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Picasso - Three Musicians, 1921

Trent Johnson - Concert Reviews

Compositions

Saint Augustine - A Sacred Cantata

Oratorio Singers’ ‘St. Augustine’ Paves Road to Redemption

WESTFIELD — On March 30, Westfield’s Oratorio Singers gathered in the First United Methodist Church in Westfield to perform a classic Mozart mass, and to debut a new composition, “Saint Augustine,” a cantata composed by longtime Oratorio Musical Director Trent Johnson. “I decided to do this both as an experiment in [dramatic writing for voices], and because there isn’t really a major piece on Augustine,” said Mr. Johnson. “His story is about being a sinner and all the mistakes he made, yet he still redeemed himself at the end. It is a message that I think is important for people to hear.” Mr. Johnson spent seven months composing his work and studying Augustine’s confessions. That hard work was in evidence on Sunday, as the Oratorio Singers brought it to life with a full orchestra and soloists behind them.

The singers themselves brought powerful choir voices to the piece alternating between dark tones and gentle undercurrents. The soloists were also impressive, each bringing strong voices to the characters of Augustine (tenor Rufus Muller), his devoted mother (soprano Rachel Rosales), and [Bishop Ambrose] (bass Kevin Maynor) that helped him find salvation.

Mr. Johnson’s music was also a strong factor, as his words fit with the story progression. The bassoons emphasized the darkness of Augustine’s lament, while the tone brightened afterwards as he thanked his mother for always supporting him (an impressive switch in only two movements). Mr. Johnson even added a slight marching beat when Augustine announced his journey to redemption.

By Eric Nierstedt, Specially Written for The Westfield Leader and The Times

Cantus Avium Solamen Est, or Birdsong Brings Relief,
a concerto for clarinet, bird whistles, chorus and orchestra

      "... The next work on the program – conductor Trent Johnson’s Cantus Avium Solamen Est (Birdsong Brings Relief) – was the most interesting and innovative of the day. Written for, and in consultation with, clarinetist Andrew Lamy, (whose passion is ornithology) the three-movement work featured both rhapsodic bird-like passages on the clarinet (and sometimes the flute and oboe) and actual birdcalls played on both the bird whistles hung around Mr. Lamy’s neck and a dozen or so bird-whistlers seated at various places in the audience. The orchestral and choral parts are mostly impressionistic, mildly dissonant and very atmospheric. The first and third movements – Birdsong (Rumi) and I Live My Life in Growing Orbits (Rilke) – have clear bird references in their poetry. The second movement – Eletelephony (Richards) – is a cute child’s poem about an elephant who gets tangled up in the phone cord. No bird references there, but Mr. Johnson explains that these are the first three movements of what will eventually be a longer work, based on various animals, not just birds. Both the choral and orchestral writing is effective and engaging, but it is the bird-like clarinet and the bird calls themselves which capture the attention. The work ended with all the bird-whistlers in the audience playing their distinctive calls along with Mr. Lamy, in a moment that sounded like twilight in the forest. Gorgeous."

Barbara Thomson, The Westfield Leader and Times

Concertante for Organ and String Quartet

"The [AGO] convention commission, Concertante for Organ and String Quartet by Trent Johnson, a splendid new work in three movements, received a spellbinding premiere by Dr. [Marilyn] Keiser and the Shanghai Quartet."
Rives Cassel, The American Organist Magazine

*CD Review - Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano

      "... We noted that we had obtained a copy of the CD Halcyon Trio, recorded by the ensemble of the same name. After a year and a half of frequent listening, we regard this CD as a real find. Trent Johnson's Trio is well matched with the works of the two composers who are far better known, the Austrian Alfred Uhl (1909-1992) and the German Max Bruch (1838-1920). To our ear this program is well executed in three dynamic performances. The CD is a hidden gem, available only at the website of the Halcyon Trio."

