by Jonathan Harris
In her just-published interview, former SFEMS President Priscilla Winslow mentions the vocal-instrumental collegium Ken Johnson gave some 25 years ago, which she and I both attended. Her remembrance inspires me to share this story from that beautiful and, to many of us, quite meaningful day.
The workshop was held at the San Francisco home of Barbara and Peter Winkelstein, longtime patrons of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and friends of Bay Area early music. It was a perfect venue for the event, a stately brown shingle above the Presidio with an unusually large, open living room surrounded by balconies; the acoustics were wonderful. At one point, I found myself sitting by its massive fireplace and noticed an inscription, “O Beloved Company of Friends” (or something like that), in Gothic letters below the mantel. Looking at the configuration of the room, I put two and two together and thought, “Aha! This must have been a Quaker meeting house at one time.” So I asked Peter, who said he’d talk about the history of the house at our lunch break. What he told us was even more interesting. He said this had been Ansel Adams’ home, and that the large, open living room was so configured to let Adams give house concerts for his friends.
Many already know this, but for anyone who does not, Ansel Adams was almost as accomplished a pianist as he was a photographer. He just as easily might have had a professional concert career as the path he chose. The owner of an Oakland hobby shop I used to patronize later told me that as a boy (during the 1940s, I’d guess) he once had gone on a Boy Scout expedition Adams led and got to stay overnight in that house. Early the morning they were leaving, he awoke to hear the most beautiful classical piano music. He went out to the balcony overlooking the living room and saw Adams at the piano, lost in his music and playing passionately.
Ken Johnson, for those who never knew him, was one of the founders of SFEMS. His store, Musica Antiqua, on California Street in San Francisco, was a hub of the Bay Area’s early music scene during the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1975, the founders of SFEMS used Musica Antiqua’s mailing list to recruit our first members. That store is where I bought my first hand-made, Renaissance recorder and much of the music I played on it. It was Ken who told me about the SFEMS summer workshops, and when I attended my first one 30 years ago, I was delighted to see him there, both to sell his movable inventory of sheet music etcetera and just to participate, singing and playing recorder and viol. He generously lent me his personal recorder, an A415 Beha and Gibbons with a tone like velvet, for the duration of the workshop, so that I could play an historically accurate instrument in my ensemble. The experience changed my musical life.
Ken contributed to SFEMS and to Bay Area early music in so many ways. The motet he conducted at that San Francisco workshop was Heinrich Isaac’s setting of John 14:18, “I will not leave you comfortless.” It was his parting gift of music to this community. I am forever grateful to Ken for all he did and to the Winkelsteins for opening their beautiful home so that we could share this experience. Remarkable people indeed.