Thu | Dec 7, 2023

Classical pianist, composer enjoys singing in Jamaican patois

Published:Thursday | July 28, 2022 | 12:06 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Mikhail Johnson.
Mikhail Johnson.
Mikhail Johnson (front, second right) had been an active composer since his final years of high school, but his compositional talents truly flourished while in university.
Mikhail Johnson (front, second right) had been an active composer since his final years of high school, but his compositional talents truly flourished while in university.

Mikhail Johnson, a Herbert Morrison Technical High School alumnus, recently earned a doctorate in music from Texas Tech University and has been making strides on the international stage as a classical concert pianist and composer.

The 32-year-old Jamaican who hails from Maroon Town, St James, told The Gleaner that his mother discovered his love for classical music at the age of three when he started to cry after she switched the television from a station airing classical music one Sunday afternoon.

“She thought it was a fluke for a moment and she kinda went back and forth testing it to see if I was really intrigued by it. She took piano lessons so she could have me around the instrument and by age 10 I was playing for churches and then eventually I grew to love classical music, even though I didn’t know how to read music,” he recounted.

Johnson was a member of the band for his entire high school tenure, where he played the saxophone and was a frequent medallist in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission competition.

He was also the winner of the Jamaica Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition for Young Musicians Senior Division in 2009, and in the same year won the piano section of the Jamaica Music Teachers’ Association Music Competition.

At Northern Caribbean University, he completed an undergraduate degree in biological sciences and a minor in music.

“The programme in music had not been accredited and also it didn’t help that I had basically given up on music during that time because I felt as though the opportunities that I had to study music had gone because a lot of my colleagues when I was in high school had gotten huge scholarships to study abroad,” he explained.

In his second year of study, Johnson met Kimberly Cann, a teacher who made him reconsider music as a career.

He had been an active composer since his final years of high school, but his compositional talents truly flourished while in university.

He completed his degree and was intent on figuring how to get to the next level in music, so Johnson applied and was selected as the music director at Spot Valley High School.

He taught there for two years before taking up an artist-in-residence post at Mountambrin Theatre Gallery in Westmoreland, where he played in numerous concerts for the 2013 to 2014 season.

While there, he met a prominent violinist, Steven Woodham, who was instrumental in his career as a musician, and later, Dr William Chapman Nyaho, who sourced a full scholarship for him to study in the United States.

Johnson read for a double master’s degree in piano performance and composition from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

“A lot of my work and compositions involve singing in the Jamaican language which has rarely been done, and I was very privileged to have one of my works called Evil’s Peak that is also written in the Jamaican language, which got its debut at the Spoleto Festival USA just this past June and to me that’s unprecedented because not very often you hear of classical music in patois being performed on such an international platform, so it’s a huge honour,” Johnson said.

In 2021, he was the first Jamaican national to enter and win two categories in the Charleston International Music Competition with unanimous vote from the judges for most exceptional performer award.

For the remainder of this year into 2023, he will be working with the Brooklyn Art Song Society to bring the words of Jamaican poet laureate Lorna Goodison’s Praise to the Mother of Jamaican Art to life in song.

Johnson lost his father at age 12 and his mother in 2014, the year he received the full scholarship.

“It is bittersweet because I wonder what they would think of my achievements now. My mom was very instrumental in nurturing the fact that I loved music so much,” he said.

Johnson hopes to create a funding project to support young Jamaicans desirous of studying music as he continues to compose works that fuse the traditional and the avant-garde with consummate Jamaican flair.

2022: Expert presenter and panellist on cultural appropriation in classical music at the Music Teachers National Association Conference.

2022: Winner in the Mentorship Programme of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.

2020: Intern for SILKROAD organisation, founded by world renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

2016: Winner of the American Prize for Piano.

2016: Winner of the NEOSonicFest Young and Emerging Composers call, where his composition was performed by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony.

2016: Performer at the InterHarmony Music Festival in Italy.