Will Johnson's 'My Musik'

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Oct 31, 2013

Will Johnson's 'My Musik'


Inspired by the CBC Radio 2 programme “This is My Music,” we have launched a series in which Tafelmusik musicians offer their reflections on various pieces of music that play a special part in their lives. view full listing

Will Johnson, tenor


Beethoven: Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123 / Symphonies Nos. 3 & 9
While studying in Germany, a group of singers aged 18 to 32 gathered in Überlingen to study and perform various works by Beethoven. We rehearsed for several weeks both the chorus of Fidelio and the almost unsingable Missa Solemnis. One of the most unique experiences I’ve had was when the group travelled to Athens, Greece to perform the Missa Solemnis in the Acropolis Theatre. To sing such challenging music in one of the oldest venues in the world was a truly moving experience. Another memorable experience was performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the Tafelmusik Choir and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the opening of the new concert hall in Montreal. It’s a rare experience to sing an inaugural performance in any venue, let alone a brand new concert hall in Montreal! One of the pieces I studied in my first year at university was Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (“Eroica”). At the time I had only studied parts of his 5th, 6th and 8th symphonies, and I was fascinated by the 3rd. The music is intriguing, complex, and vast: it’s an adventure to listen to and perform. It was especially neat to hear Tafelmusik perform “Eroica” live last year as a thrilling end to a great season.
Bach: Lutheran Mass in G Major, BWV 236 
This may seem to be a slightly random choice, but the Lutheran Mass in G coupled with Zelenka’s Missa Dei Filii is my favourite Tafelmuisk concert, back in May 2001. Learning both pieces for one concert felt like training for a marathon! The tenor solo Quonium Tu Solus is one the most hauntingly beautiful and exposed arias with oboe, cello, and organ continuo. The vocal part is very high and sustained, requiring incredible breath control. The joyous baritone setting of the Gratias agimus tibi is uplifting and spritely. The Cum Sancto Spiritu is reminiscent of the same movement from the Mass in B Minor. At any time in this piece it feels like it will fall off the rails, but when held together, there are few similar experiences. It’s very challenging to sing and incredibly rewarding. See you at the finish line!
Schumann: Dichterliebe
I have a complicated up-and-down (even love-hate) feeling with this song cycle which seems fitting, as the character described by Heinrich Heine is all over the place emotionally! Schumann takes you on an adventure through many keys and colours: the final cadence of the first song doesn’t resolve until fifteen songs later, following a gorgeous piano postlude. There’s a great sense of loss and despair throughout the song cycle, with exaggerated phrases like “Mein übergroßes Weh” (my super-large grief) — can it get any sadder?! The final line of text is especially haunting as Heine changes the tense of the poem by speaking directly to the audience: “Wißt ihr, warum der Sarg wohl so groß und schwer mag sein? Ich legt auch meine Liebe und meinen Schmerz hinein.” Which translates to, “Do you (the audience) know why the coffin is so huge and heavy? Because I sank all of my love and pain with it.” It is heavy and wonderful music which I believe ends positively for the young man, who must finally accept the love which cannot be.
Britten: Canticle 2 “Abraham and Isaac,” Op. 51
Britten wrote “Abraham and Isaac” in 1952, adapted from a Chester Miracle Play along with four other canticles. The opening grounded E-flat major chords are the base for the voice of God, sung by countertenor (or alto) and tenor. The stepped parallel intervals sung by both voices join perfectly in unison on a sustained E-flat, from which the voice of Abraham emerges. There are challenging vocal leaps of major ninths, and a triumphant climax when God, at the last minute, stops the slaying of Abraham’s son, Isaac. There’s something about Britten’s choice of E-flat major that is calming and soothing. It fits perfectly for the tenor and countertenor voices and is a dream to sing. It is my favourite piece of music.
Granada, sung by Fritz Wunderlich
And now for something completely different! I have to choose a 1950s recording of Wunderlich singing Granada. There are some wonderful recordings out there but none like the thrilling and powerful sound of Wunderlich. It’s also neat to hear it sung in German! His ringing high B-flats and final high C will knock your socks off. After all, I am a tenor! :)

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