The Times has described Emma Johnson as ‘Britain’s favourite clarinettist’. Alfred chatted about her forthcoming Shaftesbury concert, where she’ll offer inspiring chats with fellow clarinet players.
Emma is one of the UK’s biggest selling classical artists, with more than half a million album sales. Her recent recording with the BBC Concert Orchestra, English Fantasy, has been listened to more than 600,000 times on Spotify. 94-year old Shaftesbury Fringe performer and tea dance arranger Tony Hawkins has become so enchanted by her playing, he arranged for Emma to star in a fundraising concert for St Peter’s Church and The Children’s Society.
In 1984, Emma’s career was launched when she was named the BBC Young Musician of the Year. “It was watched by an audience of 12 million. It catapulted me into the spotlight,” said Emma. “I was lucky in that it led to all sorts of invitations to perform live, to make recordings and to travel all over the world to play the clarinet to people. I can certainly say it changed my life overnight.”
Twelve years later, in 1996, Her Majesty the Queen presented Emma with an honour. “I was amazed to be given an MBE for services to music,” she said of the recognition for her musical achievements since childhood. She joined the National Youth Orchestra at the age of 15 as a clarinettist. “I’ve always played the piano as well. Sometimes, I remember when I was young, I would more readily go to the piano. I think it was because you didn’t have to get it out of the box. It’s just there,” she laughed. “I’ve always done both, but I suppose, in public, it’s the clarinet.”
Emma told me that the instrument feels like ‘her voice’. “It is rather like singing. It involves the same sort of technique and breath control, whereas the piano is a much more mechanical instrument and you are pressing keys down. I suppose it has all of the interest, it’s wonderful to play, but it’s never quite like singing in the way that a wind instrument is.”
Throughout Emma’s teenage years the saxophone seemed to dominate the world of pop music. In the early and mid-1980s, nearly every chart single featured an instrumental break with a sax solo. The clarinet has never crossed over into pop, although you’ll find the instrument on a few Beatles tracks. “I play a lot of jazz and that’s where clarinet comes into its own, in traditional jazz and people like Benny Goodman in the 1930s,” she said. “Gradually, I suppose it was in the 1950s, the saxophone took over mainly because it is a louder instrument so it could compete with electric guitars and play in a really big venue for pop music. I mostly love classical music and the great solos in that are for the clarinet.”
Emma explained how much she enjoys performing Mozart. There isn’t a piece – classical, jazz or otherwise – that she might play at home but would not perform publicly. “What I tend to find is that I am in love with a piece that I am playing at that particular moment. I just think it is the best piece ever. You feel almost as if you’re putting the case for a piece when you are playing it to an audience. Whether it is Rossini, Beethoven, Bernstein or Gershwin, I always put myself in that frame of mind that I will give it everything. I couldn’t say that I have a favourite piece.”
Emma’s Shaftesbury concert will consist of two, forty-minute performances with an interval in-between. “I have got some lighter pieces in there from West Side Story and there’s music from the Victorian Kitchen Garden, which is very melodic and beautiful. That’s music I was asked to play for a BBC television programme, and it has got very popular,” said Emma. “There’s some jazz at the end. The first half will be beautiful classical music including Mozart, Dvorak and Rossini. It shows the vocal and melodic side of the clarinet.”
Emma says sometimes she receives requests. “People have asked for ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’ which I certainly could do and recently I did a project with some schoolchildren and they asked me to play the music from Harry Potter.”
Emma’s friend, Anthony West, will accompany her. “He is very good and knows lots of different styles of music, so I like working with him and he has a very good sense of humour which helps as well,” said Emma.
Fellow clarinettists will be invited to meet Emma following her performance. The event’s organiser wanted her to pass on encouragement to new players. “Tony Hawkins suggested that, and I think it is a very good idea. If anybody is in the audience who is a clarinettist, they are most welcome to come and have a chat,” she said.
Emma has one broad piece of advice for fellow players. “You have to keep at it. You need to keep doing a little bit, fairly often. But the only way to get yourself to do that is if you keep enjoying it. There’s no point making yourself, so you find it to be drudgery. Try and keep that spark of enjoyment. I think it’s important that the love of music stays there,” she said.
I asked Emma how she would define a good concert from her perspective. “I often feel that I build up a relationship with the audience. It helps if I can tell that they are listening and reacting to the music. It is a two-way thing. You can sense whether you have the audience with you. It’s like having a conversation with somebody. It helps. If you sense that you are all there in the moment, it makes for a special concert. Sometimes people chuckle if it is an amusing piece.”
Emma says that when she performs some tracks people do laugh. “There is music that has a sense of humour. Lots of pieces do. It’s funny how people are surprised about that because they think that music, especially classical, is serious or tragic. A lot of it is light and witty,” said Emma. “There is a piece that I play with my group by Johann Strauss who wrote waltzes. It’s called the Champagne Polka and we always get a giggle when we play it because, at surprising moments, you get the sound of a champagne bottle being opened. There are a lot of ways that music can make you laugh.”
Emma performs on Saturday 28th March at St Peter’s Church. To book tickets, telephone 01747 851615 or send an email to email@example.com.