Interview with cellist Guy Johnston

Guy Johnston, the cellist who kicks off the Proms festival next week, talks to Stephen Moss

Anyone who thinks classical music is stuffy or esoteric should meet Guy Johnston - or watch him perform at the first night of the Proms next Friday. The 20-year-old cellist, last year's BBC Young Musician of the Year, will play the Elgar Cello Concerto, and it promises to be a glorious beginning to the two-month festival.

Johnston is admirably relaxed about the prospect of playing this much-loved work in front of 6,000 people in the Royal Albert Hall. "My parents have always believed that you've got to grab these opportunities. Friends look at you as if to say, 'God, how are you?', and that just adds to the pressure, but I try to ignore all that and get as much out of it as I can. I know what I'm searching for and will not let myself be put off by exterior pressures. The Proms audience is so warm, and hopefully they will be there to support me."

Last year, while Johnston was performing Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto in the televised final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, one of his strings broke, but he held his nerve, changed the string, started again, and enraptured both audience and judges in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. How did he manage to keep his head? "I was in the zone, I suppose. I wasn't really aware of what was going on. It's ridiculous when I think about it now."

It may have helped that he has lived and breathed music more or less from birth. His mother is a bassoonist, his father a clarinettist, and together they have run a music school for 25 years. His two brothers and his sister play instruments to professional standard, and his 90-year-old grandmother helps out in the school shop. "I went to the music school most mornings before I went to school," says Johnston. "I was always around music. My parents run music courses in the summer, and we used to be taken round in caravans while they took the courses. It was great fun."

At eight, he became a chorister at King's College, Cambridge and combined singing with the cello. "I had to do cello practice before choir rehearsal in the morning, and it seemed a big chore at the time. It was only in my last year at King's that the cello suddenly became more part of my life."

It is the opposite of hothousing, and Johnston is all the better for it. Music has been an organic part of his life and he savours what he has rather than fretting about what is still to come. Agents IMG have just signed him up and record deals will probably follow, but Johnston is in no rush. "I feel safe and just plan to keep doing what I'm doing, making sure there's a structure to it," he says.

After King's, Johnston went to Cheetham's music school in Manchester and then to the Eastman school of music in Rochester, New York State. "I went on a music course at Tanglewood [the Boston Symphony's summer base in Massachusetts] when I was 15," he says, "and saw every artist under the sun in the space of eight weeks. It was amazing. That pushed me up a gear, and I decided to go to study in the US. The music world in England is really small: everyone knows each other. I had started to become quite narrow-minded."

In 1997, when Johnston was 16, his elder brother Rupert - a French horn player with a promising musical future - was involved in a car crash. He survived but suffered brain damage that affects his concentration and ability to control his emotions. "Time stopped," says Johnston. "There was an empty feeling. It was on the cards that he was going to be a damn fine player, and he was being offered all sorts of things, including an audition for the LSO. He had so much natural ability and he still does. He didn't do much practising even then, but the results were phenomenal. It was just beginning to come together.

"We recently had a charity concert for the hospital that saved his life, the Atkinson Morley. He learned a new piece for it - it was a huge challenge to see if he could remember it - and played brilliantly. As soon as there is an audience, he will show off."

Time may have stood still, but Johnston's music-making did not. He believes the accident and the way he and his family had to come to terms with it have deepened his playing. "There's far more meaning behind what we're doing now. You start to feel much more deeply for the music you're playing, especially the Elgar. That's going to be a real heart-wrenching thing to play; you can't help but feel those emotions at the time."

It's hard not to admire the warmth and honesty of Johnston's musical personality. Hearts will break at his Proms debut, even if strings don't.

• The first night of the Proms is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212), on July 20, and broadcast live on Radio 3 and BBC2.


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

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