Cellist Johnson to perform at Carysbrook

By Page H. Gifford

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Carysbrook Performing Arts Center presents Cello Virtuosa: Celebrating Women Composers with a concert by Emma Hays Johnson on March 23, at 7 p.m.

Johnson grew up in Fluvanna, and local residents may remember her from frequent gigs at local coffee shops and civic events during her teen years including a memorable performance of the Rutter Requiem with the Piedmont Virginia Community College Chorus under the direction of Jeff Suling.

The cello had been viewed as a heavy, awkward instrument musicians had to lug around but it was YoYo Ma who made the cello into a sensation, and it was Ma who inspired Johnson at an early age when she saw him playing on Sesame Street. She began playing at eleven.

“I think the biggest misconception about the cello is that people will say or think that they are unmusical and therefore couldn’t learn an instrument, but I think anyone can learn. There are a lot of incredible professional and non-professional musicians out there that didn’t have any natural talent but practiced and worked hard to become successful and you can too if that’s what you want,” she said. “I love that it continues to challenge me. There will always be new pieces and techniques to learn. I also love playing music with friends.”

“The cello is said to be the instrument that is closest to the human voice, and it also has a very large range from low notes to high notes. In addition to this, I have never heard anyone say that they don’t like the cello, but I can’t say that’s the case for every instrument.”

Her favorite piece is the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor.

“Brahms is probably my favorite composer, and the last movement of this piece has a melody that tugs on my heartstrings.”

Those who take up stringed instruments, like the cello or violin have to have a touch, artistry, and a skill. Many people have influenced Johnson and her style. Her cello teacher from her undergraduate days is Ken Law, who she says is a superb performer and teacher.

“He helped me lay down a solid foundation of technique in my playing, getting over my stage fright, and developing my artistic voice.” As for other cellists, she says she loves listening to Jacqueline Du Pre and Rostropovich. “They are both very expressive players. I look up to Yo-Yo Ma and his ability to play in so many different styles of music like new age bluegrass music, traditional Chinese folk music, tangos, and of course classical. I also really enjoy listening to Steven Isserlis, Sol Gabetta, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason.”

There is a creative side to playing music that sometimes is not recognized until it is performed but takes place during the process of practicing. Johnson has her method of interpreting the composers’ story and translating it into music.

“I will first sit down to practice the piece to get a sense of what the composer was trying to say and then I will come up with my ideas about what I want to say with the piece. After this, I usually try to listen to many different cellists playing the piece to get more ideas and then I will play it for a couple of colleagues to get their input and feedback as well.”

Like any musician, it’s not just practicing, there are other challenges.

“One of the biggest challenges of being a cellist for me is having to wear many hats in addition to practicing, playing concerts, and teaching,” she said. “For example, making my website, doing administrative work like scheduling, advertising on social media for upcoming concerts, etc. There is a lot to learn; freelancing musicians are essentially business owners and entrepreneurs.” Gigs, what musicians have always called freelancing, require constant promotion.

All performers have memorable moments while performing and Johnson shared one of hers after the pandemic.

“I have so many, but one that sticks out is the first concert I had with a live audience after the pandemic. For a while in Maryland, chamber music organizations and orchestras were mostly doing livestream concerts so being back in the concert hall with a live audience felt energizing and inspiring.”

For anyone considering the cello, Johnson says, “You won’t have any regrets Be patient with yourself as you are learning, there is rarely instant gratification, but the satisfaction you get when you do finish a new piece or learn how to express yourself on the instrument is incredible. And for me, the best part is when you also get to play music with friends.”

For more information and tickets visit www.carysbrook.org.

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