Simon Johnson’s Return to the Circle

This weekend, Groton had the pleasure of welcoming a world-class organist to the Circle. Simon Johnson, the presiding organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for the past six years, began his visit by giving a master class to the Chamber Choir. Johnson commented on how receptive the choir was to his instruction. He says, “I really enjoyed [the master class]. They were so quick to change. In England, I’m certainly working with much younger kids, so it takes longer to get that change.”

Johnson also played an organ concert in the chapel on Sunday afternoon, which was well attended by students, faculty, and many of Groton townspeople as well. Johnson played a wide variety of music ranging from 16th to 19th century. Johnson jokes: “I guess the unifying feature is that I really like all of the pieces. There’s no single strand.” Among the pieces played was one by Bach, a composer whom Johnson cites as one who created beauty from simplicity. Johnson further comments, “In planning a program, it’s about achieving the right mood swings. I hope I achieved that.”

Johnson’s work as a soloist has brought him to several countries around Europe including Germany, Holland, and France. Johnson names Holland as one of his favorite countries to give concerts. He says, “I love the Dutch organs because they’re unspoiled. A lot of them are untouched and very old. You’re playing instruments that Bach might have played, which I find very fascinating.”

Although Johnson’s work has brought him all over the world, his heart is at St. Paul’s. “The great thing about the organ is each organ is different, but my favorite organ in the world is the one I play every day,” he comments.  Recently, Johnson created a DVD on the St. Paul’s organ, regarded as one of the best instruments in the world.  Johnson comments, “I wanted to present it, talk about it, talk about its history, and how it works with the building…It’s a very interesting story. It’s been through a lot. It’s sort of an iconic instrument in terms of its survival.”

Much of Johnson’s work at St. Paul is based around the choristers who attend the Cathedral school. The boys rehearse each morning, go to school, and perform at an evensong every evening. St. Paul’s also has three services every Sunday. Johnson is also involved in the planning and meetings for special services hosted in addition to the evensongs at the Cathedral, which Johnson describes as the “great national center” for religion in England. Special services in which Johnson has been involved include The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and Margaret Thatcher’s funeral.

Johnson was playing in the West Coast of the United States last year when Margaret Thatcher died. He had arrived in San Francisco when he saw the television headline. “I knew,” he says, “I had to drop everything and go. I had to get a plane as soon as possible.” Certain preparations had been done already for the event, but Johnson says, “There was no room for error … so in that sense, it’s quite scary, but … I bumped into Benjamin Netanyahu and Henry Kissinger, all these giants. They were all just sitting there and the front was all our former Prime Ministers. It was absolutely awesome.”

Johnson’s future plans include playing in Russia next year, and a plan to come to Groton with the St. Paul’s choir is in the works. He has visited Groton before back in 1987, as a St. Paul’s student rather than an administrator, and before that point in his life, he had never expressed that much interest in music. However, the moment he decided to play, he met his aims with hours and hours of practice and dedication, racing through the piano and the organ.

After his concert in the chapel, Johnson and Mr. Hampson dual-conducted the choir from rehearsal to the end of our evensong performance. As choir members, it was a fun day, experiencing different styles of conducting and laughing about Mario Kart references. During our gathering downstairs after the service, Johnson praised our receptiveness and our ability to listen and adapt so quickly. We parted after his words: “Music will always fascinate you until the day you die. You’ll never be bored. Always play music. “

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