Creating New Classics
The Johnstone Fund gives Columbusâ€™ music community a fresh sound
Jack and Zoe Johnstone at the Southern Theatre
Will Shilling Photos
On a Sunday afternoon last year, music enthusiasts of all ages crowded into the Columbus Foundation for a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s chamber piece “The Soldier’s Tale.” Those who didn’t have seats stood in the back to watch as members of the Columbus Symphony performed modern-sounding music and dancers from Ohio State acted out a wandering soldier’s encounters with the devil.
This hour-long, free performance—and many others like it—was made possible by Jack and Zoe Johnstone, a couple best known for helping the Short North become a vibrant cultural district. In recent years, the two have turned their attention to contemporary classical music, supporting nearly 100 concerts and dozens of commissions of new music through their Johnstone Fund for New Music, as well as contributions to Ohio State.
Jack and Zoe, who met as music students at San Jose State University, have always shared an interest in contemporary music, starting the Johnstone Fund in 2008 as a way to build a bigger local audience for it.
“There’s an active community in Columbus performing new music,” says Jack, a bassoonist with a doctorate in musicology from Ohio State and a partner at International Risk Consultants. “It’s out there; we’re just encouraging it.”
The Johnstone Fund, which is run through the Columbus Foundation, has helped finance performances by established arts organizations such as the Columbus Symphony and Jazz Arts Group, as well as student groups including Ohio State’s New Music Collective and ensembles from the university’s dance department.
“We’re mostly about energy,” explains Zoe, a composer and multi-instrumentalist. “If someone has the energy to put on an event, to actually create something or expand on the idea of the things that we’ve done—that energy that comes from musicians and smaller organizations is what we’ve found makes us the happiest.”
The Johnstones purposely avoid categorizing music as new based solely on the year it was written. To them, if it sounds new, then it is. Even though Stravinsky wrote “Soldier’s Tale” almost a century ago, they believe the piece will expand the audience’s aural palate—the ultimate goal of their sponsorship.
That also includes music composed just weeks ago. Just ask Michael Torres, who completed a doctorate in saxophone performance at Ohio State earlier this year and is working on a master’s in composition. He had two days to write a second movement for a duet so he and his wife, flutist Erin Helgeson Torres, could perform it at one of the Johnstone Fund’s casual, intimate concerts held in Goodale Park’s shelter house.
Because it’s challenging for young composers to gain exposure, Torres says, he appreciated the opportunity to share his music with the public.
“When we’re studying, when you play your music at universities, it’s hard to break out and reach other audiences,” he says. “Going out into the community—particularly those concerts at Goodale—we see such a diverse, eclectic audience that we just don’t see come to a university event.”
Torres has also benefited from working with some of the world-famous composers the Johnstones have helped bring to Ohio State. The Pulitzer Prize-winning David Lang and the innovative Steve Reich both were recent visitors.
Their reach also expands beyond campus. The semi-professional New Albany Symphony Orchestra, which the Johnstones have helped support since its inception five years ago, also has brought a series of composers to the area.
Not all of the fund’s performances focus on music ensembles, though. For the ongoing Chime Composition project, 12 composers created works for the bells at Trinity Episcopal Church downtown. And the Johnstones enjoy backing dance performances featuring live music.
The Johnstones’ generosity is only partly responsible for the effect they’ve had on the city’s composers, musicians and audiences.
“It’s not just the money. It’s the personality of the Johnstones,” Torres says. “They’re such involved people that they make these things happen by their excitement and their willpower. They’re involved with the artists.”