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It is always special for an orchestra to have an extraordinary artist perform a concerto, but when a member of the orchestra steps out front, there can be an extra sense of anticipation. Such was the case last night when Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Cellist Joseph Johnson performed the most beloved cello concerto of the entire symphonic repertoire at Roy Thomson Hall

​Johnson, who has been with the TSO for ten years was not shy to admit his love for Dvořák’s iconic work. He told me in conversation that it is a must for every cellist to learn and perform, whether in auditions, with piano, or with orchestra. Johnson said that he grew up with the work, trying to learn it before he was ready, then putting it away only to bring it out again when his technique had reached a new level. He has performed it at every audition and with orchestras around the world. He said that the work is a lifelong learning process.

Roberta Janzen and Alastair Eng, members of the TSO cello section introduced the concert program by reinforcing those words of Johnson. Janzen told the story of how Johnson, on the TSO’s overseas tour a few years ago, went up to the statue of Dvořák in Prague and thanked the composer for his gift to cellists everywhere.

Johnson’s career is multi-faceted, and when pressed, said he couldn’t decide to choose among his varied roles as solo artist, chamber musician, symphonic performer, university professor and opera orchestra performer. His love of opera has taken him recently to Santa Fe where he is Principal Cellist of the Santa Fe Opera during the summer months. Nevertheless, he has made Toronto and Canada his home and has applied for Canadian citizenship. Johnson says it will be an emotional moment when it is granted to him.

Joining Johnson at the front of the orchestra last night was the young guest conductor Aziz Shokhakimov. Shokhakimov grew up in Uzbekistan as a child prodigy and made his conducting debut at age 13 with the National Symphony Orchestra of Uzbekistan. In the 18 years since, his conducting skills have taken him to some of the major orchestras of Europe winning major conducting awards along the way. This was his second TSO appearance and the orchestra responded to his energetic approach that was evident even as he walked, or should I say skipped to the podium to start the program.

The concert opened with a heartfelt performance of Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau” from Mávlast. The opening flutes with violin pizzicato simulated the gurgling brook that would become the mighty river. I loved the way Shokhakimov shaped the famous melody when it came in. Later, the shimmering strings with harp and woodwinds had a special beauty. Later still, it was in the warmth of the lower brass that gradually built to a climactic moment when trumpets and full orchestra signalled the arrival of the main theme again. The Bohemian spirit of the work provided the perfect overture feeling for the main event of the first half.

Anton Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 was by the reaction of the audience the reason many came to this concert. There are so many moments in the music that are memorable beginning with the long orchestral introduction that builds from the clarinet opening to a full orchestra version of the opening theme followed by a gorgeous lyrical moment before the entry of the second theme with the piercing horn. The anticipation grows until finally Johnson breaks through with the declamatory initial theme. Wow! Johnson and the others nailed it. The expansive first movement continued with virtuosic displays and stunning moments where Johnson sang through the quiet with warmth and musicality. It’s hard to believe that Dvořák wasn’t enamored with the cello as a solo instrument. He was heard to say that “high up it sounds nasal, and low down it growls”.

The entire concerto, three movements of emotional highs and lows with some of the most serene melodies in the repertoire, represents the pinnacle of Dvořák’s symphonic output. Johnson said that as he plays the concerto it is with both great awe and terror. The composer makes incredible technical demands on the performer, demands that Johnson met with assured musicianship. 

Cellist Joseph Johnson, conductor Aziz Shokhakimov and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON January 31st 2020

Joseph Johnson moves to the front of the TSO for Anton Dvořák’s Cello Concerto​

In the second half of the concert, Shokhakimov led a spirited and dramatic performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 “Scottish”. Although begun in Scotland, the work was only completed  ten years after his trip as a 20-year-old. There isn’t a lot of Scotland in the music, unless one thinks of the opening theme that he wrote while visiting the ruins of Holyrood Castle and the short second movement with the rhythms of a Scottish reel. The drama came in the juxtaposition of the beautiful ‘song without words’ style of the third movement with interjections of full orchestra that foretell the coming battle in the finale. Does the warlike movement represent Scottish uprisings or is Mendelssohn creating an energy filled movement of pure music? Who knows? I loved the colours of the instrument combinations, the power of the five horns playing in unison, and the gloriously triumphant A major ending.

The Toronto Symphony will repeat this concert on Saturday, February 1st at Roy Thomson Hall. Next week, on Thursday February 6th, the TSO will present the National Arts Centre Orchestra with violinist Joshua Bell and conductor Alexander Shelley. The program will include Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3.

Cellist Joseph Johnson, conductor Aziz Shokhakimov and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Photo credit: Jag Gundu