The other Haydn Concerto.. 15/2/17

Last year I was due to perform the Haydn Concerto with a European Chamber Orchestra. Since it just said “Haydn

The other Haydn Concerto.. 15/2/17

Last year I was due to perform the Haydn Concerto with a European Chamber Orchestra. Since it just said “Haydn Concerto” on my schedule I assumed it would be the C Major Concerto, which is the work I perform more than the other. Surely if it was the D Major Concerto it would have been made clear to me that it wasn’t the usual Haydn concerto I often perform with this particular orchestra. I sat down in my chair for the rehearsal a couple of hours before the performance and the director started to sing the first phrase of the D Major Concerto to me asking if it was the tempo I had in mind. I laughed out loud and, possibly marked by the silent response from both him and the orchestra, realised he was probably offended that I was laughing at his singing, but I wasn’t! I was sure that he was joking (it has been done once before), and so I said as much. The orchestra were already late from their travels and there really wasn’t much time for joking. Then it dawned on me he wasn’t actually joking. This was the stuff of nightmares – I went over to look at his music and it was indeed the D Major Concerto on his stand! I couldn’t believe it. In shock, I started speaking with the manager of the orchestra about the possibility of performing some Bach instead, apologising for the administrative error (of course it wasn’t my fault..!), but the audience were expecting to hear a Haydn Concerto. As I had recently performed the C Major Concerto with the orchestra we agreed we would look to see if the parts were available online, which thankfully they were. There was no way I could perform the D Major Concerto having only just found out I came prepared with the wrong Concerto and the concert was almost an hour away. Thank goodness the orchestra and management were understanding enough and, as they say, the show must go on!

Not long after this experience, the Orchestra of the Swan invited me to perform a Haydn Concerto with them for this concert in Malvern and even gave me the luxury of deciding between the two concertos – it’s actually quite a tough decision because I love both of them. However, much influenced by this recent incident I decided it was time to revisit the D Major Concerto after all, and there will be no excuses this time.. Let’s hope the orchestra don’t make the same mistake that I did last time turning up with the wrong work on the night!

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A Gift…

I’ve just finished recording a new solo work for cello, Un Regalo by Mark Simpson. What a gift! A year

A Gift…

I’ve just finished recording a new solo work for cello, Un Regalo by Mark Simpson. What a gift! A year ago I was asked by a close family friend if I had a wish and I boldly asked for three new works to celebrate the tricentenary of ‘my’ David Tecchler cello. I asked each composer to think of the role of the instrument during the last 300 years and to let their imagination run wild, which it certainly has.. I’ve been racing up and down the cello like a lunatic! But I’ve also been discovering many new possibilities and sound worlds along the way. Thank you David Matthews (Ein Celloleben), Charlotte Bray (Perseus), and Mark (Un Regalo) for your unique offerings. I feel honoured to add these works to the cello repertoire for such a celebration.

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Ode to memories, Yo-Yo Ma, Bach, Casals, Peace and Freedom

I first had the privilege of meeting Yo-Yo Ma at the age of 16 when my parents happily sent me

Ode to memories, Yo-Yo Ma, Bach, Casals, Peace and Freedom

I first had the privilege of meeting Yo-Yo Ma at the age of 16 when my parents happily sent me off to the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival in the States. That day, I was lucky enough to jump into two empty seats in the Shed (which is the main concert hall and not actually a shed!), with a friend in anticipation of the Dvorak Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Just before the lights dimmed, a man appeared at the last moment and my friend had to move.

Nearly 20 years on, having been so inspired during that first memorable experience and countless others since, not least playing with Yo Yo in a cello ensemble during Kathryn Stott’s 50th Birthday celebrations, this time it was witnessing the Six Suites in their entirety at the BBC Proms. I’ve never listened to the Suites all the way through in one hearing before, and by the Sixth Suite last night one felt the most extraordinary sense of the overarching shape and wholesome journey of these cherished masterpieces coming to a conclusion.

Every person present undoubtedly felt a part of this mesmerising experience, which was made even more special by Yo-Yo’s humour in between each Suite giving a sense of the extraordinary feat he was in the process of fulfilling. The encouragement for the need of extra clapping between the Fifth and the Sixth Suites was particularly powerful, as if to help energise him collectively and all of our listening for the final part of the Everest Mountain.