William J. Zick, Africlassical blog

Concert Variations on The Carnival of Venice, for Organ

     "The Beckerath organ in St. Stephen’s Church [in Milburn, New Jersey] is elegant, stylistically quite distant from the giant Wurlitzer which resides in Radio City Music Hall. Yet Trent Johnson, who has played the Christmas Show at Radio City, as well as concertized on other large organs around the world, was anything but baffled by the comparatively small size of the St. Stephen’s instrument. He, like any fine artist, made the most of what he was given, and lo and behold, there were times when the audience heard the sounds of a theater organ emerging from the classically designed Beckerath.This "magic" was worked in the concert’s grand finale, the premiere of Johnson’s own Concert Variations on "The Carnival of Venice". 

     Johnson is a highly regarded composer of chamber, orchestral, and choral works which have been played around America and in Europe. It was the opportunity to hear his take on that old standard tune, so beloved by composers of variations, that drew this writer to the concert. The Concert Variations proved to be a clever and witty piece filled with bravura playing and composing, featuring most of a virtuoso organist’s technical abilities. Perhaps the most vivid, because the audience could see it happen, was the florid variation for feet alone in which the tune emerged from the welter of pedal work in the same manner that Liszt often gave the illusion of a third hand at work in his piano music. So one joke that surfaced after the concert was that this was a piece where having the proverbial "two left feet" was a great advantage. So amazing was the effect that at that variation’s conclusion the audience broke into loud applause.

     Other variations featured conversations between hands and feet, rhythmic-metric excursions into 5/4 (think Brubeck’s "Take Five"), an amusing — even sweet — bow to theater organ style for silent movies, and Johnson’s concluding homage to all those late 19th century French organists with a brilliant, flashy toccata in their style. The response was an immediate standing ovation and cheers. Most listeners never would have guessed ahead of time that this particular instrument could have produced so many distinct "voices" and such power, but there was the elegant Becherath surprisingly  revealing its un-guessed  ability to be wantonly garish if called upon.

     A few long-time fans of the St. Stephan’s recital series enthusiastically told this writer that this was one of the best recitals they had ever heard in the church. Praise indeed, considering the list of acclaimed artists who have given recitals on the Beckerath over the years."

Paul Mack Somers, Westfield Leader and the Times

Celebration Overture for orchestra

      "Mr. Johnson’s Celebration Overture was a short piece but certainly captured the audience’s eagerness for great music. His composition centered on a variation of the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” or in the original German “Lobe den Herren,” which he described in the program notes as invoking a “mood of joyfulness, jubilation and rejoicing.” Mr. Johnson indeed balanced a familiar tune with flourishes that grabbed the audience and never let go throughout the afternoon’s performance."
Maggie Diggory, Westfield Leader and the Times

Ukuthula, for the Mixed Flock Orchestra Project

        "The evening ended on a high note with the whole company performing an original piece by Abel Dlamini entitled Ukuthula (Peace). The composition was arranged by Trent Johnson, one of New Jersey’s foremost organists and composers. It is a measure of the regard in which Mr. Johnson holds Thula Sizwe that he played “auxiliary percussion” throughout the evening, and committedly so. The work had a highly rhythmic and undulating flow both musically and vocally with words which were both simplistic in their honesty and profoundly heartfelt in their affection. “There must be peace in all of Africa; the people of Africa must reconcile; Africa must shine and work together.”  At the work’s conclusion the audience rose to its feet, applauding loudly and appreciatively."
John Hammel, Maurice River Music News - World Music

The New Colossus, for orchestra

     " ... Mr. Johnson opened his composition with bird-like flutes, which suggested dawning, and a luxurious harp to create waves lapping on an American shore. Three section of his piece gave listeners a snippet of a European [Irish] jig, an African song and a Korean tune. One's imagination could soar envisioning the diversity of people standing before Lady Liberty as the magnificent strains filled the air."  Susan M. Dougherty - The Westfield Leader and the Times

Poem for Viola and Orchestra
 
      "Two other premieres were recently presented to New Jersey listeners, both by Trent Johnson ... [the Poem] was performed with NJSO violist Brett Deubner as soloist ... This work is quite serious in nature with long-lined lyricism, which fit the soloist’s temperament like a glove. The score is filled with polytonal or at least polychordal passages ... The Poem is to be the central movement of a viola concerto Johnson is composing for Deubner."            
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey

