Sunday, July 20, 2003

Young violinist made up lost time

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gareth Johnson, 17, was a late bloomer, by today's musical standards.

"I was 10," says Johnson, a first-prize winner in the Sphinx Competition and a native of St. Louis. "I heard Itzhak Perlman play a concert with the St. Louis Symphony, and I said to my parents, 'I can do that!' "

Johnson saved up $80 and went to a pawn shop, where he bought his first violin. It took nerve, but he found a private teacher, and began to work. Although his mother is a music educator, Gareth had no prior musical training.

"I just had it in my ear, probably from my mom always playing the piano," he says.

Johnson will make his Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra debut in the "Classical Roots: Spiritual Heights" church concerts this week.

Quick rise

Since picking up the violin seven years ago, Johnson has been on the fast track. After just one year of lessons, he was exceptional enough to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto for the renowned teacher of stars, Dorothy DeLay, at New York's Juilliard School.

In 1999, Johnson won a scholarship to study at the Starling Preparatory String Project at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. For a year, he commuted to Cincinnati from St. Louis, to study with Kurt Sassmannshaus, Starling program director. He toured China with the Starling Orchestra, and is a featured soloist in Starling's Emmy Award-winning video, Classical Quest.

"The main objective was to get as many pieces under your fingers as possible," he says. "I learned five or six big concertos in about a year. I also toured China with them - the best experience of my life."

The Tiger of classical music

Although Johnson has won many prizes, it is the Sphinx Competition, held in Ann Arbor and Detroit, that gave him his biggest boost. One of the objects of the organization is to create more opportunities for African-American and Latino string players, who currently make up about 1.5 percent of professional American orchestras.

The competition, Johnson says, "lets us know that we are out there. It is a major part of my violin career."

When he won in 2002, he told The New York Times, "I want to be the Tiger Woods of classical music."

That ambition hasn't waned. Johnson, who now lives in Wellington, Fla., has performed with the New World, Atlanta and St. Louis symphonies, and the Boston Pops. He recently had a private lesson with his idol, Perlman, who, he says, "gives you things to think about for a long time in the future."

Although he is grateful to the Sphinx Organization, Johnson is careful to add that it's not enough to be considered "the best African-American violinist.

"I'd want people to say, 'He's one of the best violinists that ever lived.' That's what I'm working for," he says.


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