In Conversation with clarinettist Emma Johnson

Clarinetist Emma Johnson played a key role in my musical development.

As the winner of the BBC’s Young Musician competition in 1984, it was the exposure the competition gave the clarinet which inspired me to take up the instrument. That same year, my music teacher took on a great many other new clarinet students too. It was only when I reached university and discovered how many other clarinetists there were in my year that I began to wonder whether Johnson’s win had influenced a great many other young people too. Had it resulted in the rise of wind orchestras, bands and clarinet choirs to accommodate the greater number of clarinetists too? 

When I spoke to Emma Johnson a few weeks ago about her new album ‘Emma Johnson and Friends’ featuring a live performance of Schubert’s Octet, we talked about her experience of learning the clarinet, the influences on her development and the renaissance of melody.  

I realise that you winning Young Musician that inspired me to pick up the clarinet. Who inspired you when you were first learning the clarinet?

Actually I think the first clarinetists I heard were jazz clarinetist like Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw because my Dad had a lot of trad jazz records. That’s come full circle now – I’m doing more jazz concerts now, which is nice.

The main classical players I would have looked up to were Jack Brymer – I went for lessons with him at one stage – and Gervase de Peyer – I had lessons with him too. I was lucky in that I had lessons with all sorts of people, the people I really admired.

When I hear you talk about Gervase de Peyer and Jack Brymer I go a little dewy-eyed – they’re both clarinet royalty. What were they like as teachers?

Gervase de Peyer would wear a smoking jacket when I went for lessons, he was really quite a character. He tended to just talk in terms of what you had to imagine to bring more flair and character to the playing.

Jack Brymer was a very nice, well-balanced interesting man. I kept in touch with him in his old age. He was such a nice avuncular, fatherly presence. I really learnt most from when he demonstrated – when he played for me. He encouraged me to rely on my own instincts. He didn’t want to impose anything.  Jack gave me a lot of confidence – he told me that I had a lot of inner charm – I’m not entirely sure how he could tell that.

The other person who was a major influence on me – not a clarinetist – was Yehudi Menuhin. He invited me to take part as a soloist in concerts he was conducting. I learnt an awful lot from that. He encouraged me to trust my own instincts and be quite free that I wanted to be. Sometimes when you have a lot of teaching you get a bit scared of following your own way of thinking and maybe breaking the rules people have been drumming into you. So to have Yehudi encourage me and reassure me was really important.

Some years ago I worked in orchestral management when Yehudi was conducting the orchestra I was working for. I remember in rehearsal breaks on tour, parents would bring their offspring to the auditorium and he would listen to them play. I remember it being an incredibly intense atmosphere but him being incredibly calming.

He was. He was a spiritual man. Even when he’d stopped playing and conducting, just being around him made you feel calmer and more confident. He was a man who taught a lot and did so much for young people too.

What do you recall of Young Musician?

It was incredibly exciting. I was very young – just seventeen. It was really nerve-wracking. When I played the concerto in that final round, it was only the second time I had played a concerto. I had always wanted to be a musician  but wasn’t sure how that path would open up. What Young Musician did was really open up the path for me. I was deluged with requests for concerts and recordings afterwards, just at the same time as I was doing my O-Levels.  The phone was always ringing – so while I was doing my exams, my Mum was answering the phone to all of these requests. My Dad would have to take me to concerts I was playing in.

It was all quite surreal in many ways. It was nerve-wracking, but I managed to keep on with my education and went on to university. Looking back, I’m glad I was able to get through it all. Some say that doing something like Young Musician was thrusting young people into the limelight; what we forget now is [given that there were only four TV channels then] what impact a BBC TV programme had at that time.

If you do a TV programme as high profile as Young Musician, it’s bound to have an effect on the winner. I don’t think it that had been realised at the time quite what effect winning might have. It was wonderful and exciting, of course. It wasn’t easy, but it was a great opportunity.

How did you juggle the studies and the playing at that age?

I’m not sure. I had a lot of energy I recall. People used to say at the time how surprised they were that I had the energy I did. But I did work hard, but I think I had a natural feeling for music so perhaps I didn’t find quite as hard as others might have done.

What do you young aspiring musicians think about now, that you didn’t have to think about then?

