Tom Strini

Cellist Joe Johnson drops in for a recital

By - Oct 1st, 2011 12:57 pm
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Joe Johnson, now principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony, returns to play a recital at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

Milwaukee’s musical community hasn’t forgotten Joe Johnson, and Johnson hasn’t forgotten Milwaukee.

Johnson, former principal cellist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, will returnTuesday (Oct. 4) for a recital with pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion.

Everyone in the musical community was sad after the 2009-10 season, when Johnson left the MSO to take the principal’s chair in the Toronto Symphony. Joe — everybody calls him Joe — made a big impression during his three seasons here. He is a fabulous musician, a great colleague, a nice person, and a charming, funny public speaker. Johnson also engaged with the musical community beyond the MSO and thus spread his love for the art all over town. The orchestra still hasn’t filled his spot permanently; Scott Tisdel, long-time associate principal, has served as acting principal cellist since Johnson left. (At Johnson’s farewell recital in 2010, Tisdel told me how much he liked working with Johnson and how disappointed he was at his departure.)

“We’re all getting along very well in Toronto,” Johnson said, in a phone interview Saturday. “The cello section is fantastic, and they’re great colleagues. I’m in my second year, now, and getting to know people. It’s starting to feel like a family. I was warmly welcomed, here, much as I was in Milwaukee. I miss Milwaukee a lot.”

Johnson plans to have a bite to eat with MSO music director Edo de Waart, attend an MSO rehearsal and visit with friends afterwards during his brief stay.

The recital, at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, is one of six in six Midwestern seven frantic days. Johnson, a Chicago native and former member of the Minnesota Orchestra, set up the tour himself. He and Asuncion will play in Chicago, at a cello gathering at Illinois State University (Bloomington-Normal), St. Olaf College, Madison and Minneapolis in addition to Milwaukee.

“It’s a crazy week, but at least we don’t have to fly everywhere,” Johnson said.

The tour was initially to promote sales of a CD he and the pianist recorded in March. As it turns out, production was delayed and the disc isn’t ready. So you won’t be able to buy one at intermission, but Johnson will be happy to take your email address and let you know when you can buy one. The repertoire on the disc: Sonatas by Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise.

That’s not what they’re playing on the tour, though; after intense rehearsals leading up to the recoding, they were ready to move on. The tour program comprises Benjamin Britten’s Cello Sonata, Beethoven’s Theme and Seven Variations on a “Bei mannern” from “The Magic Flute” and Brahms’ Sonata Opus 99.

Ascuncion, the pianist on both the recording and the tour, is based at the University of Memphis. They met through mutual friend — and cello legend — Lynn Harrell. Harrell thought they would be compatible musically, and he was right.

“We just can’t stop playing together,” Johnson said, although he did interrupt their Brahms rehearsal to take my call. “It’s a perfect fit. When we first sat down to play, it was an Ah-Ha moment.”

They have already played recitals in Toronto, at a music festival in Brazil, and at the Sante Fe Chamber Music Festival. Johnson foresees a long collaboration.

True to form, that’s not all Johnson is about beyond the Toronto Symphony. He is eager to pitch into Toronto’s large, active musical community, but work restrictions on an American in Canada have temporarily limited his activities there. So he’s focused more on the U.S. He’s recently played concertos with orchestras in Sacramento, Peoria and Cincinnati. He also serves a principal cellist with the Santa Fe Opera in the summers. Johnson might be most excited about playing the premiere of a new concerto by Peter Oetvos with his home orchestra in Toronto.

Johnson doesn’t really have to do all of that. But this is a musician who loves to make music and does it as much as he possibly can. That and his abiding affection for Milwaukee make me think that Tuesday’s recital won’t be the last we’ve heard of Joe Johnson.

The Johnson-Asuncion recital begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4, at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave. However, the box office of Wisconsin Lutheran College is handling ticket sales; call (414) 443-8802. Tickets are $20, $10 and $5.









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