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A Conversation with Emma Johnson

May 21, 2009

The British clarinettist on how to connect with audiences and composers.
Emma Baker reports.


Emma Johnson and I have arranged to meet at the Wigmore Hall: incongruously, the lobby is packed with pushchairs and overrun with toddlers and yummy mummies for a chamber tots concert. We head for the nearest cafe, but the sight of so many small children being introduced to music is relevant to a musician who feels she is at the chalk face of her profession.

It’s 25 years since Johnson was named BBC Young Musician of the Year. It was also in 1984 that she appeared on a Val Doonican Christmas special, alongside guitarist John Williams and jazz musician John Dankworth, forming a long-lasting friendship with the latter that resulted in his Suite for Emma, which she has now recorded for Naxos. Is it jazz or classical? “When John wrote the piece for me, he thought of what he’d like to hear me play, rather than a particular genre—he was trying to do away with those barriers,” she says. “There’s no improvisatory element and it’s all written down, but you have to have a sense of the way jazz clarinettists play, their rhythms, the way they swallow some notes, their sense of harmony.”

From the present perspective, the 1980s looks a less dumbed-down era than today, when Young Musician competition heats were televised before supper and bone fide classical musicians appeared alongside cosy cardigan-clad crooners on family Christmas shows. Are we living in a cultural desert? “No,” Johnson says firmly. “I go out there and give concerts and there are always audiences. However, I think the problem lies with the generation now in charge of the media; they grew up during that awful period when music teaching in schools suffered. Many of them may have never encountered classical music. I am a product of the Labour government in the ’70s and I remember when they announced free lessons, on any instrument, for six months. That’s why I got to play the clarinet, and others, likewise, received their grounding in music.”


Another formative influence was Bernstein’s Harvard lectures. “He was despairing how classical music was being written in an academic way that was in fashion at the time, but that wasn’t a way forward. He understood that for classical music to survive composers have to take from the vernacular what they hear around them, people. It’s the atonal question too, whether our brains are hard-wired to understand certain grammatical structures, and no matter how composers try to get away from traditional relationships between tones, if you hear a third, or a seventh, each has a certain effect on you. As I studied English as well as music at Cambridge, I find this analysis of semantics fascinating.”

‘John thought of what he’d like me to play, rather than a particular genre’

Bernstein’s neoclassical Clarinet Sonata also features on the disc, alongside his friend and mentor Copland’s Sonata and Nocturne, both originally written for violin but transcribed by the composer for clarinet. “The Sonata suits the direct, focused sound of the clarinet very well; it’s about long lines, long phrases, that purity of expression and pared down simplicity that is key to so much American art.”

As for the future, Johnson has commissioned concertos from composers such as Stephen Barlow and Will Todd, “who are writing in a contemporary way, but can reach beyond the little coterie that likes ‘modem music’ and fire people up.” She’s also turned her hand to conducting. “It’s something I do to enrich my experience but I prefer it when it’s me and the clarinet and the audience and that sense of connection,” she admits. “It’s exciting to conduct, but as my agent pointed out, you do have your back to the audience!”

- Gramophone, March 2009

BOTTESINI Double Bass Concerto No 1
in F sharp minor
Gran duo concertante (Bottesini Collection, Vol. 1)


Giovanni Bottesini was not only among the most famous double bass virtuosos of his time, but he was also a distinguished conductor and composer. Known to some as the Paganini of the double bass, he significantly extended the technical possibilities of the instrument. The Gran Concerto in F sharp minor is arguably Bottesini’s most accomplished and involved composition for the double bass in which the instrument’s resources are fully exploited with virtuoso passages and adventurous modulations. The popular Gran Duo Concertante, originally scored for two double basses, was reworked by Paganini’s only disciple, Camillo Sivori, who rewrote and greatly expanded one of the double bass parts for the violin.

DANKWORTH Suite for Emma, Picture of Jeannie


Sir John Dankworth was inspired by Benny Goodman’s playing to study clarinet at the Royal Academy: his delightful Suite for Emma was composed for Emma Johnson, former BBC Young Musician of the Year, who performs it on this disc. Jazz and popular music influences are to the fore in the young Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata, which foreshadows the music for his ever-popular West Side Story. Aaron Copland’s arrangement for clarinet of his Violin Sonata is a major addition to the repertoire.

Emma Johnson Biography & Discography


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