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Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John La Montaine dies at 93

John LMontaine

John La Montaine

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Updated: June 16, 2013 6:09AM

Chicago-born composer John La Montaine, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1959, died April 29 at his home in Hollywood, Calif. He was 93.

Mr. La Montaine received the Pulitzer Prize for his First Piano Concerto, Op. 9, subtitled “In Time of War.” It had its premiere by acclaimed pianist Jorge Bolet with the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Howard Mitchell, in 1958. Bolet also played and recorded the work for the Voice of America with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra the next year.

The recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships, Mr. La Montaine also wrote “From Sea to Shining Sea,” the opening overture for John F. Kennedy’s presidential inaugural in 1961. It was the first classical piece ever commissioned specifically to celebrate the inauguration of a U.S. president.

In 1972, his symphony, “Wilderness Journal,” Op. 41, opened the second season of the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, Mr. La Montaine composed three Christmas pageant operas for the National Cathedral in Washington. One, “The Shephardes Playe,” was televised nationally by ABC on Christmas Eve in 1967.

Opera great Leontyne Price sang the premiere of Mr. La Montaine’s 1948 song cycle, “Songs of the Rose of Sharon,” Op. 6. It was later performed by Eleanor Steber and Jessye Norman, who sang the work with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts at Orchestra Hall in May 1975. Other champions of his work included the late Chicago pianists Ramon Salvatore and Sheldon Shkolnik and retired CSO violinist Arnold Brostoff. Gerald Arpino set Mr. La Montaine’s “Birds of Paradise” as a ballet, “Nightwings,” for the Joffrey Ballet in 1966.

Born in 1920, Mr. La Montaine grew up in Oak Park and graduated from Oak Park-River Forest High School in 1938. He attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, N.Y., where he studied with composers Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, on a four-year scholarship, graduating in 1942. After service in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1946, he had a career as a pianist, accompanying opera divas Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte in recitals during the late 1940s, and doing the same decades later for Jessye Norman.

In 1950, he joined the NBC Symphony as a pianist and celesta player under conductor Arturo Toscanini, who also mentored him as a composer. In 1955, he studied in France with composer-conductor-pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.

In addition to his orchestral, vocal, piano and chamber works, Mr. La Montaine, who disdained self-promotion, achieved a new popularity in later years with solo works for flute and piccolo. His close friend, co-publisher and fellow composer Paul J. Sifler, died in 2001 at 90. His survivors include a nephew, Peter Coster, of west suburban Riverside.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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