Rediscovering John La Montaine
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Oh, no! I want to talk about Jacqueline Kennedy [laughs].
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] We’ll talk about her, too!
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Leontyne Price did the first performance of The Rose of Sharon in Washington. That started me off in Washington. A lot of people in Washington got interested in my work. Someone suggested to the Stern Foundation to ask me to write the piece that they wanted for the inaugural concert. They had just started doing an inaugural concert for the president. Someone called me from the Stern Foundation and asked if I’d accept the commission. I said of course, I’d like to do that. I worked very hard on it. Fortunately, they asked me two years ahead of time. I’m a pretty slow worker, and it took me a lot of time to figure out what I wanted to do. Anyway, I wrote a piece that I thought was fine. Howard Mitchell decided to open the concert with it. Anybody who remembers the day that Kennedy was inaugurated will recall that a snowstorm started in the morning. It was really heavy snow. People began to worry and they had reason to. By that night the traffic in town couldn’t move. People walked to the concert. I walked there. The conductor walked there. The first trumpet player walked there. It happened that the Kennedys came back to talk to the conductor because everybody was waiting for the concert to start. Well, the concert couldn’t start until the first trumpeter walked over the bridge, through the snow, carrying his trumpet. He was to play the first three bars of the piece that I wrote. So there was a time when the Kennedys, the conductor, and I were standing together and I presented Kennedy with the score that I had written. It was amazing to me because this was the night before he was president. He opened the score and went through it page by page. Somebody else’s work—the president, imagine! He said: “All those little notes, do you have a special tool to do that with?” I said, “Yes, Mr. President, a dip pen.” [laughs] And he laughed. Jackie took me aside, and the conductor talked with the president. I sat down with Jackie Kennedy. People who only saw her on TV didn’t know how beautiful she really was. Close up she was just incredibly beautiful and spoke quietly. She was dressed in a cream colored dress with simple earrings with green… I tell you, I noticed! And a necklace with sapphires and diamonds… That was all. Everything else was plain. She looked so beautiful. I think I was habitual with her. Where there’s a group she doesn’t look around to see whom else she would talk to, or ought to talk to. You were the person she was talking to. All the attention was on you. [sighs] What do you say that can be worth that? I opened the score—I still had it—and showed her the dedication. I said, I finished this piece in August and wrote the dedication to President Kennedy. The dedication was written in August. She said, oh my goodness, I was so pregnant, and I really thought we were going to lose. She said, I didn’t think we had a chance. I said, well, mine was a good guess. You thought you weren’t going to win and I thought you were! [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: So the terrible question is, you dedicated the score in August, what would have happened if Nixon won?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: I don’t know. The work might not have been played. [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]
JOHN LA MONTAINE: I wasn’t going to change it! Believe me.
FRANK J. OTERI: Really?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: No sir.
FRANK J. OTERI: You wouldn’t have rewritten the first page?
JOHN LA MONTAINE: No. Only once.
FRANK J. OTERI: This is interesting because you later did a piece for the bicentennial, Be Glad Then America, which was commissioned for the bicentennial. It’s an opera about an hour long, in that sense of opera, which I want to get to with you soon. I find the Kennedy inaugural piece and the bicentennial piece both very interesting in that they are official American works. In our culture today you don’t have the White House commissioning composers.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Well, the White House didn’t commission that piece. It was the Stern Foundation.
FRANK J. OTERI: But it was part of the event.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: Yes, that’s exactly true.
FRANK J. OTERI: It seems an important way of honoring an important occasion in history.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: That’s true.
FRANK J. OTERI: And we’ve lost that, somehow, in our society today.
JOHN LA MONTAINE: I’m not sure that it wasn’t lost already then. It took me a lot of time to say this has to be for that. I’ve always thought that our National Anthem should be “America the Beautiful.” It’s not a war-like thing, and it has beautiful words. I think the tune is good, too. It’s a very excellent tune. That tune is buried throughout my piece. It’s a little sneaky. After all, I am sneaky. It’s not blatant, but the whole thing does come in the grandest moment of the piece. When I was with Jackie Kennedy she said, what is your piece like? I said, “I can tell you one thing, it’s not bombastic.” She clapped her hands and said, “Oh, then I’ll like it!” [laughs]