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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
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
"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
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,
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