Originally published in The Clarinet 50/1 (December 2022).
Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
2022 ICA Honorary Member: Ted Johnson
Theodore “Ted” Johnson (1930-2022) was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He was educated at DePaul University and studied with famed Chicago Symphony clarinetist Jerome Stowell. At age 18 he began playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Ravinia Festival Orchestra and continued with the Kansas City Philharmonic.
In 1959, he joined The Cleveland Orchestra as second and E♭ clarinetist. His lengthy tenure with the orchestra lasted 36 years during which time he played under the greatest conductors of the 20th century including Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Bernstein, Szell, von Karajan, Boulez, Rodzinski, Steinburg, Leinsdorf, Mehta, Copland, Ashkenazy, Pretre, Dohnányi,Stokowski, Ozawa, Abbado, Williams, Barenboim, Chailly, Haitink, Kubelik, Maazel, Ormandy, Tilson Thomas, Monteux, and Kertesz. He performed on every continent and nearly every county in the world, and recorded nearly every piece of music written for the symphony orchestra. He also developed a state-of-the-art clarinet mouthpiece and taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland State University, and the University of Akron. As a chamber musician, Johnson performed as a member of the Cleveland Octet of The Cleveland Orchestra (nominated for a Grammy Award), the Martinu Quartet of Prague, and the Venner Ensemble.
Learn more about Johnson in the interview “Theodore Johnson: Remembrances and Recommendations” by Dennis Nygren, The Clarinet 43 no. 2 (March 2016).
The following are remembrances from those who knew Ted Johnson.
Theodore Johnson was one of the main reasons for my seamless transition into The Cleveland Orchestra in 1976. Ted played his important role as second and E♭ clarinet during the incomparable George Szell era. I was the lucky beneficiary of his wisdom and artistry for so many years. I will forever be grateful to Ted for his unique kindness and support as well as his amazing playing. We made a wonderful team and so many of our recordings from the ’70s and ’80s are a testament to his extraordinary artistry. Beethoven’s Ninth was a dream with Ted, as were all works that we played together. His E♭ playing was out of this world. Rest in peace, dearest Ted.
– Franklin Cohen, Principal Clarinet Emeritus, The Cleveland Orchestra
I learned of Ted Johnson’s passing with great sadness mixed with enormous gratitude for having known and worked with him. To say that I was nervous about starting as principal clarinet of the Cleveland Orchestra in my early twenties is an understatement. I contacted Ted Johnson before my first week and asked if we could meet ahead of time to go over the extended clarinet unison that opens the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony. Ted graciously agreed and our meeting was one of the most enlightening experiences of my musical career. For the seasons we performed, toured, and recorded together Ted helped make me feel like I belonged and helped me grow as a musician and a human being. Working with Ted was a master class in ensemble playing, phrasing, tone production, intonation, and balance as well as leadership, teamwork, professionalism, kindness, and generosity.
– David Shifrin, Professor of Clarinet, Yale School of Music
I sat in front of Ted Johnson in the Cleveland Orchestra for many years—from 1961 until his retirement about 15 years ago. (I retired in 2005, as Associate Principal Flute). Ted was the ultimate orchestral musician—he didn’t bother anybody, sat there quietly while the rest of us were full of high jinks. George Silfies (assistant principal clarinet) would kick my chair when he thought it appropriate, and then I would kick the chair of the unfortunate second violinist in front of me. (It was difficult for musicians to communicate with each other when George Szell was on the podium). As far as his musical contribution, Ted was the best. He played the E♭ clarinet (an instrument that can be very annoying) with the utmost in pitch, phrasing, and with supreme musicality. I fear that I will not ever get a chance to hear an E♭ clarinet played that well.
Rest in peace, Ted.
– John Rautenberg, Associate Principal Flute (retired), The Cleveland Orchestra
I played for many years with Ted from 1978 until his retirement. For 10 years we were colleagues in the Cleveland Octet. Ted was always a gentleman and wonderful chamber musician. We recorded the Schubert Octet twice together. I’ll always remember his E♭ playing in Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. Spot-on every time and amazing! We enjoyed many conversations while touring both with the orchestra and the octet. Ted was one those musicians that connected me to the Szell era and helped me to communicate that tradition to my younger colleagues. My memories of Ted are happy ones, and I will miss him dearly.
