Johannes Somary, debuted in Wash. Sq., dies at 75
By Albert Amateau
Johannes Somary, organist, composer, conductor and founder of the Amor Artis Choral, who made his U.S. conducting debut in July 1960 with the Washington Square Music Festival, died Feb. 1 at age 75.
His most recent appearance at the annual music festival was in December 2008 at St. Joseph’s Church in the Village in a program that included his own compositions as well as works by Bach and Haydn.
“After his auspicious debut in Washington Square, Maestro Somary achieved a prominent international career as a conductor, choirmaster and organist,” said Peggy Friedman, the festival’s executive director. “He was a well-known and respected figure in the New York music scene. We will all miss him and his joyous approach to music.”
Johannes Somary also had a distinguished career as a teacher. He lectured at Brooklyn College, New School for Social Research, the New England Conservatory and Columbia University. In 1971, he began teaching at the Horace Mann School and served as chairperson of the school’s arts and music department.
“He was at the top of his game when he had a stroke on Dec. 27,” said his wife, Anne. “We kept hoping for a miracle but it was not to be.” Several hundred colleagues, friends and former students attended his funeral Sat., Feb. 5, at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Ave. at 84th St. “He planned all the music and readings seven years ago,” his wife said of the service.
A native of Switzerland, Johannes Somary came to the U.S. at age 5 with his mother, brother and sister. His father, Felix Somary, a banker and economic adviser, was working in Washington, D.C., at the time. His mother, May Demblin, was an Austrian countess.
“They left on the last ship to the U.S. from Spain in 1940. Bela Bartok happened to be on the same ship,” his wife said.
Johannes attended the Albany School, a prep school in Washington, D.C., and earned a B.A. from Yale in 1957. He continued at Yale to earn a master of music degree in 1959.
Somary founded Amor Artis in 1961, led its repertory of baroque music, and continued as the group’s musical director. He led the U.S. premieres of little-known oratorios of George Frideric Handel, “Esther” in 1961, “Theodora” in 1963 and “Susanna” in 1965. He was also a guest conductor for the English Chamber Orchestra, New Orleans Symphony and London’s Royal Philharmonic. His participation in international music festivals included Dubrovnik, Madeira, Israel and Greece.
James Adler, a composer, pianist and longtime Village resident, recalled his friendship with Hannes, as friends knew him.
“I first met him when he conducted my AIDS requiem in 2000,” Adler said. “Being Swiss, he loved pastry, so we’d get together periodically and laugh, cry, schmooze and eat pastry. We were planning a joint recording session before he died. He wrote five bagatelles for piano for me. They are charming — fanciful, elegant fun,” Adler said.
Johannes Somary made more than 50 recordings. His latest is “Three Is Company,” the name of one of his compositions on the disc. He received critical acclaim for his recent recording of Handel’s organ concertos.
In addition to his wife, he leaves two sons, Stephen and Geoffrey, and a daughter, Karen. A brother, Wolfgang, of Switzerland, and a sister, Maria Theresa Twaalfhoven, of Hilversum, Holland, also survive.