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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the March 3, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

At 29, a Controlled Conductor

For Kynan Johns, Rutgers’ newly-imported Australian conductor,

conducting is choreography – not the arm-flapping, torso-twisting

movement that makes a viewer seasick, but the controlled, precise

gestures that tell both performers and audience what a piece is about.

Since arriving at the Mason Gross School of the Arts in September, the

29-year-old assistant professor has reshaped instrumental conducting

at Rutgers, guiding the university orchestra into strong and stylish


Johns leads the Rutgers University Orchestra in a concert at Nicholas

Auditorium on the Douglass College Campus Sunday, March 7, at 2 p.m.

The centerpiece of the performance is Sergei Prokofiev’s demanding

Symphony No. 5. The program, the fourth of Johns’ first season, also

includes Ravel’s "Le Tombeau de Couperin" (from the group’s canceled

December concert) and Schwanter’s Percussion Concerto. Ed Choi, a

winner of the annual concerto competition held for Mason Gross

students, will be the percussion soloist for the Schwanter.

Interviewed at the Mason Gross School, Johns explains how he overcame

his doubts about programming the Prokofiev piece. His teacher, the

internationally-sought conductor David Porcelijn, was among those who

discouraged him from attempting it.

"I was advised against doing this symphony as being too difficult by

my teacher," says Johns. "I was reticent because I was uncertain what

the orchestra was like."

However, after the orchestra’s second or third rehearsal of "Don Juan"

by Strauss, the work featured on the ensemble’s debut program in

October, 2003, Johns gained confidence.

"I was convinced that the Prokofiev would not be a problem. I asked

the orchestra and they were enthusiastic," he says. "Prokofiev is the

master of 20th-century melody. All orchestras like to play his Fifth

Symphony because it’s so much fun. It’s fun to be in the audience,

too. Every movement finishes with a bang."

Johns is impressed with the attitudes of his Rutgers instrumentalists.

"The Prokofiev is a difficult, challenging piece. There are so many

tricky spots. But the kids are eating it up. They don’t want to leave

rehearsals. I’m sure my teacher would be amazed," he says.

"The morale of the orchestra is at a very high level," Johns

continues. "I can see that by the smiles on their faces when they play

the Prokofiev. They’re all on the edge of their seats at the sound

coming out. Everyone wants to play well, and wants to work hard

because the music’s coming together." It seems that Johns, who also

teaches conducting classes at Rutgers, has cast a spell on the


Born in 1975 in Adelaide, Australia, Johns comes from a traditional

family. His father is an auditor for the Australian federal

government. "My mom’s a mom," he says. She works at a home for seniors

and previously taught sewing at a technical school. The oldest of

three siblings, Johns has a younger brother, Darian, who is an opera

singer and lives in Brisbane, Australia. Their sister Taryn is

studying occupational therapy at the University of Sydney.

"There is an adage," says Johns, "that conductors are not made, but

born. That’s not true. No one chooses to be a conductor. You fall into

it, and realize that you’re good at it."

Johns fell into conducting at an early age. He attributes his start to

a six-month stay in Texas at age 12 when, as a boy soprano, he was

already part of the world of music. The Texas Boys’ Choir in Fort

Worth had planned an Australian tour, and someone thought it would be

a good idea to have six Australians join the group. Johns won a place

on the tour through Australia-wide auditions. Michael Shannon, the

choir’s conductor, helped Johns plan his studies after the choir

returned home.

Accepted to the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium, Johns

earned a bachelor’s degree in composition. During his second year he

was asked to conduct one of the university choirs. "I was more

interested in composition, but it was a paying job and I took it on

and started enjoying it," he says. "I built up the university choir

and was invited to conduct the Adelaide Town Choir. We performed

choral-orchestral works. Then I took the option of a post-university

honors year in conducting. After finishing that program, I realized

that I knew nothing. I was 21."

By chance, a master’s program in orchestral conducting, led by David

Porcelijn, was established in Sydney that year. "David Porcelijn

taught conducting the Dutch way," says Johns. "You had to conduct in

silence, to memorize, and to write out scores from memory. We had

lessons from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. He never gave compliments. He had an

international career and had no time to waste on compliments." "What I

don’t comment on is good," was what Porcelijn told his students. He

gave Johns concerts to conduct with Australian orchestras where he was

the chief conductor.

"He ‘put his hands in the fire to give me concerts,’ was how he

phrased it," says Johns. "Orchestras liked me, so I got more concerts.

There’s enormous democracy in Australian orchestras. The

instrumentalists fill out conductor-evaluation forms at each concert.

I was named Young Conductor of the Year by the Australian Broadcasting

Company – and I didn’t finish my master’s degree because I was

conducting so much." Eventually Johns got the degree.

