Mary Grace Johnson: The WV Symphony Orchestra’s new Concertmaster

By Elijah Newell, RealWV

Mary Grace Johnson, Assistant Professor of Violin at West Virginia University (WVU), has joined the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra (WVSO) as the organization’s newest concertmaster.

Johnson began working for the organization in January and has performed in several concerts with the Orchestra. She is currently preparing for the WVSO’s “Night At The Opera” concert on April 13 at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston.

Johnson described the concertmaster’s specific role in orchestras as the “second in command” to the conductor. She said she enjoys performing as the concertmaster because of how involved the position is in the Symphony.

“I actually think of the concertmaster as a liaison between the conductor and the orchestra,” Johnson said. “So the conductor will say, ‘Ok, I want it to sound like this,’ and it’s the concertmaster’s job to translate that into technical terms…. my job is kind of a translator.”

Johnson’s love for music began in her childhood, when her older siblings taught her how to play the violin when she was five years old. She began playing in string orchestras when she was ten and performed at the Blair School of Music in Nashville, Tennessee. She went on to perform in various youth orchestras within the state.

By the time her senior year of high school came around, Johnson said she asked her parents to homeschool her so she would have more time during the day to practice. She went on to perform in various high school-level orchestras in Tennessee and started playing at violin competitions around the same time. She auditioned and was accepted to Vanderbilt University. She originally studied as a dual major in Math and Violin Performance before dedicating her studies full-time to music. She then got her Masters at the Juilliard School and her Doctorate at Rice University. She served as the concertmaster of all the orchestras of the schools she attended.

Johnson talked about why she loved being a concertmaster in more detail.

“I’ve always liked being in that role – I find it really challenging, and I like to be challenged,” Johnson said. “I like the challenge of trying to play the music to the highest possible level and figuring out how to solve challenges. That’s also something I really like about playing chamber music, as well as like, ‘Ok, it’s not together, why? How can we fix it?’ I always really enjoy doing that with group people and I feel like when I’m in a concertmaster role, it’s the closet chamber music experience in an orchestra.”

Johnson will use her skills in the WVSO’s latest concert tonight at the Clay Center, in Charleston, at 7:30.

The “A Night At The Opera” performance will feature several music pieces, including Strauss’s “Vier Letzte Lieder, TrV 296,” with soloist soprano Carline Waugh, and several other selections from various operas, performed alongside the WVSO Chorus. Ticket and concert information can be found at the Symphony’s website, wvsymphony.org.

Johnson encouraged people unfamiliar with the style of music to attend the event.

“It’s entertainment, it’s supposed to be entertaining, so don’t feel like you have to be a certain way or be a certain person to enjoy classical music cause it’s not true, and there’s so much,” Johnson said. “Classical music, I kinda hate that term cause people automatically think like ‘Oh it’s like Mozart’, but there’s so much; it’s a genre of music that spans hundreds of years, and so you may think you don’t like it, but maybe you haven’t heard 20th century, 21st century music… Give it a shot, and see if you like it or not, and if you don’t like one thing, try something else. I think there’s something for everyone in classical music, and if you’re open to it, you can really discover a whole new genre of music that has a lot to be offered.”

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