Petite Suite for Orchestra

      "Wearing another musical face ... Johnson’s Petite Suite was premiered by the Colonial Symphony ... with Yehuda Gilad conducting. This proved to be a ... fun filled work with bouncing rhythms and much use of Johnson’s fine ear for orchestral color. The middle movement was ... "night music" ... This was a night in which the moon rose ... bringing light not fright. The finale was practically Haydnesque in its good humor ..."
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey

Johnson as a Composer

     "Johnson is a composer possessing a distinct and marked musical identity;
when one hears a Johnson work, ones knows they are listening to a Johnson work."
Domecq Smith
- organist and colleague
 
Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano
 
     "Johnson’s Trio had the virtue of crystal clarity of structure; one could grasp immediately his compositional intent. The inner adagio movement was lovely and communicative ... He writes well for this trio, which offered virtuosic solo moments, especially a brilliant solo viola cadenza in the first movement ..."
Willa J. Conrad - Newark Star Ledger
 
Premiere of Johnson's Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano
 
     "The highlight of the evening was ... the world premiere of Johnson’s Trio ... Mr. Johnson rose to the occasion and produced a work that should handily join the repertoire of every chamber trio worth its salt ... It has such beautiful lean writing ... Obviously this listener was seduced by its breathtaking beauty."
John Hammel - Classical New Jersey
 
Cantata - The Paschal Lamb
 
     "Your Cantata was equally impressive. You have an outstanding feeling and talent for choral writing. Everything was clear, expressive and convincing from beginning to end. I predict that the PASCHAL LAMB will enjoy many more performances."  
Pulitzer Prize winning composer - Wayne Petersen
 
      "The work was written specifically for the Oratorio Singers and Bryn-Julson, and it graciously exploited those musical forces to the fullest ... Much of Johnson’s orchestral and vocal writing was handsome, particularly his harmonies and instrumental colors ... The audience had a grand time ... and lustily cheered composer, soloists and chorus ..."                                                
Peter Wynne - Newark Star Ledger
 
      "In the fourth movement "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" Mr. Johnson works in the familiar chorale tune most cleverly and with great effect. This music is particularly moving ... Mr. Johnson’s musical language is sincere, most attractive in its lyricism, orchestrated with considerable skill and imagination ... varied in effects and dramatically coherent. The Paschal Lamb left a good impression on this writer, who would very much like to hear more of Mr. Johnson’s music."                                                            
Henry Wyatt - Classical New Jersey

Trumpet Concerto

     "A memorable melody and some unusual organ registers marked the second movement ... various trumpet mutes added to its dreamlike atmosphere ... It was playful and exuberant .. both musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves."
Don Martone - Classical New Jersey
 

*CD Review - The Halcyon Trio

      "The repertoire ... is notable for the American premiere recording of Alfred Uhl’s "Kleines Konzert"; a world premiere of Trent Johnson’s Trio, commissioned by Halcyon; and four of Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces (Op. 83). The Trio’s playing is crisp, energetically delivered and rhythmically concise. There is a burning intensity to [Brett] Deubner’s playing ... [Andrew] Lamy offers a relaxed, mercurial clarinet tone ... [Gary] Kirkpatrick is the anchor of the trio..."
Willa J. Conrad - Newark Star Ledger
 
As Organist
 

Trent plays an organ concert at the Organ Hall, Chelyabinsk, Russia

     "The concert was excellent! We heard a lot of new music never heard here before, had a full house and three encores!!! There was also a video recording from some TV station... Trent Johnson was very impressed by our organ quality of sound, and he promised to come again."
An enthusiastic concert-goer - Chelyabinsk, Russia


Trent accompanies Handel's Messiah on the organ

      "... The star of the evening was organist Trent Johnson, who played the notoriously difficult accompaniment with energy and accuracy, providing the good rhythmic underpinning vital to a performance of this work."

