumann and Brahms; an age when more emphasis was given to the principles of correct phrasing than to maximum technical efficiency. We both recognize that time is precious; there's much to accomplish; a new chapter begins.

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