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Come Back, Joe Johnson

MSO cellist on leave in Toronto

Aug. 25, 2010
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The personable, good-looking Joe Johnson, principal cellist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, is a relaxed, chatty conversationalist. Johnson recently won an audition with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and has taken a one-year leave of absence to check it out. Here’s hoping we don’t lose him.

Are you coming back to Milwaukee?

That’s the million-dollar question. The opportunity presented itself—Toronto’s a great city and a great international orchestra. It would be silly to not go. It’s really difficult for me because I love it here—it’s a great city and a great orchestra and it’s not as if I was in a situation I wanted to get out of. It would be so easy to not go. I have been in orchestra for 16 years, since I was 21, so I know what I want and do not want, so it will really have to be a good deal in Toronto for me to stay.

Are you saying that this might be a step toward becoming a soloist?

No. Everyone is interested in a child prodigy and I am not 15 anymore. I’m not really interested in moving around a lot and am not interested in being a big soloist. I like staying at home and being in my own city, as long as I have a few solo opportunities, which I have now. Toronto is a bigger city—they do international concerts as well as Carnegie Hall. The financial situation will also be good, so I need to check it out. However, I do not like living in a big city such as New York or Chicago or being in a “Big Five” orchestra playing in a huge hall.

Why not?

Because they work too much. They play all year long. In Milwaukee and Toronto you have the summers off. I want to lead a nice, well-rounded life with time off to do the things I like. I am not in it for the fame and acclaim.

How did you feel about the solo performances you gave in Milwaukee, and the duo stint you did with Yo-Yo Ma?

It was great. A cellist does not get solo chances very much. I met Yo-Yo when I was 17—amazing musician; my idol for many years. He had asked me if I had an encore solo that we both could perform. It turned out great.

Do you care to make a comparison between past and present MSO music directors, Andreas Delfs and Edo De Waart?

Delfs is more passionate in his outward motions where Edo is more inward, more subtle. Still, I thought from the first day of rehearsal that the Mahler Eighth with Delfs was one of the best concerts I was ever a part of in all the time I was in orchestra—so incredibly intense.

You are still on the sunny side of 40. Can you see yourself doing something else?

I was a late bloomer, not a child prodigy. As you get older it’s harder to play. If my playing were going down, I would not continue to play cello forever—I’d pursue other interests, do something different. I have played all the great symphonies and sometimes I do get antsy for something different.

Do you think the symphony is well supported in Milwaukee?

I think the symphony plays a lot better than its pay scale. One of the biggest problems facing the orchestra is the hall. Uihlein Hall is an all-purpose hall and the players on the far right cannot always hear the far left. Edo has said that we only hear 60% of the music. We have a world-class orchestra, but only a mediocre hall. Having Edo here increases prestige and awareness, and the orchestra should have a large symphony hall. 


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