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Young Blood

Only 24, Karen Johnson is already second in command as concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony.


When artists come to audition for a spot in the symphony they sit behind a screen in order to make the whole process less susceptible to bias. "When I stepped out from behind the curtain, you could almost hear a gasp," Johnson recalls. "They expected someone older."

Johnson has come to Richmond after being chosen to lead the symphony during closed auditions last year. Since her graduation from Juilliard and before her position at the symphony, she had been "subbing" with the National and Baltimore symphonies while completing coursework for her master's degree at the University of Maryland, College Park. There she studied with William Preucil, principal first violinist of the Cleveland Orchestra and a performer she calls "the epitome of the concertmaster."

"I'm the one who walks out to tune up the orchestra," says Johnson of her dual roles as concertmaster and principal first violinist with the symphony. She quickly adds: "ideally, people should clap."

Concertmaster in a symphony is a role with two distinct parts, Johnson explains. As principal first violinist Johnson is the lead performer in her section and responsible for its bowings: She marks in the score the exact direction and movement of each bow in the section on each note of every piece of music. In addition to the section principal, she is the voice of the section in conversations with the conductor. In musical misunderstandings, she clarifies the conductor's musical vision for her section. Outside of rehearsals and aside from preparing for solos, her responsibilities are slightly less glamorous, she says: "You have to know your part really, really well and that means practice."

As concertmaster Johnson's duties are more varied. "It's been an education," she says of her short time in the hot seat. "I've had to learn how a symphony is run; the details of symphony operations. This rehearsal thing I've done all my life." The concertmaster is by contract and custom the assistant to the conductor. She is the "second face" of the symphony and assists Musical Director Mark Russell Smith — an acquaintance of long standing from their mutual work in the Phoenix, Ariz., youth symphony.

From time to time, concertgoers will see her leading a stripped-down symphony from her position in the front row of the orchestra in chamber music concerts. In addition, she will have the opportunity to play at least one concerto a year with the symphony and will prepare for all of the first violin solos throughout the year.

In a career where Johnson says it takes a lifetime of performing to "even pretend to know what you are doing," she describes herself as "a baby." And yet symphony-goers and players alike have already been influenced by her very physical approach to music-making. "I move around a lot," she says, "it's just something I have always done," a statement that is true both of her performing and her life. Johnson battles I-95 daily as a road warrior commuting from Stafford where she lives with her husband, a trombonist for The President's Own Marine Corps Band.

And yet while new to her role as concertmaster in Richmond, she is no stranger to the city. "I love Richmond," she says. "I've been coming every fall for the last four years as a performer in the `Juilliard comes to Richmond' series at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. I just thinks it's funny that I would end up here full time."

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