Emma Johnson to headline Harrogate International Festival’s Sunday Series

Emma Johnson - Photo by John Batten Photography

Emma Johnson - Photo by John Batten Photography - Credit: John Batten

Emma Johnson is a dyed-in-the-wool Londoner, but we’ll forgive her – just this once – because she’s quick to claim Yorkshire as her second home.

She’s headlining Harrogate International Festival’s Sunday Series, which starts this month, but she’s hardly a first-time visitor to the North Yorkshire spa town. ‘I was first in Harrogate after I won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984,’ said Emma. ‘And I’ve been back a lot to play at the festival, more so, in fact, than any other town in the UK. I love Harrogate, and I’m lucky they keep asking me to come back.’

Harrogate plays a pivotal role in Yorkshire’s thriving music scene. Set alongside international events like Leeds International Piano Competition, it’s one of the key reasons why the county now features on tour schedules, alongside Paris, New York and Berlin.

The Sunday Series opens and closes with two previous winners of the world’s greatest piano competition, South Korean-born Sunwook Kim, who won aged 18 in 2006, and the 2012 winner, Italian Federico Colli.

‘It’s a remarkable line-up,’ said Emma. ‘Harrogate is not a massive town but supports an internationally renowned festival delivering these great artists. It’s also a lovely place to visit.’

As one of the UK’s foremost musicians, Emma pulls strong audiences, but she’s concerned not enough young people are attending concerts.

‘Children in school now encounter little music of any type, so don’t actually get introduced to or used to the idea of going to concerts,’ she said. ‘I was offered free lessons at my primary school. That encouraged me and a lot of people to have a go with an instrument. I can well imagine the day will come when people have no background, particularly in classical, and won’t know where to begin. It’s a crying shame.’

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‘When I won Young Musician of the Year it had an audience of 12 million,’ said Emma. ‘But that has gradually been pushed out of prime time slots.

‘Programming good classical music on prime time TV would help people see how great it is, but the powers-that-be don’t think it’s worth doing. You don’t necessarily have to go the X-factor route, it just needs people in the BBC and in education to realise that classical music is life-enhancing.’

Emma works hard to ensure her programme appeals to all the family, starting with Beethoven and Brahms and moving to lighter pieces, including jazz and swing. She’s also a fan of collaborating and has worked alongside other Harrogate stalwarts like Julian Lloyd Webber and Lesley Garrett.

‘We met in Harrogate,’ Emma said of Doncaster’s favourite diva (that’s Lesley, not Julian). ‘We both benefitted from the Young Musician platform and, about five years ago, were invited back to commemorate the fact. We hit it off.’

The pair have since performed together all over the world, including Barbados: ‘It’s fun to work with another artist so you can bounce ideas off each other. Lesley is larger than life and a fun person to work with. She has a cottage somewhere in the Dales, so we must bring our show to Harrogate some time. I’ll suggest it to her.’

Emma’s husband comes from Halifax and introduced her to what has become one of her favourite places in the world: Haworth.

‘We went looking for gravestones of his ancestors, many of whom had been christened by Patrick Bronte,’ she said. ‘Haworth is so beautiful; it really inspires me to imagine the Brontes writing there and going for walks on the heath.’

Although London is home, she loves to perform in Yorkshire.

‘London festivals are aimed at tourists – there are millions passing through,’ she said. ‘I played Swaledale Festival last summer, playing in beautiful little churches, where you get this feeling you’re really communicating with local people, which is what music should be about.’

That’s one of the reasons she’s so passionate about redressing the balance when it comes to arts funding in the regions. Current figures reveal a £68.99 spend per head of population in London and just £4.58 in the rest of England, meaning festivals are that much harder to stage.

‘It’s terribly important when you’re starting out to have something as prestigious as Harrogate Festival to really build your experience,’ she said. ‘You learn a lot playing in front of a very knowledgeable, friendly and welcoming audience.’

Emma Johnson performs with pianist Finghin Collins on Sunday March 29th at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate. Tickets, which start at £15.50, are available from 01423 562 303. See harrogateinternationalfestivals.com for the full Sunday Series line-up.