By Inge Kjemtrup
Photos by Musacchio
It’s a Wednesday morning in February, and cellist Guy Johnston and pianist Tom Poster are on the stage at London’s Wigmore Hall. They’ve just finished playing a new piece by Charlotte Bray and now they’re listening intently to a disembodied voice—that of recording engineer Andrew Keene—coming to them over the sound system. It has a request: “Can I check a pitch? That C sharp at the top?” Johnston plays the note, which is in a tight cluster of notes high up on the fingerboard. “Nice,” says Keene, approvingly. Another try at a delicate quiet section leaves both performers looking satisfied, but Keene asks to check something again.
Poster stretches at the piano bench. It’s been a long morning. The recording engineer walks out to the stage. Should they run the entire piece through again? Johnston rubs his eyes. “Decisions, decisions . . . .” They vote for another play-through.
Afterward, a delighted Charlotte Bray embraces Johnston. Her piece, Perseus, is one of three works commissioned by Johnston to honor the 300th birthday of his David Tecchler cello. While the project is happening a bit later than the actual 300th birthday—Tecchler made the cello in 1714—it has become quite ambitious, with concerts, a journey to Rome, and these recording sessions.
“It’s tricky to write a gift to a 300-year-old cello!” Bray admits. Her idea became to work the structure of her piece around the letters of Tecchler’s name. She and the other commissioned composers, Mark Simpson and David Matthews, “came up with completely different solutions and it’s really fascinating,” says Johnston. On the resulting CD, the new works are sandwiched between Barrière’s Duo for cello (with rising star Sheku Kanneh-Mason), Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio (with Johnston’s violinist brother Magnus and pianist Tom Poster), Ola Gjeilo’s O Magnum Mysterium (with the King’s College Choir conducted by Stephen Cleobury), and Respighi’s Adagio con Variazioni (Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Carlo Rizzari).
The Tecchler300 project has seen Guy give concerts and record in Rome, as well as at King’s College Cambridge, the Marble Hall at Hatfield House where he runs a music festival, and at Wigmore Hall—all places that have had personal meaning for the 36-year-old British cellist.
Guy Johnston is known in Britain for his victory at the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2000 and also for what happened during that nationally televised competition: in the heat of his performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, his A string broke.
“We used to go try all sorts of instruments out and the cello stuck with me—I enjoyed twirling it around!”
“It was funny because I’d had dreams about this happening,” he recalls. “I remember saying to the principal cello that if it does happen, I’m going to come and grab his cello. And it happened quite early on in the first movement, and there was no chance, because the orchestra had stopped playing at that point and it was just me. It was very obvious.” The 18-year-old Johnston kept his composure, went offstage to replace the string, and returned to finish his performance (you can find this incident, with Johnston’s later commentary, on YouTube).
Johnston is similarly calm and composed when I meet him at the Royal Academy of Music in London where he teaches. He’s ready with a laugh and a self-deprecating remark. He was brought up in Harpenden, Herefordshire, some 30 miles to the north of London, where his parents ran a music school and shop. “We used to go try all sorts of instruments and the cello stuck with me—I enjoyed twirling it around!” he says. There was a brief foray into playing a brass instrument when the school’s wind band needed a tubist: “Dad found this rusty old tuba, this horrific thing, and he claimed to have dug it up from the garden. I believed him. I played it for a little while and a year later, I found out that he was telling me a white lie to get me to play it,” says a mock-horrified Johnston.
At age eight, Johnston followed his older brothers, Magnus and Rupert, into King’s College Cambridge, to be a member of the famous choir there, which is known worldwide for its Christmas Eve broadcast “Nine Lessons and Carols.” It was the center of his life from age eight to 14. “Those were some of the most wonderful, formative years of training in terms of singing in this iconic place and this amazing musical tradition.” His cello teacher then, Amanda Truelove, drew upon his singing background, telling him to “sing the parts.”
The three brothers took different routes after King’s, with Johnston choosing Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, a school that looks as if it’s auditioning to be a Harry Potter set with its 15th-century Baronial Hall and library. “There was lots of opportunity to pace yourself through a performance and internal competitions. It was a competitive environment yet it was also like family,” he says. “I remember when I went to the States, people said, ‘You went to boarding school? Did your parents want to get rid of you?’ Because it’s a very different mindset, isn’t it?” I assure him that Americans are familiar with the concept of boarding schools, through the Harry Potter movies if nothing else.
Post Chetham’s and after a summer at the Tanglewood Festival, Johnston went to the Eastman School of Music to study with Steven Doane. Johnston remembers Doane as the kind of teacher who insists that his pupils should learn to question everything: “Why do you do that? What’s it say in the score? Vibrato shouldn’t be an automatic part of the sound! And ‘cellist!’—that was the worst. It was all about wanting to get beyond the instrument and to a place where you focus on the music, not just about playing the cello.”
Perhaps because of his study with Doane, Johnston seems to have regarded the BBC competition as a bit of a distraction: “If I had it my way, I would have pulled out of the competition, but Steven and my parents had obviously already spoken and decided it was a good thing I was taking part.” Maybe Johnston had some sixth sense that being thrown into the spotlight after such a notable victory would have its challenges: “On the one hand you’re developing, but you’re developing in the spotlight. That brings with it different complexities when you’re young and still trying to find your voice and your understanding. But on the other hand it’s great just to be getting out there and having these experiences, and failing and succeeding along the way.”
What he couldn’t have foreseen is what happened on a return flight to London when his cello, though transported in a special case in the hold, was smashed to pieces. And so he found himself borrowing instruments. He made his BBC Proms debut of the Elgar Concerto with a Stradivari he’d been loaned. He borrowed a Francesco Ruggeri for two years, with which he made a debut recital disc, Milo, with pianist Kathryn Stott and featuring the music of Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten, and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Reviews were good (“a beautiful album” said The Observer), and by then his search for an instrument was seriously under way, only ending when a consortium of friends and supporters, and then the Royal Society of Musicians, brought him to the Tecchler.
All this eventually sparked the Tecchler300 project, which took on an added dimension when Johnston and his supporters decided to find where Tecchler had made his cello. Could the building, on the Via dei Leutari, still be standing? Indeed it was, and as a bonus, the building across the street turned out to be where Rossini composed The Barber of Seville. The resulting concert, in what is now a private garage, featured a string quartet by Rossini. “It was amazing—it was like it was meant to be,” says Johnston.
“I think the Rome project was a celebration of lots of things coming together at this junction of my life,” he says. His musical life, since his BBC Young Musician success, has included a plentitude of solo work, stints as a principal player in orchestras such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw, chamber music, and teaching—an exploration he has enjoyed. “[One’s] mid-thirties are an interesting time: You’ve got those years of early success and you’ve got to sustain your musical life,” he says. Fortunately for his Tecchler, Johnston seems capable of doing just that—for them both.