Clarinettist Emma Johnson tells CHARLES HUTCHINSON why she has always been happy to play in Yorkshire ever since her debut here in 1984 after she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year.

CLARINETTIST Emma Johnson MBE will always have fond memories of Harrogate.

She first appeared at the Harrogate International Festival on the Young Musicians platform shortly after she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984 and has been returning ever since.

"I haven't kept count how many times," says Emma, now 48, who will play there once more this weekend at the 22nd Sunday Series of morning coffee concerts at the Old Swan Hotel.

"I came for the first time in I984 and I loved it because people were so welcoming and very knowledgeable. Yorkshire must be one of the most musical places in the country and the Royal Hall in Harrogate is so incredibly ornate and makes anything seem like a special occasion."

Emma recalls her Harrogate festival debut with clarity. "I was really, really nervous before I played; I was staying with my husband's family and they were asking me. 'Are you all right'," she says.

Only one concern remained in the concert itself. "I wasn't sure if I could do the encore I planned, as it was an orchestral concert, but I did go back and play the Malcolm Arnold concerto [Clarinet Concerto No. 2] that he wrote for Benny Goodman. Very jazzy,"

Emma says. "Concerts do stay in your mind... that and worrying about what your wore last time."

She lives in London with her double bass-playing husband, Chris West, and their daughter Georgina, but travels regularly to Yorkshire, particularly to Haworth. Chris's family is from Halifax and his ancestors were christened by Patrick Bronte at Haworth and buried in the graveyard there.

Emma sees Yorkshire as her second home, making each visit to Harrogate a pleasure. The latest will find her playing with Irish pianist Finghin Collins in an 11am programme of transposed duets, including Beethoven’s Variations on La Ci Darem La Mano, the jazz inspirations of Leonard Bernstein's Riffs and Brahms’ clarinet masterpiece Sonata No. 1in F minor. Works by Poulenc, Ravel and Monti will be played too, along with Dvorak's Minnehaha’s Melody.

"An 11 o'clock start does influence what you will play as your concentration is very different in the morning than in the evening," Emma says.

"Your mind is clearer but you don't want such a heavy concert, though I will play the Brahms piece that I will surround with some lighter pieces with some beautiful melodies.

"It can be harder to have a really concentrated mind for some reason in the morning, partly because you're used to most of your concerts being in the evening, and partly because it's daylight, but more and more musicians are performing morning concerts now because they enjoy them being more informal."

Why does Emma believe her clarinet-playing is so well received on the Yorkshire stage?

"There's something about the Yorkshire personality. There's an honesty about Yorkshire people. You know where you stand, and there's something wonderful about that," she says.

To the delight of Harrogate, Yorkshire and beyond, Emma continues to spread the impact of classical music and the clarinet in particular.

"I feel very lucky and amazed that I'm still playing. When I started, I thought I would play for ten years and then do something sensible. What I hope I've done is carve a niche for the clarinet as a solo instrument when previously clarinet players were taught to play in an orchestra, which is very different from being a solo player.

"People didn't really think of having a clarinet concerto when I was growing up, so now it's good to prove that the clarinet is an engaging instrument with tonal qualities in the low register and high register. In good hands, it's rewarding to play."

There had been clarinet soloists in Mozart and Brahms's time, and then jazz players such as Benny Goodman could also play classical clarinet, but then the instrument "fell off the radar" and commissions for classical clarinet pieces were not forthcoming.

Emma, however, has given the instrument prominence, and she has her parents and the local council to thank for introducing her to the clarinet. "I started with the dreaded recorder at the age of four, and I was just obsessed with it, but my parents thought, 'the clarinet has got to sound nicer than that'," she says.

"At the time, Bromley Council had a scheme to have a go at instruments and I instantly loved the clarinet. It became an obsession from the word go."

In the year ahead, Emma will be branching out more into jazz, touring with pianist John Lenehan and drummer Paul Clarvis from this month. "In a way, it offers more freedom. It's very different to classical playing when you want to be as true to the composer as possible, whereas with jazz you want to bring more to it," she says.

Recording sessions are booked into the Johnson diary too: a Brahms Quintet and two pieces composed for Emma by John Dankworth. "I'll be recording those with the BBC Concert Orchestra in October," Emma confirms.

Emma Johnson, clarinet, and Finghin Collins, piano, Harrogate Sunday Series, Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, Sunday, 11am. Box office: or 01423 562303