How many rock stars can say they’ve performed in a sold-out stadium as well as on a mountain top and inside a cave? High school band students, take note: Picking the cello over other less, um, gigantic instruments might have its drawbacks, but it could lead to an impressively unique career. Joseph Johnson took the road less traveled (the cello) and now he’s the principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a position he’s held since the 2009/2010 season. These days, he makes his music on a badass Juan Guillami cello, crafted in 1747 in Barcelona. What does a 267-year-old cello sound like? Why not stop by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to find out, or check out Johnson’s latest album with pianist Victor Asuncion, featuring the Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich Sonatas. When he’s not in Toronto or playing concerts around the world, the Chicago native is also the principal cellist of the Santa Fe Opera.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What should people know?
I’m the Principal Cellist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and also have a busy solo/chamber music life outside of Toronto. I have lived here for about five years now. I grew up in Chicago, so being here is great as the two cities are very similar. I am addicted to travel, and am also a huge basketball fan. I live in the downtown area with my partner and our 12 year-old Weimaraner, Lucy.
How and why did you decide to pick up the cello and why’d you stick to it?
I started playing the piano at age 5, and cello at age 9 through the public school system. (I actually played violin for two weeks, but it hurt my neck so I switched to the cello). I loved it immediately, even though the instrument at the time was the same height as I was. I walked to school, so I remember dragging the cello through the snow, holding the scroll and pulling it behind me. The thought of that now makes me cringe!
How did you wind up pursuing the cello professionally and where has it taken you?
I knew I wanted to play the cello for a living probably by the time I was 13. By 15 I was ready to leave for college, but had to wait. I feel very lucky to be paid to travel the world and play music. When I’m done with my ‘job’, people applaud. How nice is that? The cello has taken me to the most unbelievable places that I would not have had the opportunity to see otherwise. I’ve played most of the great concert halls in North America, Europe, Asia, five tours of Russia, South America, played many times at Carnegie Hall, The Proms in London, palaces, for politicians, European royalty, private homes, concerts in wine cellars, caves, on top of mountains, in packed 20,000 seat stadiums, in front of the General Assembly at the United Nations, on a beach with my electric cello, with major classical and pop stars, etc., etc., etc. It’s kind of incredible when I stop to think about it. It’s a great way to meet people, learn new cultures, new cuisines, new languages, new approaches to music. I can’t imagine doing anything else, really. Except perhaps playing in the NBA… but I’m way too short.
Tell us the story of your Juan Guillami cello.
I love my cello. It’s 267 years-old! Old instruments are just amazing, and you can’t replicate the sound an old instrument makes unless it is actually old. I found this instrument by word of mouth. I was told it was in New York, being sold privately. I flew out there, as I was looking for a “new” cello. The cello was a complete disaster, totally out of shape. It hadn’t been played in over a decade, and needed a lot of repair/work that the owner was unwilling to spend the money for. I could tell that there was something about the instrument that was special, but couldn’t take the risk of buying it, spending a ton of money on repairs, and then not liking it. I walked away. Two months later I received a phone call, telling me that the owner had done the work and was willing to fly it out to me. (I was in the States at the time). I picked it up at the airport at 8am, and after about five seconds I knew we were meant for each other. I purchased it by noon, which is crazy, but I just knew. I had been looking for a cello for about a year and a half, so this wasn’t impulsive. I still love it to this day – it completely fits my personality.
You are an avid cook and love exploring restaurants. What have been some of your favourites around the world?
I think most serious musicians are also serious eaters. Food is art. (Good food, I should say.) I truly feel sorry for people that eat bland food and won’t try what’s out there. Chefs are artists as well, so I never go to a restaurant and ask them to change the way they cook their menu. That would be like someone coming to one of my concerts and asking me to play the Bach Suite in a certain way before they’ve even heard it. I’m on the road a lot (17-25 weeks a year), which gives me the opportunity to try different cuisines and restaurants. Some of my faves: Chiado in Toronto, Makoto in Washington, DC (the best Japanese restaurant I have ever been to, even after four trips to Japan!), Lou Malnati’s Pizza in Chicago, Santa Cafe in Santa Fe, and Oficina do Sabor in Olinda, Brazil.
What are three things that are always in your carry-on, excluding your cello?
Three things always in my carry-on are a good book, my Bose Noise-Cancelling headphones for the airplane (I’m the guy that is always next to the screaming baby), and a back-up paper schedule so I know what I’m doing and where I’m going.
Tell us about your involvement in the Toronto Public Library’s Keep Toronto Reading Festival, which wraps tonight?
The Public Library evening is fun for me, as along with the Albinoni Adagio, I performed the 1st Bach Cello Suite. It’s a very uplifting Suite, and certainly one of my favourite pieces of solo repertoire to play.
Let’s get social for a mo’. How can people stay up-to-date with your busy life?