Born in England and raised in New Hampshire, Johanna developed a passion for chamber music as a young child. A member of Diderot String Quartet and ACRONYM, she also performs regularly with the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Carmel Bach Festival Orchestra, Trinity Wall Street Baroque Orchestra, Handel & Haydn Society, the Sebastians, TENET, and New York Baroque Incorporated, among others.
We caught up with Johanna a few days before her first performances as a core member of Tafelmusik, in Handel’s London, which takes place on Friday, September 23 and Saturday September 24.
How did music first enter your life?
I started the violin at age 10 in a school string program. Before that, I liked to sing and play the recorder, and music was always around at home. My mother, who is an avid classical music fan, took up a couple of instruments as an adult and wished she’d had training as a child. So she had the radio on all the time and would take me to concerts. I remember listening to live chamber music and thinking, “I want to do that!” — even before I knew what instrument I would play.
How did you come to baroque violin and the world of historically informed performance?
This is a fun story. I was 17, still in high school, and was told the best way to get into any music conservatory was to connect with your preferred professors. Marilyn McDonald at Oberlin had been recommended to me, and I was interested in studying with her for my (modern violin) undergraduate degree. So when I saw her name on a “Classical Fortepiano Trios” summer workshop, I applied, thinking it would be the perfect chance to work with her. Little did I know this was a historical performance course — I had never heard of the baroque violin or historical performance practice. Needless to say, I was confused when I showed up to find everyone playing at a different pitch, and on gut strings, with historical bows, etc. Despite the challenging pivots that week required, I quickly realized how right it all felt and I was officially bitten by the bug. I did end up in Marilyn McDonald’s studio for my modern violin degree, but also began specializing in baroque violin as soon as I was “allowed,” and stayed on to pursue my Masters degree in historical performance.
Before auditioning for the violin position, to what extent was Tafelmusik on your radar?
I’ve always had a lot of respect for the artists and the institution of Tafelmusik. Anyone studying historical performance learns about the ensemble’s pioneering role in the field, and comes across many recordings, and of course the touring programs have captured a lot of international attention. I really enjoyed performing with Tafelmusik a handful of times in 2018 & 19, and I’m very proud to be calling these friends and colleagues my new family.
You have many talents besides music, particularly in the area of visual art! Can you tell us more about that and your preferred mediums (including Etch-a-Sketch)?
Growing up, visual art was a close second to music — I have loved drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. I didn’t take a formal course until Oberlin, after which charcoal drawing became my medium for a good while. More recently, I got back into painting. One of the best things I accomplished in the thick of the pandemic was to take a watercolor class (entirely new to me) over Zoom. And I am always excited to explore new ways of making beautiful things: the Etch-a-Sketch art referenced here was born of a brief but intense creative rabbit hole, after a visiting child left one in our living room. I have also cultivated some very basic photoshop skills that come in handy once in a while.
What is your favourite music to listen to? (any genre)
I enjoy most genres, it’s really hard to pick a favourite. Lately we listen to whatever our toddler demands, which is usually the Beatles.
Who is a favourite overlooked/underrated composer of yours?
Giovanni Valentini comes to mind, an early 17th-century baroque composer not to be confused with the slightly more well-known Giuseppe Valentini, who lived later. Some years ago, my string band ACRONYM made an album of previously unrecorded instrumental music by Giovanni Valentini, and his pieces were fascinating to discover: wonderfully fun, harmonically wild and wacky, with a lot of expressive potential.
You and your husband, baritone Jesse Blumberg, travel frequently for work. What are your tips for maintaining a strong connection when you’re apart?
It’s true that pre-pandemic we were often ships in the night. Though we’ve also enjoyed the privilege of working together in many places. Being on tour together is how we initially met and got to know one another. We have spent much less time apart in the last couple of years, due to the pandemic and the aforementioned toddler, and I can’t say I have missed the long weeks of separation. As things pick back up, I’m grateful we’re able to travel as a family a lot of the time. I do think the years of coming and going have given us lots of practice at staying in close communication, at finding creative ways to show up (we’ve done lots of visiting the other on gigs), and also instilled a feeling that we never take for granted the times we have together. Some of that applies nicely to parenting as well, it turns out!
What are you most looking forward to in your newly adopted city of Toronto?
There is so much to discover. Coming from NYC, Toronto feels like it offers a calmer pace of life, while also being a rich and vibrant international city. I look forward to getting to know the people, the food, the parks, the museums… you name it.
What are your favourite activities when you are not rehearsing, touring, or performing?
Hanging out with our delightful kid takes the cake these days. I used to read, once upon a time. I do hope to get back into jogging in the coming months, especially as it’s a great way to explore a less familiar city.
Any upcoming projects you would like to mention?
So there’s this great Canadian baroque orchestra I just joined … 😉
But ok, in addition, I’m especially looking forward to a program involving Beethoven’s Op. 95, “Serioso”, that we’ll put together this winter with my period string ensemble, The Diderot String Quartet.