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Q&A: Jeri Lynne Johnson of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra

Jeri Lynne Johnson at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral - 38th and Chestnut

Johnson takes a moment to play



The Cathedral at 38th and Chestnut

As a child, Jeri Lynne Johnson suffered an unusual punishment: When she misbehaved, her parents would take away her Beethoven CDs. A pianist from the age of four, Johnson decided early on that she wanted a career as a conductor.  She would meet more than her share of obstacles in an already competitive field -- it’s rare to see an African-American woman at the orchestra podium.

Due to that experience, Johnson has devoted herself to making classical music more accessible to a diverse 21st century audience. Her rigorous interdisciplinary approach combines the math, science, philosophy and history of music with the sheer thrill of the live orchestral experience.

In 2007, she founded the Mt. Airy-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. Through education, community programs and performances, she works towards her goal of increasing racial and cultural diversity in classical music. After two consecutive Knight Arts Challenge grant wins, BPCO is currently a finalist for 2013.

Flying Kite recently caught up with Johnson, who is in the midst of preparing for the orchestra's next performance. 

What inspired you to pursue this career? 
I started playing piano at the age of four, and music has always been my first love. Some family friends took me to my first orchestra concert at the age of seven, and it captured my imagination immediately. I knew I wanted to conduct. 

What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
I was fortunate to win a competitive scholarship that Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, had founded. I had such great opportunities throughout that whole year, and then coming off of that, of course I wanted to audition and get a job conducting with other orchestras. But one orchestra brought the whole situation home, saying they liked my conducting and everybody liked my ideas, but they just didn't know how to market me because I didn't look like what their audiences expected a conductor to look like.

What do audiences expect? And how does that factor into the decline of classical music that we keep hearing about?
Well, you see it in TV and movies all the time: There's an orchestra conductor and it's someone with a thick European accent who's obviously male, older, silvery hair. Most people assume a conductor is a white male. There are more women breaking in, but not in numbers where people assume anyone can be a conductor. And it's certainly less common to be a black female conductor. As classical music organizations begin to realize that their traditional audiences are dying out, or that young people are not subscribing to this art form in the way that they used to, they need to update their image.

Talk about founding Black Pearl and its mission.
There's not a whole lot of diversity in the ranks of orchestras themselves, and I [wanted] to address a lot of those issues in one fell swoop. I felt like -- as a business proposition in a major metropolitan area with a diverse population -- when you're not specifically targeting those patrons, you're losing a huge potential source of revenue for your organization. 

So diversity wasn't just a personal mission, it really was a good business strategy. We have African-American, Asian, Latino, Caucasian and Middle Eastern musicians in the orchestra. So, really everyone who walks in the door at our concerts is going to see people who look like themselves performing classical music at a world-class level.

How does a night at BPCO compare to a night at more traditional orchestras?
[At other performances], people feel like they're going into a building where they need to be dressed a certain way and behave a certain way, and people feel maybe it's a little uptight for them. So when people come into BPCO concerts, we create a relaxed atmosphere where people are respectful of the musicians and it's a regular concert, but they feel like the essence of the experience is not to be dictated to by the orchestra, but [to have] a shared musical experience between the orchestra and the audience. 

Explain your Knight Arts Challenge-winning "iConduct" program.
I really wanted to give people a hands-on experience with classical music. People don't feel like they can't enjoy baseball unless they're A-Rod, but people feel that unless they went to the Curtis School of Music, they're too dumb to enjoy classical music. 

So we did Beethoven's Symphony Number Five [in concerts] throughout Philadelphia, and in between each movement of the performance, I would invite people from the audience to come up, put a baton in their hand, and see what it was like to experience conducting.

I think people were delighted to be invited into the very exclusive atmosphere of the conductor's podium, a sacred kind of area where only the initiates belong. I think for people to be invited to take that power and authority into their own hands was very exciting. And I hope it gave them the feeling that classical music is for them as much as it's for anyone else. 

So what's up next for BPCO? I understand you're on the Knight Arts Challenge grant finalist list again this year.
We are! The project, again, is giving people a chance to really experience making classical music for themselves, and this time they get to sit alongside the orchestra. So we're calling it "Citywide Side-by-Side." 

We're going to put on a performance of Beethoven's Symphony Number 9. [We'll be looking for] people who are not full-time musicians -- who don't earn their living as musicians -- like if you're an accountant who's a great viola player, and want to work hard and get back into it. People throughout the city can audition, just like they would in a professional orchestra, and they will be rehearsing side by side with my orchestra members over the course of about five or six months. We really want to give people the professional musician experience. It's going to be very rigorous -- kind of like orchestra boot camp! 

BPCO's next performances will be 7 p.m. Saturday, February 23 and 4 p.m. Sunday, February 24 at the Philadelphia Cathedral. The program will feature Beethoven's Second Symphony and a commissioned piece by Philadelphia composer Jeremy Gill, under conductors Jeri Lynn Johnson and Alan Harler (of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia). 

ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.

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