The culmination of the journey said everything about Yo-Yo’s humility, sharing the story of these Suites and including everyone present during the process. A final offering was made with reference to Pablo Casals who not only resurrected these Suites, but also lived for Peace and Freedom in his lifetime. This was another landmark for humanity, striving for a more peaceful future through the Song of the Birds that sent us all away with a sense of renewed hope.

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Family Roots across the Irish Sea 2/5/15

I recently performed The Protecting Veil with the Ulster Orchestra in memory of the late Sir John Tavener. It brought

Family Roots across the Irish Sea 2/5/15

I recently performed The Protecting Veil with the Ulster Orchestra in memory of the late Sir John Tavener. It brought back memories of the last time I performed this extraordinary work in King’s College Chapel where Tavener’s son rolled around on the stone floor right in front of me during a Live BBC broadcast. Thankfully, I knew who he was!

It was particularly poignant to be performing in the Ulster Hall on this occasion. My grandfather was principal clarinet of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra, which eventually merged to become the Ulster Orchestra, and it was where my father grew up going to concerts, not least hearing Tortelier and Rostropovich. My great aunt spent some time trying to introduce me to the orchestra and if only she had been there to see her wish come true! I couldn’t help think that I wouldn’t be here without them and how thankful I am to be a musician.

I had the pleasure of staying with my grandmother. 90 years young, Nanny defies her age and everyone wonders what the secret is? She has always appreciated music, but spent her professional life working tirelessly as a Development and Administrative Officer for the Abbeyfield and Belfast Societies in Northern Ireland. The organisations provide care and companionship for elderly people in family sized houses throughout the world. Nanny now enjoys playing Bridge, travelling the globe, and keeping up with modern technology, all of which I’m sure has something to do with her continued enthusiasm and energy! She drove me to the Hall for rehearsals, cooked meals, took me to see Mount Stewert and Island Hill, and we stayed up late putting the world to rights. I take my hat off to her!

Needless to say, we ended up communicating about the family puzzle and in particular my great-grandfather who was a keen amateur cellist. He was brought up in Belfast and ended up in a little fishing village on the north east coast of county Antrim in Glenarm where he was a bank manager. I was amazed to find out what a talented artist he was as well as a self taught cellist. It was touching to see a couple of his paintings hanging on the wall including an astonishing picture of Salisbury Cathedral, where his brother worked, and a picture of his bank and home in Glenarm. Having had his cello passed on to me during my studies, it was a joy to hear more about this exceptional man.

I also saw my aunt who brought out a number of old pictures from our childhood including one of me holding my great-grandfather’s cello. She also showed me a mini cello brought back from her travels in Paris some years ago. It’s tiny and unplayable but a really lovely thing made in 1819.

The background to my grandfather is fascinating. He ended up joining the Royal Air Force despite being a budding clarinettist wishing to peruse a professional career. There were of course very few opportunities during the Second World War, and much to his father’s disapproval he signed up to the RAF. It seems almost inappropriate to say that he thrived during service, meeting many new friends and traveling the world. Much to my grandmother’s relief, he eventually returned safely to Belfast. Like his father, he started working in a bank, but soon fell out with the manager. He was summoned into the office having been seen by the manager cleaning his car on a Sunday, a day of worship. How times have changed! In any case, he wasn’t enjoying working in the bank and decided to head back to his roots in Glenarm which is where fate intervened.

The BBC arrived with a recording van searching for local talent. My great-grandfather mentioned that his son is a talented clarinettist and so by pure coincidence and luck he had the opportunity to make a recording for the programme they were making. Three months later the BBC offered him a position in the newly formed BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra and so my grandfather’s wish was finally answered.

My father ended up inheriting the clarinet from his father and moved to England during the unsettled period of the 1970s in Belfast. (Ironically, I was caught up in the Manchester IRA bomb in 1997 when I was a student at Chatham’s). He met my mother and they established their music school, Harpenden Musicale 35 years ago, which continues to go from strength to strength.

