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Seattle Gay History - Three prodigies
Seattle Gay History - Three prodigies
by Don Paulson - SGN Contributing Writer

Seattle was honored to have world-renowned classical composer Alan Hovhaness as a resident for 25 years. He was an inspiration to many students of music, such as Bill Sherhart and Joel Salsman, who were Gay piano students at the University of Washington.

Bill, a romantic, had a passion for harmony and excelled in chamber music, charming the residents at Sorority House, a Gay shared housing house on Capitol Hill. On Sunday afternoons, he and another student, a Lesbian flutist, gave wonderful musicales for friends and passers-by. Even the house cat, Cunegonde, was mesmerized.

Joel was equally brilliant at chamber music, but more adventurous and willing to explore atonal music, which has its discordant beginnings in the Industrial Revolution,

Joel and Bill were campus friends and considered the two brightest stars in the music department. They were certainly Seattle's wunderkind (miracle children) who studied piano from an early age and prepared for a career in music. A polite rivalry began to develop between the two prodigies, culminating in an important competition for a 1962 Seattle World's Fair scholarship to study in Paris with pianist and conductor Raymond Trouard. Superstar pianist Glenn Gould, who never performed in public and only made recordings, was against musicians competing, but what else is there? Gertrude Stein said, "There is no there there." Bill gave a magnificent performance, but Joel won the scholarship and spent seven years in Paris. Laureate in five international competitions, he gave many concerts throughout Europe before returning to Seattle.

When Bill lost the competition, all those 15 arduous piano years faded into the past. No more practicing or musicales. Perhaps he needed a release from years of discipline and the pressure from being told he would be famous someday. Instead of regret, he dove headlong into his secret hobby: women's fashions. He had his problems, but it was a new Bill. Everyone was impressed by his fashion sense. In no time, he designed and made clothes for women who loved having their own personal designer. It was obvious his second career held great promise, and New York would eventually demand his talent. He seemed to have no regret as his piano gathered dust because his fallen star miraculously rose again, but tragically ended in an accidental fall that took his life.

Joel returned to Seattle to much acclaim, giving concerts with symphony orchestras and musical venues, including over 200 free concerts in 30 years. But the Seattle Symphony Orchestra never invited him as a guest performer. It's not the first time a local community did not recognize a great local talent, especially if they were Gay or did not have that stage presence. But while in New York, Joel met his favorite classical composer, Alan Hovhaness, best known for "God Created the Great Whales" and the beautiful, reverential "Mysterious Mountain." Joel championed his music more than any other artist and always included it in his repertoire.

Alan Hovhaness had a lifelong quest for beauty, simplicity and spirituality in music. He was one of the fathers of the generation of eclectic, new age and world music artists. Its mysterious quality comes from a blend of Armenian heritage and the West. Leonard Bernstein said, "Most of his music is very good, but the rest of it is harem music." (Miss Bernstein must have been in a bitchy mood that day.) Alan was a very tolerant and pro-Gay gentleman, but when he was living in New York before he choose to live in Seattle with a view of Mt. Rainier (his own mysterious mountain), he walked past a porno theater and heard on the outside speaker his "Fra Angelico" and "Holy City" as the soundtrack for a Gay porno film. Alan was upset. He said, "If they had used my music for a good cause, that would have been OK." I was embarrassed for my naughty brothers at the porn store and did not ask Alan how his lawsuit turned out. Alan and Joel died in 2000.

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