Tom Strini

The great Joe Johnson

By - May 25th, 2010 12:48 am
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Magnificent technique and deep understanding informed every bar of Joseph Johnson’s cello recital Monday night at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

Joseph Johnson

This was a special occasion: Johnson is about to end his three-year tenure as principal cellist of the Milwaukee Symphony and join the Toronto Symphony. He’s made a big impression in his limited time in Milwaukee, as an orchestra leader, as a chamber musician, and as a person dedicated to the musical life of the community. (He was a concerto soloist for the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra; he didn’t have to do that.) More than 100 of his many admirers packed the recital hall to show their appreciation and to hear one of the finest young cellists in the world up close.

Johnson opened with Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G, BWV 1007. As Johnson noted in his witty and informative remarks from stage, everyone has an opinion about how Bach solo suites ought to be played. He didn’t say, but everyone knows, that the opinions swing between two poles: Baroque and dancey vs. Romantic and rhetorical. As he played the Suite in G, Johnson revealed an opinion about each movement.

I loved his conception of the Prelude: Witty and light, overall, it opens as an exchange between a gruff, taciturn lower voice and an expansive upper voice. The upper one, of course, eventually takes over the whole conversation. The idea of dialog extended into his freely rhetorical reading of the Allemande, with the lower voice muttering and the upper voice ever more ardent. He took the Courante at a thrilling tempo and made a breathless, very French dance of it. The thick ornamentation didn’t slow him down;  he tossed it off like a kid shooting fireworks from a racing speedboat. Bach wrote one of his best melodies for the Sarabande; Johnson forgot about dance and made an ardent aria of it and made it throb and flex expressively. What charming swing and lilt he granted the Menuett. He topped it all off with an exceptionally fast, rowdy and rustic Gigue.

Benjamin Britten’s amazing Suite No. 3, Opus 87, followed.

The nine connected, very brief movements veer from the Looney-Tune high-speed antics of the Moto Perpetuo: Presto (No. 8) to the mournful, chant-like melodies of the Prelude (No. 1) to the jagged abstraction  of the Recitativo (No. 7). Johnson brought each vividly distinct section to full bloom, but somehow found a through-line and overall arc. He simply shrugged off the vast technical difficulties of Britten’s Suite and drove home the drama and meaning.

Pianist Jeannie Yu joined Johnson in Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G.

This sonata is mainly — but not only — about big, ardent, Romantic melodies driven by richly figured arpeggios. Johnson understands these melodies on every level, and his skill is such that he makes you understand them, too. The second theme of the first movement, for example, begins as a straightforward hymn. Ever so gradually, it changes character and becomes a cosmic outcry, and Johnson delivered that change and unleashed its enormous dramatic impact.

Before they played the Sonata, Johnson modestly described it as a “piano sonata with cello accompaniment.” It isn’t, but the formidable piano part is at least on equal footing with the cello. Yu was fabulous as both pianist and collaborator. In the slow movement, the dreamy quality of the principal theme lies in its odd placement vis-a-vis the harmony and the ostinato pattern. She dropped it in just so, rhythmically, and with exactly the right touch. The thing floated like a shimmering ghost and became even more compelling as a ghostly counter-melody when the cello took up its theme.

They ended with Rachmaninoff’s Melody, transcribed from a song for high voice, as an encore.  It sang so beautifully in Johnson’s hands as to make a jaded listener weep. Johnson is not just a highly skilled musician. He loves to make music, and you can hear that love in every phrase.

Categories: Classical

0 thoughts on “Review: The great Joe Johnson”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful review of what must have been a bittersweet event for all concerned. I have said it before — SO SORRY he’s leaving!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Every high point of my experience at this excellent concert was captured in this review. In fact, Mr. Strini added additional insights which enhanced my experience after the fact, which show why he earns the big bucks writing the reviews.

    As an avid listener (and reformed collector) of classical music, I’m familiar with a fair number of the works presented in most recitals, and find myself intrigued with the process the artist goes through in selecting music he/she will perform. In this instance, kudos to the great Joe Johnson. I expected Brahms, and I got Rachmaninoff. The Britten piece came out of the blue, and it was a revelatory experience. I really appreciated Joe’s introduction to this unfamiliar work, and the performance was riveting. (For $20, a recital like this is one of the best bargains around!)

    The Bach Suite, while not exactly a surprise to find on a program devoted to the cello, was so close to perfect in performance that once the last note echoed through the small performing space, that experience alone would have sufficed for the concert.

    I recognize a reviewer must review the performance as it was presented. But as a “commentator” I’d like to suggest that the concert might have been enhanced by completely reversing the order of performance. Have lots of fun and excitement with Rachmininoff right off the bat Then after intermission, lay it all on the line with the Britten. Then have a cleansing with Bach.

    Bringing it full circle with the Rachmaninoff “Melodie” as the encore would have been exquisite.

    But that’s my take. I often leave MSO concerts wondering why they didn’t close with that Haydn Symphony, instead of opening with it.

    But a fabulous concert, with a spot-on review. Milwaukee will miss Joe Johnson.

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