It was a memorable experience in Belfast and I hope it’s not too long before the next visit. It was fitting that, as I was making my way out of the hall with Nanny after the performance, a number of people came up to us remembering Papa and my father.

You can see pictures associated with this Blog here: https://www.facebook.com/cellojohnstonpage?fref=ts

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All roads lead to Rome

An extraordinary sequence of events today have led to my landlady, who is in Rome, getting inside the workshop of

All roads lead to Rome

An extraordinary sequence of events today have led to my landlady, who is in Rome, getting inside the workshop of David Tecchler who made my cello 300 years ago. I asked if she might have time to have a look that it could be worthwhile, and to my delight received an excited phone call explaining what happened. Having taken some pictures from outside and not being able to get into the building, Miranda asked around but nobody knew much other than the fact that luthier’s had lived and worked on the street and Rossini lived opposite the address.. Some time later, the original man Miranda asked came running to a cafe where she was and introduced her to the current owner of the property. It transpires that he has a book of all the people who lived there over the last few centuries including not only Tecchler but also Caravaggio in the 17th century! Unfortunately the space has more recently been used as a garage and dumping ground, but the man was so enthusiastic he apparently said he might renovate the space soon. The aim is to get there as part of my cello’s 300th anniversary and already the journey has opened up some fascinating insights. Just the other day I met a 94 year old man whose son is looking for someone to pass his Tecchler cello on to and as it happens was taught by Casals and has had the cello all his life.

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Four Quartets

Last night was a memorable launch for Easter at Kings. “Responses to Modernity” presents a wide selection of responses to

Four Quartets

Last night was a memorable launch for Easter at Kings. “Responses to Modernity” presents a wide selection of responses to the challenges of faith over the last 500 years since Kings Chapel was completed, including Passions by Schütz, MacMillan, and Bach, Messiean’s Visions de l’Amen and Rossini’s Stabat Mater.

Dr Rowan Williams presented a series of reflections on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, one of the most influential set of poems of the 20th century, extracts of which were recited by actress Juliet Stevenson and interjected with selected movements of unaccompanied Bach. We were surrounded by an exhibition of paintings by Makoto Fujimura and Bruce Herman at the west end of the Chapel inspired by Eliot’s Four Quartets.

It was an extraordinary occasion with art, poetry and music drawing people together in this extraordinary setting. It was also fitting that the concert began in the light and ended in darkness reflecting the words of Eliot’s second poem, East Coker, “In my beginning is my end.”

I would highly recommend going to see some of the festival this week.

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Andras Schiff Lecture Recital, 22 Mansfield Street 18/3/15

Last night I had a rare opportunity to hear Andras Schiff give a lecture recital on one of Schubert’s last

Andras Schiff Lecture Recital, 22 Mansfield Street 18/3/15

Last night I had a rare opportunity to hear Andras Schiff give a lecture recital on one of Schubert’s last piano sonatas in C minor D.958 to help raise funds for IMS Prussia Cove.

We were taken on an imaginative journey through Schubert’s world discussing many of the characteristics that make a work like this one a masterpiece.

Andras enlightened us with various musical examples and spoke at length about the keys Schubert chose to use and, for example, the importance of Eb and Ab Major and their relationship a third above and below the tonic. He went on to discuss the neapolitan and subdominant harmonies and the doors they open during the course of the music, the rhythmical elements, tonality, phrasing, dynamics, orchestration, style, form, and the mythical characters Schubert had in mind particularly in the last movement.

Schubert was influenced in this work by Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor and as well as hearing the same progression (Schubert ascends in his opening bars whereas Beethoven descends) Schubert also references some of his own songs during the Sonata. One has to be mindful of these connections as inevitably they influence everything.

Andras engaged with the music and everyone present in such an insightful and entertaining way that one really felt privileged to be there. One of my favourite moments of the evening was when he referenced some of the many great inventions in life, for example the Steam Engine and some might argue sliced bread, but the greatest human achievement of all is Sonata Form!

You can hear Andras performing the D.958 here: m.youtube.com/watch

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Anner Bylsma, Amsterdam 5/3/15

There’s only one place I could be with Tulips, tea, and Bach with Anner Bylsma: Last night was a revelation.

