Honing skills at 98: A life in music

Randolph Hokanson retired from the UW a generation ago. He's been growing ever since.
Randolph Hokanson

Randolph Hokanson Photo: Allyce Andrew

“I’ve seen it all!” announces Randolph Hokanson before losing himself in a mischievous gale of laughter. With someone else, you might be tempted to indulge that as hyperbole. With Hokanson, who was born in 1915 in Bellingham, it’s tempting to take it literally.

This gifted pianist and teacher has witnessed almost a century of not just ceaseless but accelerating change: epochal shifts in technology, in education, in how music and the arts are valued.

Yet underneath the maelstrom, the things that really matter have managed somehow to endure.

“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.”

So writes Hokanson in his memoir, "With Head to the Music Bent," which covers the highlights of a richly lived and satisfying life while at the same time distilling his philosophy of teaching and offering a treasury of insights into the composers who have mattered most to him (above all, Bach and Beethoven).

It almost seems unfair that such a talented musician could write so elegantly as well. With just a few strokes, Hokanson peoples his narrative with the vivid personalities with whom his life has intersected.

Several of these, naturally, are musical legends, like the world-renowned British pianist Myra Hess, one of his most important mentors. There’s a chance meeting with the widow of the physicist Ernest Rutherford. Edith Wharton, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw mill about at a party he’s invited to.  

A generation has already passed since Hokanson retired in 1984 from a 35-year career on the University of Washington’s music faculty. But he’s kept going since then.

Hokanson had started out being groomed as a concert pianist, and he continued his performance career while teaching at UW, estimating that he must have taken part in hundreds of concerts during those years. And in his 70s and 80s, Hokanson points out, the frequency of his public performances actually increased, since his time was no longer divided with teaching obligations.

And now more than ever before, Hokanson revels in having the time to compose — an aspect of his musical ambition since his youth, though for decades he could only spare time to jot down ideas to be worked out in the future.

“I started learning to compose when one of my teachers assigned me to write a serenade for tenor and piano to the words of the poet Andrew Marvell,” Hokanson tells me as we sip coffee in the light-filled penthouse apartment where he lives in Queen Anne, commanding glorious views of Mount Rainier and the city.

He heads to the concert grand that somehow has been squeezed into the room, which begins to thrum and vibrate with flowing figurations, an arresting harmonic sequence. Hokanson mentions that he’s currently preoccupied with setting the poetry of Tennyson, Robert Bridges and Emily Dickinson as a song cycle.

His anecdote of the Marvell song from long ago ends with a point about learning not to try to cram too much novelty in, but rather to give his material space to have its effect. It’s as if he’s simply spliced this moment together with what he’s up to today, now that he has time to apply his long-dead teacher’s insights. “In the last six or seven years, my composition has improved enormously.”

The power of Hokanson’s memory is astonishing — as is his capacity to recreate in conversation what it is he’s remembering so vividly. He never had the diary-keeping habit and wrote “With Head to Music Bent” relying solely on the power of association from related memories.

Along with artistic milestones — his New York debut at Town Hall, his first performance at the beginning of his UW career in “old” Meany Hall playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto — Hokanson portrays his misadventures on the road as a “Columbia Concerts” artist with sly humor.

During one engagement mercifully obscured to “somewhere in the Midwest,” he was appalled to discover the auditorium’s battered Steinway was badly out of tune, only to be informed that “the nearest tuner was 200 miles away.” Hokanson recounts the incident with a hilarious crescendo of disbelieving horror.

When you read his memoir, or engage in conversation, the people and events that shaped Hokanson’s life take on an almost cinematic flow. Hokanson grew up in a modest background, the middle of 11 children of Swedish immigrants who ran a grocery business in Everett.

Hokanson’s passion for education makes sense, given the critical role played by teachers when he was just beginning to consider the possibility of devoting his life to a musical career. During the early years of the Depression, he advanced as far as he could. An admiring patroness of the arts from Victoria, British Columbia, who’d heard him play in Seattle connected Hokanson with the English pianist and Bach champion Harold Samuel.