– Scott Haigh, First Assistant Principal Bass (retired), The Cleveland Orchestra
Watching and listening to Theodore Johnson performing with The Cleveland Orchestra was like observing? a Michelangelo or a Beethoven at work. In reality he was one of the very best clarinetists in the world and it is humbling for me to say he was my teacher and mentor in music and in life.
He touched so many lives in so many ways. Not by design, and not by overt influence and certainly not for material gain. It just sort of happened because that was his special character.
It all started back in 1968 when I was a young aspiring clarinet student and Mr. Johnson welcomed me into his studio at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM). I remember the first lesson very well. It was terrifying. But also humbling and even funny at times. For example, at the conclusion of that lesson I asked, “So Mr. Johnson, do you have a master’s degree?” His answer, “I am a master!” Over the years we would often laugh and tell each other stories of our youth, parents, teachers, and our special interests outside of music. The best were always Cleveland Orchestra stories. George Szell stories (Ted called him “The Raw Nerve”) were always of great interest as well as the shenanigans of trumpet great Dick Smith, who was his roommate while on tour with the orchestra. Funny, funny stories.
I continued my clarinet studies with Mr. Johnson until 1974 when I graduated with my master’s degree from CIM. For the next 40 years I wandered away from the clarinet because of life’s events and the need to direct all my energy in building my music store business. However, about 15 years ago, Ted came walking into my store. A day that changed everything. He handed me one of his old clarinets and said, “Start practicing… I will be back next week, and we will play clarinet together!” Well, over the next several years we performed three major pieces together that feature two clarinets and piano. Here I was at the age of 62 performing with one of great legends of the clarinet! Who would have ever guessed that would happen!
Ted often spoke about the wonderful music for the full clarinet choir and his desire to start a professional group. So, I began making a few phone calls to highly accomplished clarinetists to join us in a clarinet choir. When they learned Theodore Johnson was going to be the leader and conductor, no encouragement was needed. Ted named the group “The Venner Clarinet Choir,” The Venner taking its name from the Danish word “friend.”
Most important in Ted’s life were his children. He always spoke of his love and devotion to Barbara, Beth, Ken, and Chris. I remembered his children well because so many of my clarinet lessons were at his home in Cleveland Heights. A lesson often began with a recent event or story of one of the children. It made me feel like a part of his family.
If there was one consuming thing in Theodore Johnson’s life, it was his love for his wife Sheila … and her love for him. No doubt Sheila welcomed him into the Gates of Heaven, saying “What took you so long?” … And his reply, “I was looking for a good clarinet reed.”
– James Stahl, Cleveland Institute of Music M.M. ’74; Founder and President, Central Instrument Company (1979-2022)
I first met Theodore “Ted” Johnson following some concerts by The Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, after I began teaching at Kent State University. Our relationship became more personal when I agreed to play mostly E♭clarinet with the Venner Clarinet Choir, which Ted founded in 2013, and especially when he consented to do an interview with me for an article in The Clarinet (Vol. 43, No. 2, March 2016).
Ted performed as principal clarinetist in several ensembles but is best known for playing second clarinet and E♭ clarinet with the Cleveland Orchestra. As a second clarinetist he always made the principal clarinetist sound good, be he Robert Marcellus, David Shifrin, or Franklin Cohen. I am reminded of great duets with my teacher—Robert Marcellus— in, for example, Fingal’s Cave (Mendelssohn), Rhapsodie Espagnole (Ravel), Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, or Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, to name just a few. No one played better E♭ clarinet than Ted; listen, for example, to the 1969 Boulez recording of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 (Szell, 1959), or the very best Till Eulenspiegel I ever heard, a live Szell performance from 1969.
As a person, Theodore Johnson was always a humble, gracious human being. He will be deeply missed.
