- “You can't really replace someone like Karen,” Richmond Symphony music director and conductor Steven Smith says about Karen Johnson, who has served as the orchestra's concert master since January 2002. The virtuoso violinist will leave the symphony at year's end to join the President's Own, a Marine Corps band. Photo courtesy the Richmond Symphony
Starting next year, if you want to hear the heartbreaking vibrato of the Richmond Symphony's concertmaster, virtuoso violinist Karen Johnson, you'll have to turn on C-Span.
Johnson, who joined the Symphony nearly a decade ago, leaves her post at the end of this year to make music with the President's Own Marine band in Washington. As the new first violinist in its string section, she'll perform at White House functions. “I feel like I'm already a part of that very prestigious organization,” she says of her new gig. That's because her husband, Karl, is the longtime President's Own bass trombonist. They live in Stafford County in Northern Virginia, where Johnson commutes to Richmond.
“The catalyst for my decision to leave is my three daughters,” Johnson says. “It's very difficult to run back and forth from Stafford to Richmond being a mom and being a concertmaster.”
Not long after Johnson joined the Richmond Symphony, in January 2002, she added to the mileage. “I started my tenure at the [old] Carpenter Center,” she says, “and then we traveled playing from church to church while they built what is now CenterStage, and now we have a great performance facility. I started out in a concert hall and now I'm ending in a concert hall.”
Johnson says that playing in community venues was good for the orchestra's outreach but that there were downfalls. “Patrons enjoyed being close to the music but logistically and acoustically it was a nightmare,” she says.
Longtime symphony patrons know enough to applaud when Johnson enters, but what does a concertmaster actually do? “It's another word for first chair,” she says. “A concertmaster is responsible for tuning the strings in the orchestra but that's more of a tradition. Whenever the conductor wants to change something in the middle of a rehearsal, a concertmaster is there to take the vision of the conductor and relay it in musical terms to the strings.” Such a conduit is necessary when dealing with an orchestra's schedule. “There is such limited time available to get things right. … You have to get to the heart of the matter.”
“A concertmaster's role is difficult to define, but it's so important to the ensemble,” says David Fisk, the symphony's executive director, who was hired around the same time as Johnson. “Look at the string [players] and how they watch Karen. It isn't the conductor they are watching. He's got his focus on the entire orchestra. But even seven rows behind her, the strings are watching her bow, watching the way she moves.” As a soloist, Fisk says, Johnson has a sound all her own: “What's great is the sweetness of her [violin] tone. It's like a fine sculpture made out of silver. … It's rock solid and also incredibly beautiful.”
Like many classical prodigies, the Gilbert, Ariz., native started young. Her mother was an amateur violinist, and encouraged young Karen to take up the instrument at age 4. “My parents didn't have to fight me on it,” she says, laughing. When Johnson turned 10, she began studying at Arizona State and soon was winning numerous youth violin competitions. She met her husband at Julliard, where she continued both her studies and her streak of competition wins (such as the school's Sibelius Violin Concerto Competition).
When she joined the Richmond Symphony, Johnson took to the place immediately. “I feel like I got to know Richmond very well,” she says. “People in Richmond have been extremely supportive of me and what I do. When I leave a concert, people see me and say, ‘Thank you.' Even though I've never lived here, I'll miss it. I'll miss just driving down Monument Avenue.”
As for memorable musical moments, she cites past symphony performances of works by Mahler, Sibelius, Shostakovitch and Strauss. “Those are the ones that kind of keep you going,” she says. And the youthful 33-year-old is optimistic about the future of classical music — her young daughters are learning the violin and cello, no big surprise.
“Marketing people and ticket-sellers are always trying to bring in younger audiences and families,” Johnson says. “I think that as long as there are kids who want to learn instruments, there will always be an audience for this music.” S
The Richmond Symphony will perform Copeland's “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Shatin's “Jefferson, in his Own Words” (with narration by former Gov. Gerald Baliles), Saint-SaA®ns' Cello Concerto No. 2 and DvorAk's Symphony No. 6 on Nov. 13 and 14 at Richmond CenterStage, as part of the symphony's Altria Masterworks series. For tickets and information, go to richmondsymphony.com.