This Saturday marks the official end of Roland Johnson's 33-year reign on the podium of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. In closing the current season with an all-Brahms concert, Johnson will also mark his 50th anniversary as an orchestra conductor and round out the 63rd year since he first picked up the violin and began life as a performing musician. "Since that moment," he says, "I've been totally in love with what I do. I've always adored making music." Asked what he considers his most important gift, he laughs and answers, "Enthusiasm. Although I sometimes had more administrative work than I really wanted, I've never had a moment's regret about my conducting duties. I don't think there is a greater joy than this."
The program Saturday will consist of two very large Brahms works, the German Requiem and the Symphony No. 1. While it may at first glance seem overly somber to schedule a requiem for his final concert, Johnson notes that he "wanted to include the Symphony Chorus, with whom I've worked so many happy times, and besides, this is a work of great beauty and comfort, of peace and closure, rather than one of hell-fire and brimstone." He played the Brahms 1st Symphony on his very first MSO program, in 1961. "My family kids me about this habit I have of leaving a place by the same door through which I arrived, but that's one reason we'll be playing the same work I started with." To reinforce the idea of a long, continuous line spanning his career, Johnson will be joined Saturday by a number of former players. Norman Paulu will resume the concertmaster's chair for the Symphony, and altogether about 10 other string players will augment the regular roster for that final offering.
I asked Johnson if this final prepartion of the two works had involved any fresh insights into their character. Very early in his career, he had studied the symphony with his great mentor Hermann Scherchen. "You know," he says, "the piece is very unified, built of related materials throughout, until you get to the finale, when something entirely new suddenly appears after the introduction of the movement: this great horn solo. There exists a postcard from Brahms that mentions hearing the Alpine horn on a trip to Switzerland, so perhaps it has to do with the vastness of that altitude, the reverberation of an enormous space, and so forth. As for discoveries, I've done the symphony several times, and I think in the past I've tended to get caught up in its tremendous drive. The music impels itself forward, and it's hard to pull back. But this time, the players all know it, and I think it will be more relaxed as it builds up to that great moment in the finale. You may find the Requiem a bit quicker than some other readings, though we will certainly observe Brahms' own call for great flexibility in tempo and character."
Following the concert, Johnson will greet the public in the Civic Center Crossroads. He doesn't expect the occasion to be at all melancholic, but hopes simply to provide many long-time supporters of the orchestra an opportunity to express their thanks for his years of service. He's enjoying tip-top health and is in no hurry to rush on to new obligations, though possibly he will take a few courses, play the violin a bit, and maybe travel. "For sure," he says, "I will have some time to enjoy my three wonderful grandchildren."
Isthmus, May, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson