Emma Johnson, Voyager.

John Robert Brown

Emma and I are chasing each other in international circles. I was in Geneva for ten days; Emma arrived the day after I returned home. I missed her concert and, more to the point, lost the opportunity of an interview. Attempting to catch up was difficult. Emma was off to Monmouth, while I was working in Singapore. Hence we chatted by phone.

I phone her parents in error. There is some confusion about where she is staying. Because the water is temporarily cut off at her own house she doing all her washing at her parents' house. Eventually we speak. Considering the pressures on her, Emma is patient and charming. We discuss the beauties of Geneva and the popularity of the city with the various artists who have chosen to live there, from Igor Stravinsky to Freddie Mercury, from Pablo Picasso to Phil Collins to Andrés Segovia. Apparently there is a sort of means test, similar to that exercised in the Channel Islands. One can only take up residence if one can attest to a certain level of wealth. Geneva is thus rather exclusive. Does that affect the nature of the audience, what they want to hear, and - more to the point - how they responded to Emma's performance? "They seem to be very impressed that I talk to the audience," she says. Apparently, they never do that in Geneva. "They are a bit spoiled, really, quite a conservative audience, but very sophisticated people, very cosmopolitan and rich," she observes. "We had Bartok's Contrasts in my programme, but I also featured arrangements in the style of Benny Goodman. They were over the moon because they never really had that. In Britain we take it for granted that you can have a very varied recital."

Which pieces associated with Benny did she do?
"Paganini Caprice and After You've Gone. John Lenehan and I have worked up a Gershwin Medley in the style of Benny Goodman. That's on my latest disc, Voyage. That area is quite a classic in itself, all that swing. The Benny Goodman version of After You've Gone is taken from a small band version, very fast. A very bubbly performance that seemed to take them by surprise." I enquire about a recording deal with Universal records for five CDs of clarinet music. The repertoire plans are not yet formulated.

"I think a second disc will go back to the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. I've always wanted to re-record it using the basset clarinet - which is how I often do it now. The recording that's out there is of me doing it when I was eighteen." That recording has sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide since the time - 1984 - when Emma won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition. "I've always wanted to get a more up-to-date one, of how I play it now," she says. "But it's all still pretty much up in the air about what exactly will follow after that."

A commission, maybe?
"That's been talked about, but no concrete ideas at the moment. It took an immense amount of work just planning the first one. It's funny, it's much harder work than doing a traditional classical recording, doing a compilation like that, having lots of material from all sorts of different sources." Witnessing a small sample of the complexity of Emma's life, I wonder whether she has a daily practice schedule. "I don't want to disappoint you, but I don't have a routine," she says. "I don't find it very easy to have one, when one minute you're in Geneva then the next minute you're off to Monmouth. So when I'm actually here for a week preparing - I have three recitals coming up in different places -I will practice every day, four to six hours, something like that." Presumably this is distributed practice, not one marathon session? "Yes. Two-hour chunks are good. Also - I find it very important - is the thinking you do between the chunks. Especially when memorising material. You can do a lot of it in odd moments when you are on the train or something. I do a bit of reading as well. Reading about whichever composer it is that I'm playing, so that I can feel I've got under their skin. It takes over your whole life. Your every living moment tends to be thinking about either the music itself, or your plans for the travels for the next concert."

Does she do purely technical practice.
"I'm not a big believer in that. I tend to let the music dictate what I need to know. I do a lot of detail. I find that I go over and over the difficult passages so that they become instinctive. I just know that when I'm up there on the platform, and the spotlight is on me, the microphone is on and the people are there listening, that it'll be right. Luckily, I have a studio at the bottom of my garden. I can practice there any time I like. A nice big studio, not joining anything. If there's something difficult, I can go over and over things for hours on end without disturbing people. The only studies that I keep in my repertoire are the Bach arrangements by Muller. I love those because they are still musically satisfying. But I don't believe in divorcing technique from music."

And use of the piano - is that important?
"Yes. I sit and play the piano. I find that's a way of keeping your sight-reading up, especially Bach." And what of piano accompaniments to her repertoire? Some of these are fierce challenges for the pianist. "I look at them, yes. I couldn't say that I could play most of them." She laughs modestly. "But I think that's hugely important if you're preparing a concerto, it dictates how you play your part. That's why I enjoy doing the Mozart as a director, as well as just playing the solo part. It's very satisfying to get all the instruments doing the same interpretation, like chamber music. "Then there is the routine of getting batches of reeds of reeds sorted out. Every month I do a big batch of reeds. Once I've marked out a bunch to prepare, I prepare them over a few days. You can't do anything if you haven't got a good reed. It's more important to know you've got a good reed than to know that you did two hours' practice yesterday."

I confess that as soon as I decide to save a reed, it goes off.
"I know!" she exclaims. "That's the hardest thing, especially doing solo clarinet work, which is so exposed, knowing that you've got reeds that are not going to let you down, and that you've got enough reeds that will be right for the different acoustics that you are going to be up against. That's a real nightmare. Then you can go on an aeroplane and they change because it's lacking in humidity. That's a huge part of making sure you play okay. "Peter Eaton has made me a basset clarinet, which was very kind of him. He lengthened my old 'A' clarinet, which has turned out to be a beautiful instrument. The bottom notes sound wonderful. He said he'd never do it again it was so hard. The tuning is excellent. He has this innate sense I think. The instrument has also turned out to be playable in that I can just stand up and have a sling. I didn't want to have to have a spike and be pinned to the ground."

And what of the immediate future?
"I'm to be very busy in the Autumn, lots of recitals throughout the UK. They are all listed on my website. I shall be trying to put some of the repertoire from Voyage in them. I'm doing more conducting, and have a tour with the London Mozart Players. I've also got my debut with the Royal Philharmonic coming up. With those concerts I play a concerto and also conduct the rest of the programme. That's the big thing that I'm working towards at the moment. Quite a challenge."

At this point in our conversation there is a burst of youthful conversation, and much clicking, as though the phone has been jostled. Emma's daughter Georgie is excitedly consulting her mum, almost succeeding in cutting us off in the process. Time for me to go, I guess, to allow Emma to get on with her busy schedule. As I put down the phone I reflect on the appeal of that studio at the bottom of the garden.

Click here to visit Emma's website

This article first appeared in CASS Magazine, the journal of the Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain. Not to be used or quoted from for any purpose without permission.
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