L. Keating Johnson’s passion for music was sparked in the fifth grade, after he saw the Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty. That year he started tuba lessons. A few years later, at Denver’s George Washington High School, he talked Antonia Brico into giving him conducting lessons.
He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from University of the Pacific, Stockton, California, 1973, and University of Wisconsin, 1975, respectively. He earned a doctorate in musical arts at University of Southern California.
In fall 1983, Johnson was named director of bands at Washington State University, where he taught both conducting and tuba, and conducted the Wind Symphony and Symphony Orchestra. Somehow, he also found time to serve as music director and conductor of the Washington-Idaho Symphony, an association that spanned the past 16 years.
A year and a half ago, Johnson was diagnosed with brain cancer. After surgery and treatments, he continued to teach. His 18 years on the WSU Music and Theatre Arts faculty finally ended April 6, 2004 when he died at his Pullman home. He was 53. He and his wife, Janet Wiita Johnson, would have celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary 10 days later.
“Keating was a phenomenal tuba player, and had a great knowledge of the wind literature,” says David Jarvis, associate professor and coordinator of percussion studies at WSU. As a member of the Washington-Idaho Symphony, Jarvis was equally impressed with Johnson the conductor. “He was able to communicate what he wanted through the baton. That’s a gift.”
Erich Lear, who directed the School of Music and Theatre Arts from 1989 to 2000, remembers Johnson as more than a colleague. “It was clear that his contributions as a conductor were at a very high level,” he says. “His knowledge of music was absolutely enormous.”
Johnson’s professional associations included the Conductors Guild, the National School Orchestra Directors Association, the College Band Directors National Association (president of the Northwest Division), the National Band Association, TUBA-now renamed ITEA, the International Society for the Research and Development of Wind Music (Graz, Austria), the Music Educators National Conference, and the American Symphony Orchestra League.
On sabbatical, the Johnsons traveled often to Germany, especially Berlin, where Johnson studied. In 1998, he served as one of five experts for the documentary television production, Parademarsch und Platzkonzert for Sender Frei Berlin public television in Germany. That same year, he guest-conducted the Potsdam Polizei Orchester. He also guest-conducted the Pleven (Bulgaria) Philharmonic in 2001.
Some of his research focused on the work of Wagner and the Trauer Simphonie and the marches of Wilhelm Wieprecht, a German predecessor to John Phillip Souza.
“He had an in exhaustive desire to talk about music,” Jarvis says. Janet Johnson agrees. “One of the reasons he was such a good teacher was that he really loved music. He loved sharing music with others.”
Memorials gifts may be made to the Washington-Idaho Symphony or the Mu Phi Epsilon Scholarship Fund at WSU, c/o the WSU Foundation, PO Box 641927, Pullman, Washington 99164-1927.