Hokanson was able to travel to London in 1936 and live abroad in the years leading up to World War II. There he studied privately with the Belfast-born composer Howard Ferguson and Myra Hess, who later teamed up during the war to run the famous National Gallery concerts during the height of the London blitz.

Following Hokanson’s own wartime experiences and his years as a touring performer, the University of Washington invited him to join the music department in 1949.

It was there that Hokanson met Dorothy Cadzow, a composer and teacher, and their marriage lasted four decades, until 2001, when Dorothy died after a lengthy illness.

As a teacher, Hokanson’s influence can be seen in the work being done by such successful students as the conductor Dean Williamson, who was long associated with Seattle Opera and now conducts opera around the country.

“Everything Randy taught me as a pianist about rhythm, phrasing and style comes back in spades as an opera conductor,” says Williamson. “His impeccable musicianship and sheer joy in performing are what I aspire to in every production.”

Judith Cohen, a Seattle-based pianist and recording artist who is artistic director of the Governor’s Chamber Music series, studied with Hokanson as a grad student in the 1980s and still visits him for coaching. “The way he starts from the imagination and color of a piece, and he proceeds from there to technique has been so inspiring to me,” explains Cohen.

Hokanson in turn remains grateful for the sense of fulfillment his students at UW gave him.

“One crucial attitude and intention [my teachers] all shared remained with me as fundamental to all good teaching,” Hokanson writes in his book: “the intent to make me an independent musical thinker as soon as my talent would allow.”

The memoir project naturally prompted Hokanson to want to complement it with documentation of his actual performance. Working with Cohen, UW archivist John Gibbs, and audio engineers Al Swanson and Gary Louie he recently compiled and released a nine-CD anthology titled “The Pianism of Randolph Hokanson: The University Years (1949-1984).”  (Both the box set and the memoir are available at the UW bookstore.)

It’s a memoir in sound that brings home how much Bach and Beethoven, of course, but also Robert Schumann, Mozart, Schubert and Bartók (his favorite 20th century composer) have meant to him over many decades. Some “post”-UW recordings are also included — most remarkably, some Beethoven sonatas played in 2003 at Nordstrom Recital Hall and a Chopin Ballade from 2005.

Chopin is exhibit A for the premise that learning never stops. “I’m finally beginning to be a Chopin player,” Hokanson tells me. “It’s not easy to get into it as a pianist. I have a new respect for how his music is based on his knowledge of Bach and Mozart. You can see it in the sense of proportion and economy. But that is done with an absolutely individual language and feeling for the instrument.”

The collection also includes a surprising amount of chamber music and performance with orchestra that Hokanson believes illustrates his artistry as much as the solo playing. These contain a slice of Seattle’s music history, featuring, for example, collaborations with the Seattle Chamber Music Society and with the violinist Emanuel Zetlin and the late cellist Toby Saks (both colleagues at UW).

Not included, though I’m dying to hear it, is his performance of the First Piano Concerto of Brahms under conditions of high stress, which he discusses in an accompanying recorded interview with the critic Melinda Bargreen. In the Milton Katims era at the Seattle Symphony (i.e., before 1976), Hokanson was interrupted during one of his lectures with an urgent request to replace an ailing Rudolf Firkušný in the Brahms that evening.  

“I walked onto the stage of the Seattle Opera House at 9:30,” Hokanson writes in his memoir, “almost numb, as if in a dream…. It had been exactly a year to the day when I had played it in Spokane, but I hadn’t even thought it in the meantime.”

With typical modesty, Hokanson ascribes the triumphant reception not to “the quality of my playing” but to the audience’s appreciation of “my courage in taking the risk and succeeding.”

In any case, Hokanson is constitutionally incapable of resting on his laurels. After another fascinating half-hour of conversation, he offers to play me something on the piano. His fingers glide thoughtfully over the Steinway keyboard. As Hokanson plays Chopin’s Étude in E-flat minor, he is transported into a completely different realm, where the only time that matters is the unspoken beat of the music.

Currently based in Seattle, Thomas May began writing about the arts as a freelance music critic for the Washington Post under Tim Page. His books include Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader, the first full-length book in English devoted to this leading American composer. May blogs about the arts at memeteria.com and tweets @memeteria. You can reach him c/o editor@crosscut.com.


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