Former MidAmerica Productions Conductor-in-Residence, Dr. Terre Johnson, has led performances all over the world. Although he has held several secular music director positions since earning his doctorate, he has always been involved in church music; he currently works as Minister of Music at the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where he has lived since December of 2004. Since then, Johnson has added composition to his already prolific repertoire, writing works for both vocal and instrumental groups. In a recent trip to New York, Johnson visited the MidAmerica offices where we spoke to him about his his upcoming World Premiere, successful conducting career, and thoughts on the state of music education.
MAP: Dr. Johnson, your career has taken you to many historic concert halls in the US, Europe, and beyond – is there any particular performance or venue that stands out to you?
Terre Johnson: Well, I’ve had, I think, 12 concerts here in Carnegie Hall, and there isn’t any place like it. It’s not just the acoustics; it’s the city itself and it’s where people want to be; the audience is there which isn’t necessarily true elsewhere. I’ve conducted in the Sydney Opera House, the Vienna Concert Hall, and in Florence, and it just isn’t the same. Carnegie Hall more than anywhere is where people want to be.
MAP: You’ve been a conductor and music educator for years, what is it that made you decide you wanted to compose as well?
Terre Johnson: I wish I could tell you [Laughs]. Originally, I had the drive to compose back when I was an undergrad, but I never had any lessons or a mentor. When I moved to Alabama I felt I could express something and took it upon myself to do it. A publisher heard my work and picked it up and that gave me the confidence to do more and more. It’s so much more nerve-wracking to compose than to perform or conduct; it’s like putting your child on display, you’re attached to it. Luckily I have a supportive church choir who are willing to perform and want me to write new music. I’m not in an environment where I’m surrounded by critics looking to pick things apart and find the flaws.
About five years ago, I wrote my first extended work, the Missa Femina, which premiered in Carnegie Hall and was performed by the Judson College Choir. John Rutter actually came to some of the rehearsals and he was enormously warm and supportive; you could not imagine a friendlier more supportive person. The reception of that piece set the stage for my new work, entitled “The Wind” which will be premiered this upcoming March by a group under the direction of my daughter, Cameron.
MAP: I see that you’ve also co-written two musical theater productions. How have you liked that as opposed to choral and orchestral works?
Terre Johnson: I loved doing the musical theater projects; I absolutely loved it. One of them was a modernization of the Iliad which I worked on with an old student of mine who went on to study musical theater at NYU. He and I are now in the beginning stages of writing a musical that tells the story of the Alabama Civil Rights Movement in the weeks and months before the Selma protest. It’s still in the very early stages of planning, but we’re hoping to incorporate the musical heritage of Alabama in addition to sharing a story that is crucial to the history of the country.
MAP: As a choral and music director you’ve worked in just about every level of music education – what can we as a society do to keep music education a priority and what advice do you have for fellow or aspiring music educators?
Terre Johnson: For the schools and for the society that owns them I would say that as long as you follow the research and act in your best interests, music education and arts education will stay in the schools. Music and arts education give the greatest benefit to the students and when they act outside of their best interest, when they put money elsewhere, they shouldn’t be surprised when students fail to achieve the standards that are set for them.
I’m currently teaching a music appreciation course as an adjunct professor in Birmingham. It’s a program designed for women from a transitional home, women who were homeless or are recovering addicts, to get course credit for college. Normally students taking music appreciation are bored undergrads, looking at their phones, but these women are incredibly responsive. They are present and interested in the subject matter; it’s amazing to see the lights go on in their heads. I love talking with them about the music and hearing their perspectives on it, how it’s different than what they hear on the radio and it actually makes me think about it differently. It is deeply rewarding working with them, rewarding in a number of ways.
So for the music educators all I can say is “you know why you do it.” Music educators are people answering a calling instead of just signing a contract. Your work is important and we see – we recognize you for doing it.