Winner of the Nelly Apt prize, which fosters Australian-Israeli

relations, Johns went to Israel in 1997 to study for a year with Noam

Sheriff, who was music director and chief conductor of the Israeli

Symphony Orchestra from 1989 to 1995. During that time Johns met his

wife, Israeli cellist Yana Levin, whom he married in 2001.

"In Australia studying conducting was very academic. You had to read

the right books, and justify what you were doing. In Israel, the

teacher was interested in what’s in the ear; it didn’t matter what you

read. So you developed passions, and looked at music as a phenomenon.

You took a philosophical view about how music exists in time and

space, not how it exists on the page. Conducting was art, not


"In Israel it was OK to question the composer’s score. Pieces were not

franchised. It wasn’t the same Big Mac; it wasn’t the same Brahms. The

conductor was seen as a creator. He was not scared to find new


The upbeat Israeli approach to conducting, however, did not immunize

Johns against the inevitable problems of a conductor at the outset of

his career. "You’re giving orders to people old enough to be your

parents," he says. "You’re young and inexperienced. You’re not paid

much. Typically, you’re freelance and there’s a long time between

gigs. You have no guidance. A tennis player has his coach at each

match. A conductor has to find his own way. The path is long, arduous,

and not very clear. The first 20 years of a conductor’s career are

very difficult." Johns is now seven years down that road.

After one year working with opera companies and orchestras in

Australia, Johns returned to Israel for three years. He calls the year

2002 "a turning point" because of his success in two major conducting

competitions. One of eight finalists in the Maazel/Vilars competition,

which drew 400 entrants worldwide, Johns’ prize was a Carnegie Hall

debut with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. I didn’t win," he says, "but

Maazel asked me to assist him when his opera ‘1984,’ based on the

Orwell book, premieres at Covent Garden in 2006." A month after the

Maazel competition Johns won second prize in Athens’ Mitropoulos


Relocating to New Jersey in August, 2003, Johns encountered no

transition problems. "For me the three years in Israel were cultural

shock. Moving to the U.S. was like moving closer to home."

At Rutgers Johns has instigated a major Shostakovich festival set for

2006, the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, and has reached

out to prominent musicians for the celebration. Cellist Mstislav

Rostropovich, violist Yuri Bashmet, and conductor Rudolf Barshai have

expressed their interest. Johns hopes also to attract members of the

Shostakovich family to the complex of concerts and symposia.

Johns foresees definite directions as he adapts the repertoire to the

Rutgers Orchestra.

"In the last five years the orchestra played one Haydn piece, no

Mozart, and two Beethoven Symphonies. I want to program more Viennese

classics, and include one in each program. They’re the most difficult

music because they’re the most transparent. But a conductor shouldn’t

shy away from difficult things. You can learn from the difficult."

To ensure that instrumentalists are ready for the demands even of

Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, Johns has instituted what he calls "part

tests" for orchestral players. "Everybody has to play for me one on

one. It’s extra work. The players can’t hide in their section. But

everyone is enjoying the results."

Besides working effectively behind the scenes, Johns knows what he

must do publicly as a conductor.

"The conductor is the medium through which the audience trusts their

ears," he says. "Conducting is a visual matter. If a conductor is not

moving ‘con brio’" – the musical indication meaning "with spirit" –

"the audience doesn’t believe it. Conducting is a performance. A

conductor has to find the tools to make his instrumentalists want to

give their best. If he has to say, ‘I’m the boss, so do it my way,’

then he has failed."

Johns demonstrates the inner workings of his art in a conducting class

devoted to the slow introduction to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. In

turn, each of the dozen students conducts from a podium facing the

non-conducting students. The proceedings are videotaped. Students

conduct silently, from memory. Wearing a black turtle neck and

wide-wale corduroy jeans, Johns paces comfortably, but never takes his

eyes off the student on the podium. He advises about the spacing of

the hands, the level of gestures, and their size. He tells students

exactly where they should look to engage the imagined players of a

phantom orchestra. Briefly, he stands behind one student and moves her


In the noiseless classroom, he aims for the minimum movement required

to convey information, and insists on its accuracy. "Why do you give a

bigger upbeat than downbeat?" he asks. "Don’t speed up," he warns. "If

you can conduct in silence, you can conduct an orchestra," he says.

"The silence is to make sure that you lead the orchestra, and don’t

follow it."

At one point the student on the podium says, "It feels like I’m not

moving." Johns’ reply: "Then it’s right."

– Elaine Strauss

Rutgers University Orchestra, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Nicholas

Music Center, Rutgers University, 732-932-7511. Kynan Johns conducts

in his debut season with the student orchestra. $20. Sunday, March 7,

2 p.m.

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