I was thinking about this yesterday when I judging the Arts Club Competition – the Karl Jenkins Competitions. I think there are so many more competitions now that it’s a lot more difficult to have impact and cut-through. So maybe a competition isn’t always the right thing to do. Presence online is very important and in particular videos – people want to see players performing. When I was performing for the first time music performance was about audio. It’s interesting how nowadays the visual element has become ever more important.

I remember I won the Young Concert Artists auditions in New York in the 1990s. They were beginning to say then that performers needed to be the complete package: that you needed to look right on stage. Not that you had to be pretty or good looking, rather than you had to have the right presence on stage and how that was crucial to giving a good performance.

Thinking back to my teenage years when I was learning the clarinet, I remember one very famous piece of music you recorded – the Victorian Kitchen Garden music accompanying the TV programme of the same name. Music written by Paul Read – who I was surprised to learn had written the signature tune to The Flumps as well.

He wrote the Antiques Roadshow music too.

Paul Read invited me to play the Victorian Kitchen Garden. I suppose he thought my style would suit the really melodic writing he had used in the music. Neither of us realised it would be as popular as it later turned out to be. People often ask me for it in concerts and its featured in the Associated Board exam syllabus for clarinet. In fact, I’ve just finished recording the orchestral version of clarinet and orchestra that Paul scored before he died. That’s coming out on a CD later in the summer featuring music that was written for me.

I remember being late for the first session – I was quite new to London. In the end we did the recording of the music in one take. I think that’s part of its appeal too – it’s a performance; its natural music-making, rather than a patched together performance.

I remembering badgering my teacher to play it and her being bemused that I wanted to play this music from the television. Now I find that YouTube is awash with performances of it by young people. It’s a really lovely thing to see how the work has gained favour and popularity amongst young performers. There’s something about the melody and that it’s a complete work.

I think when he wrote it, writing melodies was really looked down upon. It’s only recently that melody has been taken seriously again by the classical music establishment. Not everyone can write a melody that audiences can remember afterwards; it’s actually quite a rare gift. It was underrated that ability he had to write delightful melodies.

Melodic writing has come into its own again, I think. There was a kind of dark ages in my book in the 70s, 80s and 90s when only the most cutting-edge or experimental music was deemed worthwhile. And of course you do need that. But I think at that point it was dished out as the mainstream classical music material. That was a shame because if you didn’t have a degree in music you were going to struggle to understand the finer points. I think that did classical music a disservice at the time because people were thinking ‘there’s nothing new coming through that I can relate to’. Now, luckily, its much healthier now. Everything seems to be ‘allowed’.

I read somewhere that you said that you never get bored of playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I remember at university that nearly all the clarinettists around me were playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I suddenly went off the work. It sounded like wallpaper. It drains all the joy out of me. And I don’t know what I’m missing. Can you tell me?

I think, unfortunately, it’s not played well. I think a lot of people approach it in quite a shallow way, paying attention only to the incredible melodies. Once you go deeper and explore the harmonies and marvel at the way Mozart has put it together, it is beautifully melodic, every note has its place – there’s no vamping on one note as Weber would have done – it’s all intricately put together. It defies belief, really. Once you start digging deeper you find a lot in it. Probably there are some performances which don’t convey that.

That’s very helpful. I think what I conclude from that is that you’re saying that I can blame all of the other clarinettists at university for ruining the concerto for me. That works for me. Great. I’ve got someone to blame.

So, the new CD – ‘Emma Johnson and Friends’. Tell me about the new CD.

We recorded it live at Southampton Unviersity. I’m particularly pleased that Somm asked us to record the Schubert Octet because it’s so mammoth that it really lends itself well to a complete performance. That makes for a different kind of recording – sometimes a studio recording can end up being a bit ‘bitty’. But with a complete performance we’ve managed to get the over-arching structure. I think too there’s something about having an audience there which brings out the creative juices from all the performers. With the Octet there are so many different emotions, so many different personalities that the audience helps bring that out.

Emma Johnson and Friends is available on SOMM Recordings and features a performance recorded live during a concert at Turner Sims, Southampton of Schubert’s Octet in F, D 803, and Bernhard Crusell’s, Concert Trio for Clarinet, Bassoon & Horn. The performers are Emma Johnson, clarinet; Carducci Quartet; Christopher West, double bass; Philip Gibbon, bassoon; Michael Thompson, horn. 



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