On Thursday, 13 April 2017, “internationally acclaimed clarinettist, recitalist, chamber musician, recording artist and lecturer” Emma Johnson will be joining OOTS for an evening of sublime 18th century music in the Forum Theatre, Malvern. Although in the middle of a busy concert schedule, Emma was kind enough to carry out the following interview, via email.
There don’t appear to be many famous classical clarinettists in the world (indeed, at any one point in time). Is this because of the lack of mainstream repertoire – especially, say, compared to that for the piano or violin?
The solo repertoire for violin and for piano is far larger than that of any of the woodwind instruments, and that is why the clarinet is usually considered an orchestral instrument. When you are nine years old and picking an instrument to play, you don’t know these things. But once it became clear I wanted to be a musician, it was naturally assumed I would try to play in an orchestra.
However, I gradually discovered that the solo clarinet repertoire is richer than people realize: spanning from Mozart, Weber, Brahms and Schumann, to Finzi, Poulenc, Copland and many modernists; as well as playing a pivotal role in jazz. There is, in fact, ample material for a clarinet soloist; and I have expanded the repertoire, too: by making arrangements and transcriptions, and commissioning new pieces.
In addition, winning BBC Young Musician at the age of 17 allowed me to think differently, and to develop my clarinet playing so that it had the variety and range of a solo recitalist. Because of the opportunities the competition opened up to play solo, it enabled me to realize a vision I had of how a solo clarinettist could be.
A few months ago, I interviewed Laura van der Heijden, who won BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2012: and wondered – looking back at your career, so far – how important you think winning that competition was for you, in 1984? Do you think talent will out; or that such competitions are necessary in establishing yourself as as soloist?
Winning BBC Young Musician was vital: because it enabled me to follow a more soloistic path with the clarinet, rather than a more conventional orchestral career. It is possible that this might have happened without the competition; but I am not naturally a very pushy person, so it might easily not have happened!
I think such competitions are necessary in the process of finding soloists: because they can favour those who are not already well-connected.
You’re playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the orchestra. This work must be the foundation of any classical clarinettist’s career, I suppose. Do you think you will ever get tired of playing it? (I never get tired of listening to it!)
And, staying with the Mozart: there are some slow movements – that of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto; the famous Adagio sostenuto of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, for instance – but especially the Adagio of Mozart’s concerto, being composed so close to his death – that I find so moving – that I struggle to understand how the performers reach the end without turning into quivering wrecks. Just how do you keep your composure?
It is an emotional experience to play the slow movement of the Mozart concerto; and if the performer doesn’t feel that, then neither will the audience. The lively music of the third movement then snaps you out of that sadness; and, like an actor, you have to learn to manipulate your emotions so they express the work of art you are performing. I sometimes draw upon life experiences, such as bereavements, or I conjure up mental pictures, to help access the right mood for a given passage of music.
You are right that one never tires of the Mozart: because it is one of those examples of pure beauty in art. In some ways, because it is so venerated, it feels quite a responsibility to play it for people. Interestingly, it wasn’t always revered – when it was first played with the Hallé Orchestra in the 19th century, people found it overly long and repetitive!
Will you be playing with your standard Peter Eaton ‘A’ clarinet, or the basset clarinet you had made, I think, especially for a recording of the work? (Listening to your recordings side-by-side, the basset clarinet, to me, has a much warmer, expressive – even more human, ‘singing’ – sound; with a much ‘grittier’ chalumeau.)
I shall be playing the normal ‘A’ clarinet: because I find it makes a bigger sound than the basset – which will suit the big hall at Malvern. Unfortunately, the original manuscript of the Mozart concerto is lost, anyway (the dedicatee, Stadler, is said to have pawned it!) – so, although we know the piece would, in the first few performances, have been played on a basset, there is no definitive, authoritative text showing exactly how the version for basset clarinet worked. The most authoritative text is the first printed edition: which was already written out only for the standard clarinet.
How do you find working with the Orchestra of the Swan – who you’ve performed the Mozart with before?
I love to work with the Orchestra of the Swan: because they play with such intelligence and spirit. We played the Finzi concerto not too long ago: and the string playing was the best I have ever heard in that piece.
Máté Hámori (the conductor for the concert) is a new name to me. How do you approach working with new conductors – especially when you’re performing a work you know so well?
Each conductor is different; and you have to see how they want to rehearse. Sometimes, they only allow time for a basic run-through of the concerto. Other times, they are very keen to rehearse details. The soloist must be very flexible! In the case of the Mozart, it is very much like chamber music: and how the orchestral players respond directly to the sound of the clarinet is very important, too.
As I have played the Mozart with OOTS a number of times, the piece will come together very quickly; and then it is a question of deciding how we want it to go on this particular occasion: i.e. choosing tempi that will work in the acoustic, and working out how to get the range of moods to come across optimally in those surroundings.
Did you have any musical heroes or idols, growing up, who inspired you? I must admit, that, until the cassette finally snapped, I used to carry a recording of the Mozart concerto and quintet played by Jack Brymer everywhere! You studied with him, I believe, whilst at Cambridge?
Yes, Jack Brymer was an inspirational figure. I was fortunate to have lessons with him: and he was a very natural player, so I learnt a lot from hearing him play, as well as from things he said. I have always been keen to carry on the English tradition he was part of: involving a very vocal way of clarinet playing, that is akin to singing, where notes are voiced in different parts of the head and chest.
I also admired recordings of Benny Goodman, when I was growing up – in both classical and jazz. I was amazed, when, in 1986, a message came via my record company that Goodman would like to meet me on his forthcoming tour to the UK. Very sadly, he died just before the tour took place.
Are there any works that you would love to perform publicly, that you’ve never had the chance to; or any composers you would like the chance to commission?
One of the most skilful composers of our age is the film composer, John Williams. It would be great if he wrote a clarinet piece! I have just made a recording of concertos written for me by four wonderful composers: Will Todd, John Dankworth, Paul Reade and Patrick Hawes. All are great additions to the repertoire.
I hope to persuade more orchestras to take on more unfamiliar repertoire that I know the audience will respond to. It would be nice to regain the audience’s trust in new music.
Was there ever any other instrument in your life; or that you wished you could play – and for any specific reason (or piece of music)?
I love to play Bach on the piano. The clarinet hadn’t been invented, yet, when he was alive. But playing the piano is my favourite way to start my clarinet practice sessions!
Finally – and I admit that venues such as Malvern on a Thursday evening can exaggerate this – with classical music audiences often appearing a sea of grey heads from the stage (often including mine). What do you see as its future? Is there any one thing that will ensure its healthy survival long into the future?
Yes, there has been a contraction of audiences: because people are not educated about classical music at school, and by the media, in the same way that they once were. But I feel sure that there will always be a hard core of supporters for this artform: which represents some of the greatest and most satisfying manifestations of human expression.