The Northern Chords festival is back and with it singer Ben Johnson. David Whetstone catches him before he goes on stage.
ONE day, when he's as famous as Sir Thomas Allen or Placido Domingo, people might look back and say of singer Ben Johnson: "I remember him at Northern Chords."
That’s the beauty of the annual chamber music festival which starts tonight – it features young musicians on the cusp of glittering careers.
When they’re in demand all over the world, we won’t see so much of them. Ben has been a Northern Chords regular since it started four years ago, brainchild of Tyneside- born cellist Jonathan Bloxham who fancied bringing his talented London music college friends home to perform.
On the phone I suggest to the 28-year-old singer that he must like coming to the North East.
He does but he explains: “I was with Jonathan when he first had the idea so we were talking about it together from the start.
“I was also, as it happens, planning to launch my own festival which takes place in a village in Norfolk. My Southrepps Classical Music Festival started the year after Jonathan’s and he’s been to every one.”
Ben, who studied at the Royal College of Music and has won numerous awards, has been called one of the most exciting tenors of his generation. He is a member of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists scheme, seen as a fast track to the big time.
He has performed demanding operatic roles and sung with symphony orchestras including the BBC, the Philharmonia and the City of Birmingham.
Earlier this year he sang for BBC Radio 3 at The Sage Gateshead, where he is also to perform this week.
On Friday at the Sage Ben will be the main Northern Chords attraction with Shakespeare in Song. Accompanied by pianist Tom Primrose, he will sing musical settings of Shakespeare’s words by composers including Purcell, Haydn and Benjamin Britten.
“It has been done before,” he says, “but there’s such a wealth of material. It’s not something I’ve seen done for a long while.
“I thought this would be a good chance to do it and Jonathan is always very kind and lets me suggest what I’d like to do.”
Assembling the song list posed a challenge which he enjoyed. “There are some very famous things I could have chosen but I’ve almost been more excited by some of the things that are not so well known.
“Many of the songs are not in print so I had to go to some lengths to find copies of the music.”
Ben says he plans to chat to his Sage audience between songs, “because Northern Chords audiences like it. That’s the nice thing about the festival. Audiences are really interested – and we’re getting to know each other now.”
Ben surprises me by saying he wasn’t a child prodigy, plucked from a choir’s ranks at an early age.
“I always wanted to be in music of some kind but I didn’t really know what. I started as a violinist and wasn’t very good at that so I tried keyboards.
“I also sang but didn’t really think it was something I could pursue. I always sang in a choir but I didn’t have a particularly attractive treble voice. I became a tenor quite early, when I was about 13.
“When I was about 16 they very kindly said, ‘You should do something with that’.
“There were places in London you could go and study and that was it, a door was opened.” Ben confirms what his CV suggests, that he’s very busy at present, “which is good”.
And then I hear operatic voices in the background.
“Yes, they’re warming up,” he says. “I’m at the Bordeaux Opera House and we’re about to do Don Giovanni.”
Busy at present, it seems, means busy right now. But although he’s due on stage as Don Ottavio, he still finds time for a chat. That’s not only generous but impressively cool. I wish him luck and get off the line.
Shakespeare in Song is at The Sage Gateshead on Friday at 7.30pm. Box office: 0191 443 4661.