Anner Bylsma, Amsterdam 5/3/15

There’s only one place I could be with Tulips, tea, and Bach with Anner Bylsma:

Last night was a revelation. We spent a few hours chatting about Anner’s book, The Fencing Master and worked through the D minor Suite having never met before. I felt like I had known him a lifetime so generous he was in spirit. The enthusiasm he shared for Bach was utterly absorbing and entertaining and I even had a sneak preview of his next book which is due out soon called, Droppings.. Even Anner’s dog was very attentive!

Here are a few of the previously hidden gems Anner passed on;

“One needs to communicate these Suites like a Minister in the Pulpit. Listen to your audience.”

“The bow should never leave the string.”

“Listen to the inner logic and hold on to those bass lines. What does Bach imply?”

“Not too fast. Taste those nuances”

“Not every note is important here. See how the harmonic movement slows down in this bar? Play that part of the phrase as if looking over your shoulder, and then on we go again.”

“Release the bow at the end of that grouping.”

“We do so many things with our hands. Musicians, Medics, Artists, Snooker players.. But the thoughts come from our head (when one sighs at a mistake, the hand often goes to the head!). Anticipate in the mind and craft with the hands.”

“The Germans absorbed the French and Italian styles and made it their own.”

“Play into the bridge for that dissonance. The top line after the chord will be much clearer.”

“Think of Six quavers in a bar for the Courante rather than 3 crotchets.”

“When someone signs their name with a line underneath, the line is rarely straight. Often there is a curl or a shape which is a natural movement (I suppose unless someone is feeling stern when there might be a straight line with a dot at the end!). The same is so for a musical line. There are shapes. The rubato inside a grouping of notes and timing are influenced by the musical language and where the line is going.”

“This part of the phrase is a question mark, and that part is an exclamation.”

“Imagine being a snooker player. They plan their shot not just to pot a single ball but also to manoeuvre the ball(s) for the next shot. Even the physicality of the movement with the cue, the tension and release, could be compared to that of the physical movement with a bow across the strings.”

“Play this as if you are lost in the dark with a lamp.”

“Look how imaginative Bach has been with those slurs. I only trust the Anna Magdalena Bach copy. Why do so many cellists wish to join all these notes together? There is a reason why the slurs are as they are. The imaginative variety is there not only to challenge us, but also to help marry the movement of the left hand with the right. Rarely do you see a slur over more than 3 notes, which is usually over a grouping where the hand remains in the same position.”

“Put a turn in at the end of that trill.”

“Look at that slight error in the AMB manuscript. Paper was expensive in those days and ink ran out quickly. You could easily imagine one of their many children tugging at Anna’s arm for attention during her extensive copying!”

“We need to speak the language.”

“The chords at the end of the Prelude may have been a quick outline to finish later. Was Bach distracted by a visitor at the front door?!”

It was getting late and Anner had to go and rest being 81 years old. It brought back memories of playing for Bernard Greenhouse in Cape Cod who was already 90 when I met him. Despite Anner no longer being able to play, he continues to live for the music and I simply can’t wait to go back.

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“The cello chose me” (New Year, 2015)

I was in a curry house off Marylebone High Street with a dear friend, Tom Poster, when a man sitting

“The cello chose me” (New Year, 2015)

I was in a curry house off Marylebone High Street with a dear friend, Tom Poster, when a man sitting at the table eavesdropping next to us asked: “Are you actors?” I pointed to my cello and he said, “Ah, a musician! My wife knew Yo-Yo Ma at Harvard. Why did you choose the cello?”

I was surprised that the answer wasn’t immediately obvious to me. I began by explaining I was born into a musical family. My parents, who are wind players, run a music school in our hometown, Harpenden, and often taught and played at home while we were growing up. Each day my mother encouraged us to play our scales on the piano – “thumbs in and out” she would say. In all honesty, I was not a natural pianist. Now I can play chords and appreciate harmony, but as far as playing a phrase, it never happened, and unfortunately I don’t think it ever will. In any case, I much preferred being outdoors with friends riding our bikes up and down the Nickey Line or playing various sports in the garden.

