Tom Strini
This (crazy) Week at the MSO

An emergency soloist, a swan song and Lang Lang

By - Apr 20th, 2010 09:30 pm
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Joseph Johnson knew last Friday morning that violinist Masafumi Hori had canceled just a few days before she was to start rehearsing Toru Takemitsu’s “Far, Call! Coming, Far!” with the Milwaukee Symphony.

Nice work if you can get it. Joseph Johnson’s practice room in the Virgin Islands. Note the electric cello.

Johnson is the MSO’s principal cellist; replacing AWOL guest soloists is not his department. So he got on a plane and took a few days in the Virgin Islands. No internet, no cell service. He returned late last night and checked his email, to find an urgent message from Larry Tucker, the MSO exec who, among other things, deals with guest artists.

Joe, would you play the Saint-Saens concerto this weekend?

“Under normal conditions,” Johnson said, in an interview Tuesday evening, “I wouldn’t play a concerto with a major orchestra with only a few days to prepare.”

These are not normal conditions, and Johnson will step up for the team.

“We rehearsed this afternoon, and it went fine,” he said. “I have a few more days to practice. It’s kind of a crazy week with Lang Lang playing Wednesday [more on that special MSO concert below], but the Saint-Saens will be good.”

Johnson, like all A-list cellists, has lived with the Saint-Saens concerto for most of his life. He last picked it up three years ago, as his first solo appearance with his new orchestra, the MSO. So it will bookend his three-year stint as principal here.

Yes, the end is near: Johnson will become the principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony in the fall.

Milwaukee’s music fans will be sorry to hear this; I certainly am. Johnson has been great for the orchestra and great for the city. He has played chamber music at UWM and with Frank Almond‘s Frankly Music series, worked with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony. Johnson is a very nice person and a great player. But read on; there’s a slim chance he might be back.

“Officially, I will be on a year leave from the MSO,” he said. “I can go there, and if I don’t like it I can come back. It’s not as if I was desperate to leave Milwaukee. I love [music director] Edo de Waart personally and professionally. Milwaukee’s a great city, and a lot is going on with this orchestra. I’m from Chicago, I’m a Midwest guy. I like it here.”

But Toronto is bigger and more cosmopolitan, and the money is better at the government-subsidized TSO.

“Everybody knows we took a 9% pay cut,” Johnson said. “All orchestras in the states are having trouble. The Toronto Symphony was unaffected.

“And Toronto is one of the world’s great cities. It’s like a clean New York. Their new opera house is one of the best in the world. The orchestra, I think, is now the best attended in the world. They sell out every concert. There’s so much music going on in Toronto, and it’s so international.”

Johnson sounded dazzled by the Canadian metropolis, but he still intends to keep the phone line open to Milwaukee next season. Because you never really know a city and its orchestra until you live with them for a while.

That’s not all the Joe Johnson news: He has a new — or rather a different old — cello. In December, Johnson found a fabulous instrument built in Barcelona in 1747 by an obscure craftsman.

“The cost is about a quarter of what it should be, because it’s Spanish,” Johnson said. “Juan Guillami is the maker. If you can find out anything about him, I’ll give you a medal.”

[Readers, commence Googling and report back. You want that medal, don’t you?]

What’s so good about it, Joe?

“This is a big boy cello,” he said. “It has so much power. Sometimes, I have to stop and laugh, because I can do things on it that I never thought I could do at all. Because the cello is pitched in the middle of the orchestra, you always have to really push to get through. I don’t have to do that with this cello.”


Still more Joe Johnson news: He turned 37 on Tuesday, so he’s still early in a brilliant career. He will play a recital at Northwestern University’s Lutkin Hall at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, with Milwaukee’s own Jeanne Yu at the piano. Call 867-467-400 or click here for details. Johnson will also play a farewell recital May 24 at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. Details are to come; they will likely appear first in a program insert at the MSO concerts this weekend.

Finally, what did you do on you Virgin Islands vacation, Joe?

“I brought my electric cello with me. My sailing instructor heard about it, and I ended up playing a Bach suite for about 40 sailors and other friends. We ran the cello through his speaker system. This guy is a fire dancer as well as a captain. It might have been the most interesting audience I’ve ever had.”

Edo de Waart will conduct concerts set for 11:15 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 23-25. Repertoire: Faure’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique). Tickets are $24-$77 Friday and Sunday, $25 to $93 Saturday. Call the Marcus center box office, 414-273-7206, the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605, or visit the MSO website for tickets.

Lang Lang’s Wednesday-night special with the MSO

The hair, the dreamy gazing, the flamboyant gestures, eccentric interpretations and the general theatrical agitation of Lang Lang at the piano endeared him to many, amused some, annoyed others and infuriated a few influential critics.

Lang Lang emotes. And dig those kicks.

He was, indeed, wacky at his MSO debut in 2002, when he contorted Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (and contorted himself as he played it). He was barely 20 and looked younger. Lang took to the role of teenage heartthrob wunderkind out of China. I never saw young people line up for autographs with an MSO soloist the way they lined up for Lang Lang.

A more restrained — oh, let’s say somewhat less wild — Lang Lang showed up to play a recital at the Pabst Theater in March of 2004. He was really good that night, with original but plausible takes on an imaginative program.

He’s 27 now, and the controversy around him seems to have died down. The MSO has booked him for a big-ticket special concert Wednesday. He’s playing Prokofiev’s aggressively modernist Concerto No. 3, with Edo de Waart conducting.  You never know until you get there, but I have a feeling that Lang Lang will kill with this piece.

Also on the program: A reprise of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which de Waart and the orchestra played so beautifully and intelligently earlier this season, and Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture.

Oh, one more thing about Lang Lang, just the sort of move that makes the more decorous fans of classical music crazy: He now has a shoe contract with Adidas. And yes, you will see those three Adidas stripes on the concert stage.

Tickets are $50-$160. Call the Marcus center box office, 414-273-7206, the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605, or visit the MSO website.

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