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August 08. 2013 12:11AM

Half a Century of Music

Couple marks half century with NH Music Festival


Joel Johnson (NH Music Festival)

For half a century, Joe and Karen Johnson have marked this time of year with hijinks by the lake, singing songs, playing music and chatting until all hours of the night.

There's nothing like summer camp, and that's just what the Minnesota couple considers the New Hampshire Music Festival to be.

"The reason we've been coming for so many years is because this is an unusual festival," Joel Johnson said of the Plymouth-based music program. "It has an unusual sense of community, (both) in the orchestra and the community at large. ... Our family has been adopted by so many other families that are local, and these have become lifelong friendships."

And then there's the music they've shared over the past 50 years.

Musical Ties

"It gives me a tremendous vitality," he said. "It's kind of like communion; you experience musical truth at a high level."Johnson, who has sung with the choir and directed the orchestra, will be joined on stage by his daughter, Heather Johnson, who lives and works in New York City. He'll conduct and she'll solo in two shows during the festival's fifth week of performances. First up on Thursday, Aug. 8, will be a concert at the Silver Center for the Arts at Plymouth State University. Then, on Friday, Aug. 9, they'll take the stage at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord. (A fourth Johnson named Keith is not related to the pair but also marks an impressive 50-year milestone with the music festival.)Joel Johnson joined the festival in 1963, about a decade after it began on Melody Island on Lake Winnipesaukee. He came on the advice of a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., where Johnson and his wife were students. They were hooked from the start and have spent the ensuing 50 years splitting time between St. Paul in the cooler months and Plymouth in the summers.

Early Days

In those early days, everyone in the festival bunked in the dorms on campus, practiced music in the hallways, and generally got to be one big family.

"... The neat thing was our children were born into the festival ... and had two, three, four sets of parents" (by extension), he said. "It was very close living, and that really promoted a sense of community and connection."

In large part, it was that connection that kept the Johnsons, eventually joined by daughters Karen and Heather and son Andrew —that kept them coming back. But it was also the caliber of the music.

When Joel Johnson joined the festival, he was a tenor soloist, but within seven years moved on to conduct the Symphonic Chorus in 1970. More recently, his work with the ensemble centered on Haydn's "Lord Nelson Mass," Beethoven's "Mass in C" and "Choral Fantasy," Verdi's "Requiem" and Mozart's "Coronation Mass."

"There's a wonderful synergism," he said. "This orchestra is made up of wonderful musicians from around the country. If you read their bios, they come from major orchestras — San Francisco, Seattle. For years our concert master was the co-concert master at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

"So, it's ... a high level of performance. And for us to develop a symphonic chorus of over 100, well, that's a big rush for us, too," he said. "You get a chance to perform major works for chorus and orchestra with a soloist from The Met, let's say. That's a real highlight."

As for his wife, Karen, she got started at the festival as an accompanist for the Symphonic Chorus. She has been a featured soloist in the festival's Handel Organ Concerto No. 5 and the Saint-Saens "Organ Symphony." She's also served as keyboardist with the orchestra, playing piano, organ, harpsichord and celeste. This year, she'll serve as accompanist, in addition to her role as orchestra librarian.

Extended Family

"(Some of) the chorus people have sung ... for many years with us, and they've become like a big family, too," she said. "When we see them (again each summer), it's like we just start right in where we left off the season before."

Another highlight, she said, has been watching their children grow up surrounded by music.

"Our own children ... grew up here, listening to wonderful music," she said. "They sang in the chorus starting when they were really young; they worked for Warren Hughes, who was the director of the stage. We've watched other families' kids grow up, and they've watched ours grow up. ... It's been quite a long history of our whole family. And, as you can see, our daughter has arrived at a wonderful place in her career and she's coming back to sing."

