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CD Review/Interview: Toronto Symphony Orchestra principal cello Joseph Johnson's big day

By John Terauds on March 7, 2012

Toronto Symphony Orchestra principal cello Joseph Johnson (Bo Huang photo)

It’s a Very Important Day for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s principal cello, Joseph Johnson.

It starts with the launch of his impressive début CD of sonatas by Sergei Rachmaninov and Dmitri Shostakovich, and closes with the North American premiere of Peter Eötvös Cello Concerto Grosso at the final concert of the Toronto Symphony’s New Creations festival at Roy Thomson Hall.

For details regarding tonight’s concert, click here. Note that $10 tickets are available, with the promotional code NEW.

First, a review of the CD, self-produced by Johnson and Asuncion (the album is on sale at Roy Thomson Hall, and the cellist says it should soon be available on iTunes, Amazon and independent shops).

Rachmaninov and Shostakovich Cello Sonatas (Independent)

In short, this is a sensually and musically satisfying album that begs to be played over and over again.

Joseph Johnson and Memphis-based Filipino-American pianist Victor Asuncion have whipped up the equivalent of blintzes and caviar in this all-Russian programme of two substantial sonatas for cello and piano, topped with a dollop of rich cream in the form of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vocalise.

Only 33 years separate the Moscow premieres of these two sonatas — Rachmaninov’s had its premiere in December, 1901, while Dmitri Shostakovich’s was given on Christmas Day in 1934 — but their sensibilities are completely different. The first is a wallowing, warm milk bath of rich, late-Romantic harmonies, while the latter is more of a trip to a sauna, followed by a bracing dip in cold water.

Both pieces establish equal partnership between cello and piano that demands both participants engage fully with each other.

This is where Johnson and Asuncion really shine. Their work is so inseparable in phrasing, attitude and timbre that it sounds as if they must have been breathing together as they played these pieces.

Asuncion has a fleet, velvety way with the piano keyboard that matches up beautifully with Johnson’s silken bowing. Both interpreters are keen to draw out long arcs of phrasing that give the music a natural momentum. They make it sound so easy,   all we have to is bend over and sniff the sweet perfume of their musical blooms.

The Rachmaninov sonata has rarely sounded so beguiling. Even the Shostakovich work, written before the composer ran afoul of Stalinist sensibilities, gets remarkably rounded corners and softened edges.

Listeners who want dripping viscera with their Russian music may not be pleased. But anyone seeking kinder, gentler means to soothe the savage breast of our busy times need look no further.


I had a chance to sit down with Johnson last week to talk about the CD and ask how this magical connection with Asuncion had come to be.

Asuncion has been accompanying the dean of great American cellists, Lynn Harrell, for 12 years. As Johnson tells it, Harrell had been trying to set up a musical partnership between the two for some time. Two summers ago, both Johnson and Asuncion had been invited to perform at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in New Mexico and finally had a chance to meet.

“We instantly hit it off personally,” Johnson recalls. They sat down to play through the Rachmaninov sonata and knew instantly they had to work together.

“This was the best experience I’d ever had with a pianist,” says the cellist. “If we think it, it happens in the other person. It’s one of those rare relationships where you meet somebody and you’re exactly on the same page.”

The duo has played recitals together since meeting and tried to get a label interested in an album, but a promised contract fell though. So they funded Johnson’s début album themselves.

“Never again, because we’re broke,” laughs the cellist. He says the duo will try to do some fundraising before they tackle the next recording project, which they hope will be a disc of sonatas by Claude Debussy, César Franck and Francis Poulenc.

Johnson wrote the album’s liner notes himself. Rather than explaining the history of the pieces, he decided to describe the adventures behind the Minneapolis-made recording.

Two days before leaving for Minnesota’s capital, Johnson arrived at Roy Thomson Hall for a Toronto Symphony rehearsal. He opened his cello case, his cello — made in 1747 by Spanish master Juan Guillami — fell out, its neck snapped off and rolled away along the floor.

“I fell to the ground, sobbing,” the cellist recalls. “I had half the cello section picking me off the ground, and the other half of the cello section picking up the neck and the strings and the bridge that was over here and the pegs, which were over there, and (cellist) Kirk Worthington putting them into a Starbucks bag.”

(Cellist) Winona Zelenka ran to the phone to call the one place in town that could fix the instrument, and the TSO minivan  whisked Johnson and his bits of cello off to the shop.

A clean break and the expertise of Toronto’s Ric Heinl meant that Johnson was able to get his instrument back a few hours before his flight, with cautions from Heinl that it was a temporary fix, and that he should be very careful.

Johnson got sick and the pair met up in Minneapolis during a March cold snap.

“We got to the hall and realized that the lights buzzed and the heater made a hum, so we had to turn off all the lights and the heat, and bring in floor lamps,” Johnson recalls. “So it was really dark and freezing, because the hall was not insulated.”

“It was hilarious,” he exclaims, setting the scene. “I’m playing a cello with a neck I’m hoping won’t break off, I’ve got Kleenex all around me on the floor. It was freezing, so we had to get the piano tuned twice a day…”

Johnson pauses to smile.

“But it came out great. A lot of love went into the recording.”

That was a year ago.

Back Toronto, Heinl’s workshop was able to carve a new neck for the cello. Johnson is planning more recital work with Asuncion — including a tour of Northern Ontario next season — and he is salivating about his next big solo turn with the Toronto Symphony.

Johnson says he has always wanted to play Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote with a great orchestra. “Strauss is my favourite composer. Its perfect for me. I could play it tomorrow. I’m ready,” he smiles.

He put in his request early, shortly after being hired as principal cello for the start of last season, and was placed in a programme that will be led by former TSO music director, Sir Andrew Davis, who is a bit of a Strauss specialist.

“It’s in late November,” says Johnson. “I’m also lucky because we’re doing three concerts. I’m like a pig in slop. I can’t wait.”

John Terauds

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