Barbara Thomson, The Westfield Leader and The Times

 

Johnson's arrangement of The Orange Blossom Special, for Organ

     "... An encore after said shenanigans found Johnson continuing in an antic mood as he played that favorite of the blue-grass fiddler, Orange Blossom Special, in a wild and wooly arrangment that had everyone laughing as his fingers and feet flew around as busily as a fiddler knocking off the whirling tune at a party. Needless to say, cheers erupted again. A few longtime friends of the St. Stephen's recital series enthusistically told this writer that this was one of the best recitals that they had ever heard in the church. Praise indeed, considering the list of acclaimed artists who have given recitals on the Becherath over the years."

Paul Mack Somers, Westfield Leader and the Times

George Walker’s 80th Birthday Concert, New York City
 
      "... the organist Trent Johnson changed the stops. Organ seemed a natural instrument for Mr. Walker's music, with its intense assaults and long sustained notes under upper melodies. "Improvisation on St. Theodulph for Organ" took a familiar hymn tune and drew it out like thick taffy into a somber extended exegesis on itself."                                                                                              
Anne Midgette - New York Times
 
George Walker’s 80th Birthday Concert, New York City
 
      "Organist Trent Johnson offered two works from the late 90's, "Spires" and "Improvisation on St. Theodulph"; it was notable how effortlessly Walker capitalized on the expansive, billowing voice of the pipe organ."                                                     
Willa Conrad - Newark Star Ledger
 
The Westfield Bach Festival

     "... with the "Gigue" fugue ... the feet put on what most would think to be a display unparalleled in Bachian works ... watching Mr. Johnson’s feet fly over the pedal board with utter accuracy ... Here the gigantic pedal solo [in the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major] in which we got to watch his feet execute trills and other ornaments was the talk of the audience ..."                                     
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey
 
     "Johnson is a virtuosic player ... but always sophisticated."
Nan Childress - Classical New Jersey

Johnson accompanies the 1925 silent film classic, "The Phantom of the Opera"
 
      "Last Saturday night was a triumph ... Wonderfully different was this performance with musical background supplied by Maestro Trent Johnson ... To the utter delight of the large audience, Mr. Johnson played continuously for an hour and forty minutes, closely following the action on the screen, from the ballet dancers to the phantom’s subterranean catacombs. The standing ovation awarded Mr. Johnson was overwhelming."
David Norwine - Editorial, Westfield Leader and Times
 

Johnson plays the "new" Richard Fowlkes organ
 
      "Johnson saved the most spectacular demonstration of his art for last as he took on the obstacles of Bach’s formidable ‘Wedge’ Prelude and Fugue in E Minor. Johnson was flawless as he executed the difficulties. The audience of strangers and friends ... were in the happy position of being able to give him a very well deserved standing ovation."                                            
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey
 
 
*CD Review - George Walker "Composer/Pianist"
 
      "The disc’s best music ... lies in the three organ works played by Trent Johnson ... The elegiac qualities of "Prayer" relate to Walker’s ... "Lyric for Strings" of 1946. More complex, "Improvisation on St. Theodulph" is a brooding fantasy on a hymn tune. "Spires" is grander yet, a chromatic essay in aural architecture."
Bradley Bambarger - Newark Star Ledger
 
As Conductor
 
Handel's Dettingen Te Deum and P. D. Q. Bach's Missa Hilarious

The opening of the Handel Te Deum... grabbed the attention right away with the addition of festive trumpets, reeds, and timpani, and a general pick-up in energy level from the chorus. The Te Deum is a multi-movement work, with sections for chorus, soloists, and various combinations of the above. Bass-baritone [Brace] Negron had a big, authoritative voice, and was especially effective in a duet with the solo trumpet. Countertenor [Jeffrey] Mandelbaum sang with a pleasing sound ... Tenor [Kerry] Stubbs, ... proved a capable third in the trio movement, adding a bright, solid sound to the mix.

His [P.D.Q. Bach's] Missa Hilarious includes parts for Bargain Counter Tenor (Mandelbaum), Basso Blotto (Negron), and some contraption made out of a long piece of bright yellow tubing attached to the end of a penny whistle, played with magisterial aplomb by Andrew Lamy. The text was full of silliness.