Next Generation

Heather Johnson started singing in the chorus when she was 11, moving on to stage-managing in high school before getting her first solo. These days she is a mezzo-soprano in the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Parsifal." Some of her other notable performances include singing Rossini's "Stabat Mater" in Rome, portraying Hermia in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with the Boston Lyric Opera and working with the New York City Opera, Opera New Jersey and Glimmerglass Opera.

"If you look at the end of her bio (in the program), it says, 'I'm a festival kid'," Joel Johnson said. "She's proud of it. ... There's this tremendous joy that our kids are finally achieving, so you don't have to send rent money anymore. So, we're kind of like groupies now; wherever the kids perform, we go. And that's a great joy, too, and (gives us) a great sense of pride."

Though their son doesn't perform professionally, the financial analyst has a great appreciation for music.

As for their future with the Chorus in 1970. More recently, his work with the ensemble centered on Haydn's "Lord Nelson Mass," Beethoven's "Mass in C" and "Choral Fantasy," Verdi's "Requiem" and Mozart's "Coronation Mass."

"There's a wonderful synergism," he said. "This orchestra is made up of wonderful musicians from around the country. If you read their bios, they come from major orchestras — San Francisco, Seattle. For years our concert master was the co-concert master at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

"So, it's ... a high level of performance. And for us to develop a symphonic chorus of over 100, well, that's a big rush for us, too," he said. "You get a chance to perform major works for chorus and orchestra with a soloist from The Met, let's say. That's a real highlight."

As for his wife, Karen, she got started at the festival as an accompanist for the Symphonic Chorus. She has been a featured soloist in the festival's Handel Organ Concerto No. 5 and the Saint-Saens "Organ Symphony." She's also served as keyboardist with the orchestra, playing piano, organ, harpsichord and celeste. This year, she'll serve as accompanist, in addition to her role as orchestra librarian.

"(Some of) the chorus people have sung ... for many years with us, and they've become like a big family, too," she said. "When we see them (again each summer), it's like we just start right in where we left off the season before."

Another highlight, she said, has been watching their children grow up surrounded by music.

"Our own children ... grew up here, listening to wonderful music," she said. "They sang in the chorus starting when they were really young; they worked for Warren Hughes, who was the director of the stage. We've watched other families' kids grow up, and they've watched ours grow up. ... It's been quite a long history of our whole family. And, as you can see, our daughter has arrived at a wonderful place in her career and she's coming back to sing."

Next Generation

Heather Johnson started singing in the chorus when she was 11, moving on to stage-managing in high school before getting her first solo. These days she is a mezzo-soprano in the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Parsifal." Some of her other notable performances include singing Rossini's "Stabat Mater" in Rome, portraying Hermia in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with the Boston Lyric Opera and working with the New York City Opera, Opera New Jersey and Glimmerglass Opera.

"If you look at the end of her bio (in the program), it says, 'I'm a festival kid'," Joel Johnson said. "She's proud of it. ... There's this tremendous joy that our kids are finally achieving, so you don't have to send rent money anymore. So, we're kind of like groupies now; wherever the kids perform, we go. And that's a great joy, too, and (gives us) a great sense of pride."

Though their son doesn't perform professionally, the financial analyst has a great appreciation for music.

As for their future with the festival, it may be the Johnsons' 50th year, but it's not their last.

"We haven't thought about not (continuing)," Joel Johnson said. "We'll be here, until they get the hook."

Since both retiring from the school system in St. Paul, the two haven't been anxious to have time apart.

"Karen and I have worked together all these years at the festival," Joel Johnson said. "We've had the same church gig in St. Paul for 47 year; she's a church organist and I'm a director. And then in the school — we've been a real team. Marriages can go up and down but, by golly, the respect always remained."

It's all about teamwork, his wife agrees.

"You might think it's kind of boring — same festival, same church — but, no. It's been really good. He needs a piano player; he can't play, so he's relied on me all these years. It's been a good relationship. It worked, and is working."

For more information, go to nhmf.org or call 279-3300.


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