Composer John LaMontaine dies at 93


John La Montaine, composer. (File Photo)
May 23, 2013

John LaMontaine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose music often premiered at Washington venues and was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra and other local ensembles, died April 29 at his home in Hollywood, Calif. He was 93.

He had cardiovascular disease, his nephew Peter Coster said.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mr. LaMontaine was a rising star among classical composers, winning prizes, fellowships and commissions to write music.

He composed an overture for the 1961 presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy and wrote a series of three Christmas-season “pageant operas” — dramatic vocal works with orchestra — that debuted at Washington National Cathedral in the 1960s. One of those performances was broadcast on national television.

He first drew critical notice when soprano Leontyne Price — for whom Mr. LaMontaine had once been a piano accompanist — premiered his song cycle, “Songs of the Rose of Sharon,” with the National Symphony in 1957.

A year later, pianist Jorge Bolet debuted Mr. LaMontaine’s First Piano Concerto in Washington with the NSO and conductor Howard Mitchell. The composition was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1961, after the opening performance of the pageant opera “Novellis, Novellis” at the National Cathedral, Washington Post music critic Paul Hume pronounced Mr. LaMontaine “a greatly gifted American whose music Washington has good reason to know better than any other city.”

Mr. LaMontaine composed works for virtually every genre of classical music: symphonies, oratorios, string quartets, piano concertos, compositions for organ, sonatas, songs for solo voice and chamber works. His work has been likened to that of American composers Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem and has been performed by almost every major orchestra in the country, from the New York Philharmonic to the Chicago Symphony to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

His music often had a neo-Romantic quality, with lush harmonies, rhapsodic melodies and jazzy rhythms.

“I don’t want to be stuck in some hole, expected to do a certain thing,” he said in a 2003 interview with the NewMusicBox Web site. “There is not one of my pieces that is like another piece.”

Mr. LaMontaine traveled throughout Africa and Asia, recording birdcalls and other sounds of nature, which sometimes echoed through his music. Choreographer Gerald Arpino adapted one of his compositions, “Birds of Paradise,” for the Joffrey Ballet production “Nightwings.”

“He obviously had a feeling for the voice and a feeling for sounds in nature,” said Washington flutist Keith Bryan, who premiered Mr. LaMontaine’s flute concerto in 1981 at the National Gallery of Art. “He was a very lyrical composer.”

Bryan and his wife, pianist Karen Keys, often performed Mr. LaMontaine’s works together in concerts. Keys recorded the First Piano Concerto in the 1960s with an orchestra in Oklahoma City; Bryan recorded the flute concerto in 1995 with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.

“The third movement has just a gorgeous melody,” Bryan said in an interview with The Washington Post. “John wrote all the time. He was constantly writing music.”

John Maynard La Montaine was born March 17, 1920, in Chicago and was raised by a widowed mother. (He later dropped the space after “La” to avoid confusion about his name.)

“I wanted to be a composer from the time I was 5 years old,” he told The Post in 1969.

He graduated in 1942 from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where he studied with the acclaimed composer Howard Hanson. He also studied at the Juilliard school in New York and with the celebrated French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.

An outstanding pianist, Mr. LaMontaine held the piano seat in New York’s NBC Orchestra, under conductor Arturo Toscanini, from 1950 to 1954. He also accompanied several opera singers, including Price, in recital performances.

When Price reprised Mr. LaMontaine’s “Songs of the Rose of Sharon” in Washington in 1960, Hume wrote in The Post that the songs “have not lost an ounce of their passionate, languorous beauty, a delighting in love that has few if any equals in the world of music.”

When Mr. LaMontaine joined Price and other performers onstage, Hume wrote, “the audience quite literally refused to let any of them go, including the young composer, until they had worn a path from the door to the center of the stage and back again.”

Among Mr. LaMontaine’s Christmas-season works for the National Cathedral, “The Shaephardes Playe,” was shown nationally on ABC television in 1967.His symphony “Wilderness Journal,” drawn from the writings of Henry David Thoreau, was premiered by the NSO at the Kennedy Center in 1972.

An ambitious composition about the Revolutionary War, “Be Glad Then America” — which included a vocal part for the folk singer Odetta — debuted in 1976 with the innovative conductor Sarah Caldwell leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. LaMontaine, who had no immediate survivors, continued to be a prolific composer well into his 70s. He was at the keyboard for the debuts of three piano concertos in the 1980s, and some of his chamber works continue to be performed. If his symphonic music has not yet captured the audience that once seemed promised to him, Mr. LaMontaine was unconcerned.

“I’ve never spent a lot of time on publicity or anything like that,” he said in 2003. “I just want to write my pieces.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.