Conductor Trent Johnson seemed fully in command of the situation, be it serious or silly, and the chorus and orchestra were attentive to his every nuance. All in all a good job.
Barbara Thomson - The Westfield Leader and the Times


Bach's B Minor Mass

    "The Oratorio Singers, under Mr. Johnson's deft guidance, gave ... a most unforgetable Mass in B Minor, one to stand up with any professional venue in the [NY] metropolitan area."
Sam Juliano - Westfield Leader and Times

Haydn’s Creation
 
      "There is no quibbling about Mr. Johnson as a vocal conductor. His big bright chorus sang cleanly and robustly, with well defined inflection. The soloists were of a high order ... with such good singing from soloists and choristers, this Creation more than satisfied."
Henry Wyatt - Westfield Leader and Times
 
 
     "Johnson kept a tight reign on the orchestra ... It was the singing that mattered and this rewarded the attention superbly."       
 Peter Spencer - Newark Star Ledger
 
Bach’s St. John Passion
 
     "Seemingly aware of this Passion’s promises and challenges, conductor Trent Johnson assembled a body of fine soloists and instrumentalists to share in a poignant execution of this magnificent work. ... Tenor Rufus Muller was a master storyteller ... Mr. Johnson handled his forces with discipline and clarity, combined with dramatic and musical intelligence .. He focused on long-term goals ... Johnson kept the energy level high ... The chorus must be praised for an overall successful performance ... Their diction, responsiveness and quality of sound were all attributes ..."
Joseph Orchard - Classical New Jersey
 
Mozart’s Requiem
 
      "I was greatly impressed by the incisive attacks and accuracy of both the choir and orchestra in this performance shaped and controlled by Trent Johnson, an outstanding conductor."
Dennis E. Hyams - Classical New Jersey
 
Brahms’ Requiem
 
     "Conductor Trent Johnson has an orchestra which fully supported the music. His vision of the horn parts was expansive ... most hair raising were the octaves in "Denn alles Fleisch ..." One of the great effects generated by the spread-out chorus was in the fugue at " Herr, du bist wurtig"."
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey

Elgar’s The Music Makers

      "Trent Johnson’s Oratorio Singers presented a concert which was not only well performed but opened the door to music rarely sung in America. The post-Wagnerian shifting tonalities were negotiated with ease which gave no hint at the difficulties which must have crept up in rehearsal. ... And the orchestra supplied richly idiomatic playing. ... The solo strings had a beautiful moment of chamber music at ‘But we, with our dreaming and singing...’"
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey

Mendelssohn’s Symphony #2 Lobgesang

      "[instrumental] Soloists were sensitive to the German romantic sound, playing with warmth and woodiness. ... The most electrifying moment was the episode in which the question "Watchman, will the night soon pass?" is repeated. After its intense drama, Jeannette Marraffi’s entrance "The night is departing" was hair raising. The subsequent chorus is one of the composer’s great contrapuntal creations, and the chorus sang it with assured vigor."
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey

Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces

      "Johnson’s singers attained their finest choral sound at "Tu rex gloriae" [and] in the final "Te Deum" with an arching legato line of substance. Not long after, their a capella singing at "Salvum fac populum tuum" was firm and secure. Several times the sopranos [floated] exquisite pianissimo lines. The orchestra was superb ... and every nuance Johnson wanted was in place."
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey

Dello Joio’s To Saint Cecilia

      "New to nearly everyone was ... To Saint Cecilia ... It is for chorus and brass ... The obvious worry is that the brass will cover the chorus but this performance was surprisingly well balanced. Surprising because the potential power of the brass was supplied by top-rate players, many from the NJSO ... The a capella sections were clearly well rehearsed, for they were without any hint of insecurity ... the text "bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher" was sung by the four-part women with angelic lightness and clarity. The men’s response was at an equally high level."
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey

Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms

      "... the crispness of the singing and playing in the bouncy 7/8 kept it light. The Hebrew snapped off the singer's tongues. The same great energy was the underpinning of the up-tempo "Lamah rag’shu goyim" ("Why do the nations rage"). The final soft "Hineh mah tov" glowed, repeating the opening motive of the entire work."
Paul Somers - Classical New Jersey
 
Interior with a Girl Drawing - 1935
Picasso - Interior with a Girl Drawing, 1935