Joseph Johnson, principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony, makes his LAMF debut as he tackles Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto during the 2017 season finale. Get to know more this cellist and educator and about one of his former students, Executive and Artistic Director Scott Lykins.
Tell us a bit about your early life and career.
I grew up in Chicago and started playing piano at the age of 5. I started on cello through the public school system when I was in 3rd grade. In high school, I joined the Chicago Youth Symphony, and it was there when I realized that I wanted to do this for a living. I was lucky enough to have parents that supported me with this and never held me back. They didn’t even have to yell at me to practice!
What makes the Dvorak concerto special?
It’s the Gold Standard of cello concertos – incredible writing for the cello, and an amazing orchestration to play with. It is the piece we as cellists strive to play, and getting to play it with an orchestra never gets old. The 2nd theme of the 1st movement, the whole 2nd movement, and the end of the concerto are some of the most beautiful moments in all of music. Dvorak really got this one right – I always have such a blast playing this piece, and it is completely satisfying musically, physically, and emotionally.
You have known Scott Lykins for a long time. Talk a little about your history (any embarrassing stories!?).
I met Scott when he was a Sophomore in High School. He came to a Minnesota Orchestra concert (where I played for 11 years.) I remember he had bleach blond hair. REALLY bleached. He was a swimmer. He came to the front of the stage after a concert and asked if he could have a lesson. That’s where it all started – he studied with me for the next three years and went on to Eastman to study with my former teacher. We’ve always kept in touch since then, and I’m so proud of what he has accomplished with this festival.
You do it all: chamber music, soloing and serving as a principal cellist in orchestras. How do these roles differ in the mindset they require?
I feel very fortunate to be able to “do it all” in terms of the various aspects of cello playing. I love playing in an orchestra, and being principal gives me the opportunity to have Direct input into how the strings sound. I’m very lucky to have a great core of Principal strings to work and perform with in Toronto. Soloing and chamber music gives me the opportunity to travel (which I love) and really play the cello. Orchestra cello parts are mostly a bass line. Soloing and chamber music are a more exposed kind of playing, and much more challenging. Teaching is also extremely important to me. I love being able to inspire younger people and get them excited about performing and learning.
Tell us a bit about the cello you play. How would you describe the sound and feel of it?
My cello is a wonderful old Italian cello from 1780, made by Paolo Castello. It has a huge, soulful sound that really fits my personality. It took me a long time to find this cello, but I knew the first time I played a note on it that it was definitely up my alley. I used to play on a much bigger cello, and this cello is smaller, which means it’s easier to get around technically. But the sound is much bigger. I’ve only had it since January of this year, so we are doing a lot of things together for the first time these days. I am loving it more and more each day.
You’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Minnesota, any particularly fond memories? Things you’ll make sure to do while you’re back?
I lived in Minneapolis for 11 years, which seems crazy to me. I arrived when I was 22 years old as a “kid” in the Minnesota Orchestra. I loved my time living here. I will definitely be going to Leaning Tower of Pizza when I’m in Minneapolis, as it’s my favorite pizza in Minneapolis. Of course, I made tons of friends, so it will be great to see a few of them again in person. I can’t believe I’ve been gone for 11 years. It was certainly home to me for a very long time and is where I met my partner Josh.
When you’re listening to music in the car or at home, what’s on your playlist?
I rarely listen to music in the car or at home, as I’m surrounded by it all the time. I enjoy the silence, to be honest. But when I do listen, it tends to be specific artists, rather than random. Some people that I like are Anna Moffo, Anne Sophie-Mutter, k.d. Lang, Beyoncé, Natalie Dessay, and Ella Fitzgerald. I know, it’s all over, but as long as it’s good, I’ll listen.