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In the Pit: Jennifer Johnson - Passion and Perseverance

BRAVO 43 Interview

By Diane Eisenman

“I love the oboe for its many colors and expressiveness. On very rare occasions, when the reed and the instrument are working just right, the instrument becomes an extension of myself. I feel vulnerable, yet I stay in the moment as nerves and distractions disappear. It is an incredible experience!”

The oboe itself is finicky. A screw can come loose, a crack can form, a pad can break off or an adjustment may shift. During performances, Jennifer keeps a tool bag under her chair with screwdrivers and superglue for just those occasions.

Having reeds that work is a constant battle. On some days, Jennifer will spend a good two hours making reeds. Reeds change with temperature, humidity, time played and other factors. While a good reed can last several operas, each one is still a daily gamble.

Jennifer’s start as an oboist was also a bit of a gamble. After studying piano from age six in Grand Junction, Colorado, she decided to join her friends in the middle school band. The director requested that she learn the oboe, asking her if she were up for a challenge. “Little did I know how much of a challenge it would be!” Primarily self-taught until college, she performed in several honor bands.

She earned a B.M. degree from the University of Colorado (Boulder) studying oboe with Peter Cooper, came to Los Angeles, and received her M.M. at USC and her Artist Diploma at Colburn with Allan Vogel. Four summers at the Aspen Music Festival with Metropolitan Opera’s principal oboist Elaine Douvas allowed her to hone her skills for the Los Angeles Opera (LAO) Orchestra. “I appreciate all of my teachers who stood by me through my growing pains,” Jennifer says.

Her challenges included auditioning for over 30 orchestra positions in eight years. Jennifer was determined to have an orchestra career and was willing to endure many rejections to fulfill that dream. The pace was grueling, the travel costly. On the brink of giving up, she secured her first position in 2012 with the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra.

Shortly thereafter, Jennifer auditioned for the LAO Orchestra. “I was very surprised when they called my name, and so excited to have won such an amazing job.” Nervous at having to perform an English horn solo in Carmen for Plácido Domingo at her very first rehearsal, she was reassured by Leslie Reed, principal oboist, who exclaimed after the rehearsal, “Welcome to the orchestra!” Jennifer just finished her third full season, still not believing she is actually “going to work.”

Playing opera is challenging, Jennifer says. “I must be aware and alert at all times, responsive to the conductor, singers and action. Yet I have found opera music to be some of the most gorgeous music ever written. It’s so rewarding to perform.”

Similar to the oboe, the English horn has the same fingering, but the instrument and reeds are larger, requiring different use of air. Jennifer usually plays the English horn solos while Leslie takes the oboe solos.

Jennifer’s other musical activities include participating in two orchestras in Santa Barbara, teaching at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music and occasional freelance and studio work. Additionally, she enjoys playing in small chamber groups where she can showcase her musical voice.

To relax, she goes mountain hiking and camping, practices yoga and gets together with friends. This year, though, a lot of free time will be devoted to planning her wedding to Will, a high school history teacher and cross-country coach. They understand music together, yet he also brings another world of interests to the table.

Jennifer thanks Opera League members for all of their support. “We are so glad you share a passion for opera with us. We appreciate the time and love you devote to making LA Opera such a successful venture.”

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Author: Thomas Lady
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