– Dr. Dennis Nygren, Professor Emeritus, Kent State University
In the early 1970s I met with Ted Johnson for E♭ clarinet lessons. He was a wonderful pedagogue and his instruction is still very useful today. He also taught me to make excellent reeds from reed blanks using the Reedual, and I have used homemade reeds exclusively for the last 50 years. I heard Ted play the Schubert Octet with an ensemble of musicians from The Cleveland Orchestra. This was a wonderful performance, and Ted sounded a lot like Robert Marcellus. My strongest memory of Ted Johnson is that he was a complete gentleman and a super encouraging teacher. I am forever grateful for knowing him.
– John Weigand, Professor of Music, West Virginia University
I first met Ted when I was a young professional teaching at SUNY Fredonia and playing in the Erie Philharmonic. During my time at Northwestern, Robert Marcellus often spoke about Ted and his fantastic E♭ playing. Since I was in the area, I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to buy and learn to play E♭ clarinet. Ted was a wonderful instructor with terrific insights into the orchestral literature. Soon, I began playing clarinet excerpts and audition lists for him. Within a few months, I won my first full-time orchestra job. Unfortunately, two weeks before I was going to move, the orchestra folded. Devastated, I contacted Ted, and he suggested I come to CIM and pursue an artist diploma degree with him. I was not interested in another degree, but coming to Cleveland turned out to be one of most wonderful experiences of my life. Within a year, I won another full-time position.
I have been blessed to study with many big-name teachers (Robert Marcellus, Larry Combs, Russ Dagon), but it was Ted who believed in me, gave me confidence, helped me win auditions, and taught me longevity in orchestra life. His passion for music and awareness to detail in all aspects of life continue to inspire me daily. I am so grateful to have known this wonderful man and it was especially beautiful to have been close to Ted this past year, while I prepared to perform at the ICA tribute to him. I miss him dearly.
– Kirsten Ahnell, Owensboro Symphony Orchestra Principal Clarinetist/Soloist (1990-2020); Professor of Clarinet, Kentucky Wesleyan College
I first met Ted in 1993 when he was playing in The Cleveland Orchestra. To say I was in awe of him would be a vast understatement. After I got out of the Marines, I contacted Ted about studying with him in the summer before I started at Oberlin and then continued to drive down to Cleveland weekly to work with him. I treasured our conversations about conductors, music making, and life. I became close with him and his wife Sheila, and we would spend time having meals and hanging out. After I moved to the Pacific Northwest, we remained close, and I saw him whenever I would come home. One of my favorite memories was when I was home in Cleveland while my grandmother was in hospice, we had lunch and he called and left a message telling me how proud he was of the man I had become. Few people have impacted me the way he did, and his legacy will live on in his amazing playing, his students, his kind heart, his giving nature, and rock steady confidence. Thank you Ted for your amazing influence in my life.
– Scott Pierson, Commander, 133d Army Band, Washington Army National Guard; Director of Bands, Yelm High School; former Principal Clarinet, Salem Chamber Orchestra
I remember lessons each week that were focused on learning the music that The Cleveland Orchestra was performing that weekend. His E♭ clarinet playing was phenomenal and I learned so much, especially regarding fingerings and tuning. Chamber music was also a love of his and he was superb! His teaching was very methodical and has certainly influenced my own teaching over the years. I feel very happy that I was able to keep in touch with him over the years and will truly miss him!
– Janice (Vanderslice) Coppola, Cleveland Institute of Music B.M. ’83, M.M. ’84
Ted was a uniquely talented person by how he connected with his students personally and made them feel comfortable performing to the best of their abilities. Over the years, Ted was like a father to me. He always built up my musicianship and confidence so I could perform at the highest level. He wouldn’t settle for any type of equipment either. There was always a better ligature, a better reed, or a better mouthpiece to capture the sound and style of the pieces I was performing. He will be missed by many, and I will carry his expertise with me forever, passing it down to my future students.
– Bettyjeane Wischmeier Quimby, Cleveland State University B.M. ’05, M.M. ‘12