Who or what inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career in music?
My parents have a music school, Harpenden Musicale, where we grew up. Music was always going on around the house and inevitably it rubbed off on me and my siblings. The cello has been there as long as I can remember and I simply can’t imagine life without it. We would try all sorts of instruments in the music shop (where my grandmother worked until she was around 90 years old!), but the cello kept my attention most. One day we were in our local town and a lady came up to my mother and started to chat. I didn’t really recognise her and she asked how I was getting on with my new cello teacher. I responded enthusiastically, “Oh, much better than the last”, only to discover that she was my previous teacher! The real turning point was when I was 16 and went to Tanglewood in the States for 8 weeks. I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform each week with soloists from all over the world and heard many great chamber concerts. I enjoyed this experience so much that when I returned home I worked harder than ever and two years later won the BBC Young Musician competition.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I was fortunate to study with teachers from the same musical tradition, including Nicholas Jones at Chetham’s, Steven Doane at the Eastman School of Music in the States, and Steven Isserlis and David Waterman at IMS Prussia Cove. All of these mentors studied with a wonderfully eccentric musical guru called Jane Cowan at the London Cello Centre and later at her home in Scotland. She was a formidable influence on all of them and her wisdom lives on. Their influence has been so infectious that I now play on covered gut strings and I often hear them on my shoulders when I’m working with students at the Royal Academy of Music. I also studied privately with Ralph Kirshbaum, Bernard Greenhouse and have more recently been playing Bach for Anner Bylsma.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I was catapulted into the profession from the age of 19 and the biggest challenge early on in my career was learning repertoire for the first time for important concerts. For example, I remember performing the Walton Concerto live on radio which was the first time I’d performed it with orchestra, but I’ve also performed the Elgar Concerto live on TV opening the BBC Proms in 2001 and broke a string during the live final of the BBC competition! These were immense challenges, as was premiering a new cello Concerto by Charlotte Bray at the Proms. But one thrives off these opportunities and it’s what continues to spur you on every day to learn from the past, live in the present, and dream for the future.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
My debut recital CD with Kathryn Stott is a happy memory, although I haven’t listened to it for years. The disc includes 3 British composers; Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten and Mark Anthony Turnage. I’m Godfather to Mark’s son, Milo, and we recorded a piece that Mark wrote for Milo’s christening alongside the Sonata of Bridge and Britten. Kathy’s experience is so vast that being my first recording I was grateful to have her guidance and support throughout. I’m now greatly looking forward to releasing this latest CD – it has captured my current journey and has lots of variety on the disc including works by Barrière, Beethoven, Respighi and 3 new commissions.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I like to think I’m performing whatever music is in front of me as best I can. It’s hard to answer this question, but I give everything to whatever music I’m communicating in the moment. Premiering a new work is always thrilling because nobody can compare it to another performance and everyone is hearing it for the first time. This is always refreshing and alive. On the other hand, performing the Bach Suites or Beethoven Sonatas is quite terrifying because not only are these works revered by cellists, but they are also so well known and often performed.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Some things are planned and others are asked for by promoters. As the years go by, there are certain works I’m more and more keen to get round to performing. For example, works like the Grieg and Franck Sonatas.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I’ve been fortunate to perform in many great concert halls in London, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, but I think that the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is a particularly special hall. There’s so much history there and the setting and acoustic is a real inspiration to all musicians. I also like the Birmingham Symphony Hall and Bridgewater Hall. If only London could get a new concert hall, although we are lucky with the Wigmore Hall!
Who are your favourite musicians?
I grew up listening to many cellists from Casals to Tortelier, Rostropovich, Du Pré, Fournier, Feuermann etc etc and then living cellists including Yo Yo Ma, Truls Mørk and Steven Isserlis. What an incredible crop from the past and present! I think artists like these have helped to inspire the current generation of cellists that have been emerging in recent years. I also grew up listening to the Beaux Art Trio, Amadeus Quartet and, on the other side of the spectrum, to Sting! Now one can turn to YouTube and not only hear, but also see all these unique artists in action, which is a pleasure to tap into from time to time.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I think it was when I was a member of the National Youth Orchestra performing Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony with Rostropovich at the helm at the BBC Proms. That concert knocked all of us youngsters sideways! There are a few particularly special experiences that I can think of. One other I could mention was performing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time in the Concertgebouw with Michael Collins, Kathryn Stott and Isabelle van Keulen when I was 20 years old. This was a great honour, to perform such an extraordinary work with musicians I looked up to in this setting at the beginning of my career.
What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians?
I think you need to find music from deep within you. Parents, teachers and friends are a big part of your development, but you need to love what you do if it is going to be sustainable in the future. Have fun, read music with friends, work hard and find a teacher who you connect with. Concentrate during your practice session, particularly if schoolwork is taking up much time (and not least sport!). Know what you need to work on and improve. Be patient – this is not a sprint, but a marathon and with daily practice and commitment with the right sort of guidance you will feed off the improvements and be motivated to continue to develop as an artist and a musician. Listen to lots of music and influences, go to concerts and read about composers’ lives. Enjoy your music making and don’t be too hard on yourself. Forget how you’ve learnt things when you go on stage and liberate yourself to live in the moment.
Guy Johnston is one of the most exciting British cellists of his generation. His early successes included winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year, the Shell London Symphony Orchestra Gerald MacDonald Award and a Classical Brit. He has performed with many leading international orchestras including the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, NHK Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony, Britten Sinfonia, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, Moscow Philharmonic and St Petersburg Symphony under conductors such as Illan Volkov, Sakari Oramo, Vassily Sinaisky, Yuri Simonov, Alexander Dmitriev, Sir Roger Norrington, Robin Ticciati, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Sir Andrew Davis, Leonard Slatkin, Daniele Gatti.