I played a tuba for a while, which my father claimed to have dug up from the garden as a ploy to get me to play in their wind band. It was in a terrible condition – rusty, with a rancid smell and I even had to sit on a book or two in order to reach the mouthpiece. During one rehearsal, the timpanist lost her stick having struck the timpani with great enthusiasm. It was nowhere to be found, until I went to rest my tuba upside down and the stick fell out the other end! I have many happy memories from these Musicale Holidays up and down the country in Harpenden, Salisbury, Cambridge, and York.

Aside from these quirky musical antics, my brothers and I were choristers in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. I had the honour of recording the famous solo ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and have many memories of singing in such a glorious and historic place. To this day, we continue to go back and perform a Schubert or Mozart mass at Easter time and on Christmas Day with the choir.

Whilst singing played a significant part in my musical development, the cello had always been there. We enjoyed trying many instruments in our parents’ music shop, but I always loved the sound of the cello and playing it more than anything else. My grandmother’s favourite piece, what she called ‘lollypop music’, was Squire’s Danse Rustique – A Merry Dance, which often came out for house concerts.

I often wonder if the fact that my great-grandfather and uncle were amateur cellists had an influence on me playing the cello. Is it in the blood? I played on my great-Grandfather’s cello and bow for some time and my Uncle Julian studied with the late Jane Cowan who also taught my mentors including Steven Doane, Steven Isserlis, and David Waterman. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, often spoke about her experiences singing under Sir Malcolm Sargeant and my grandfather, on my father’s side, was principle clarinet in the BBC Orchestra in Northern Ireland (now the Ulster Orchestra). Music was certainly floating around both sides of the family.

One of my earliest memories of the cello was at the age of 5, twirling it around so fast at my teacher’s house that I lost control and it spun across the room, smashing it into pieces. In fact, there have been a few accidents along the way (not just wrong notes!) including the cello slipping away from me during a rapid page-turn in a youth orchestra rehearsal. To my horror, the shoulder of the cello had cracked and lodged itself on the seat next to me. I also had a terrible experience coming back from my studies in the States when my cello had been smashed to pieces in the hold of the plane. There has been plenty of drama, and that’s before we even go into broken strings (live on BBC Young Musician) and fractured fingers!

My mother was mortified one day when an old teacher of mine, who was clearly unrecognisable at the time, asked how my new teacher was and I responded, “Oh, much better than the last!”

I’m now lucky enough, thanks to the generous support of a few investors, to play a David Tecchler cello made in Rome 300 years ago. I can assure you, mindful of these past mishaps, that I guard and cherish ‘Woody’ with my life. These old instruments are so precious and we even sit together on planes these days. I’ve recently had 3 new commissions composed as 300th Anniversary ‘gifts’ for the cello and I’m looking forward to performing them soon.

At this point I realised that I had digressed to some extent. I was simply struggling to find a precise answer to his question, why the cello? My first concerto with orchestra was with the Ernest Read Orchestra performing the Lalo Cello Concerto in the Royal Festival Hall when I was 14. I reminisced about an experience when I was sixteen in the US, (incidentally my questioner was an American banker) at the Tanglewood Festival where I was mesmerised by Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of the Dvo?ák Concerto. That really was a defining moment that inspired and propelled me forward. I also had many opportunities to play to Steven Isserlis, who was endlessly entertaining and inspiring during his insightful masterclasses. One day, at the IMS Prussia Cove, I was encouraged to wear a big blond curly wig in the style of Steven’s iconic hair during one of my classes. Steven finally arrived and calmly sat down next to me as if nothing was unusual and said, “So, Mr. Johnston, what are you going to play for me today?” It was a slightly terrifying and humiliating moment as I’m sure you can imagine!

But I was still searching for an answer to the all important question. I simply couldn’t say why I chose the cello in the beginning. It was at this point that Tom said: “Maybe the cello chose you?” It was a poignant moment. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. That was the answer – the cello chose me!

I’ve now passed on my first cello to my Godson, Milo, and I wonder if this question will be posed to him one day. Maybe Milo will respond the same way: “The cello chose me.”

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