Conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson and the 21st-Century Orchestra

Mar 5, 2015

All this month, during Women’s History Month, The American Sound will feature performances by noted American women conductors and online stories showcasing the conductors’ careers and accomplishments. Tune in Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on Classical 101, and follow this blog as the series unfolds.

Think of the traditional classical orchestra and the outdated image of a stern-looking white man in somber black tails conducting a group of similarly stern-looking white men might still immediately come to mind. That’s in part why conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson founded the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra with an entirely different vision of what an orchestra can be and, in her words, as a model for the twenty-first-century orchestra.

“We are a country that celebrates the diversity of its citizens, and I felt that in the twenty-first century an American orchestra really needs to take that into consideration and begin to really reflect the diversity of the community that it serves,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview.

One of few African American women conductors on the orchestral scene today, Johnson founded the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra (BPCO) in Philadelphia in 2008 in an effort to keep developing her career in a profession with notoriously few opportunities. Now, in an age of reportedly dwindling audiences for classical concerts and funding crises for arts organizations across the board, the BPCO is playing concerts to capacity audiences, bringing in ever-increasing ticket revenue and winning prestigious grants – all in the backyard of the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra.

What a Conductor Looks Like

Founding the BPCO was also in part a response to the surprise, if not resistance, Johnson encountered to the idea of an African American woman standing on the podium. Three years before founding the BPCO, Johnson had won the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship – an accolade established by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra‘s trailblazing music director, Marin Alsop, to support women conductors at the beginning of their professional careers – and since that win had been auditioning for conducting positions at orchestras around the U.S. when an orchestra board member told her she didn’t look like what their audience would expect a conductor to look like.

That occasion, and some advice from Alsop herself, prompted Johnson to create her own opportunities.

“I was not an entrepreneur by interest or by inclination before that incident happened, to be quite honest with you,” Johnson said. “It was never my dream to found my own orchestra. But in talking to Marin Alsop, when she started her own orchestra it was because, as a woman at the time, she was not able to get the opportunities that her talent deserved. So she founded her own orchestra to kind of get herself out there. And she said, ‘You’re kind of at the place where I was all those years ago, that you’re going to have to really prove to people that you’re up to this task and that you’re a good conductor who’s worthy of these opportunities.’”

As a child, Johnson was fortunate to have had opportunities to take piano lessons and to attend orchestra concerts and soak in what was going on around her. When she was seven years old, some friends took her to hear Sir Neville Marriner conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in a Beethoven symphony. Her dream of becoming a conductor was born.

“When I saw that orchestra concert, I loved that music so much and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to use the piano to make that music, so I had to do whatever that guy with the stick was doing in order to make that music,” Johnson said. “I was just hooked.”

What an Orchestra Looks Like

Now, Johnson has taken to the podium herself, leading the BPCO in several performances each season at Philadelphia’s Dell Music Center and other local venues. The concerts routinely attract large audiences, and Johnson says that’s because the musicians in the orchestra are first-rate players who look like the members of the audience who come to hear them play.

“Black Pearl, I think, has struck a good note in terms of being able to retain traditional audiences for classical music, as well as develop new ones,” Johnson said, “and that comes from a combination of things. One is, my musicians are diverse. They are African American, European, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, you name it. And so people who come to our concerts will see themselves reflected in the orchestra. And that is an important thing for sending the signal that classical music truly is for everyone. And the second thing is, maintaining a very high artistic standard for the orchestra. My musicians come from Curtis, Juilliard, Peabody, international conservatories. They hear the quality of the orchestra, they have friends who play in it who rave about the experience of being in Black Pearl, both artistically and just emotionally, because they see the difference that we’re making in terms of bringing classical music to a younger, more diverse generation and continuing to build those audiences.”

In addition to their concerts, Johnson and the BPCO are building followers and future audiences also through the orchestra’s outreach programs, which put people in the middle of the orchestra and even on the podium for hands-on experiences with the music. The BPCO’s iConduct program offers people a chance to step up to the podium for a conducting lesson and to lead the orchestra in familiar works like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Its Citywide Side by Side program auditions amateur musicians and invites selected players to rehearse and perform a concert with the orchestra. The June 2014 Citywide Side by Side concert, in collaboration with Opera Philadelphia, featured Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a performance that attracted an audience of 2,500 people. In the BPCO’s Orchestrating Leadership after-school program, Johnson and the orchestra work with at-risk youth, many struggling with family upheaval and academic or social problems, to help them develop social skills and self-esteem.

“All of these programs, I have to say, were born out of that one experience of being told that I don’t look like what an orchestra would expect a conductor to look like,” Johnson said. “Just that inspired me to, basically, turn everybody I knew into conductors, no matter what they look like. Everybody looks like a conductor now. You can’t say that to people anymore.”

Diversity as Business Opportunity

And with the BPCO and Johnson on the scene, you also can’t say that orchestras are the all-male, all-white entities they were even just a few generations ago. Along with the BPCO’s outreach programs, which bring members of the Philadelphia community into the classical orchestral world, the orchestra’s diverse membership helps chip away at the elitist stereotype that, for decades, classical music has tried to shake. And Johnson’s vision for the BPCO is grounded in the belief that, as America’s population continues to become more diverse, the best business model to help ensure that American orchestras stay afloat in the future means attracting diverse audiences by way of programming music by composers from different cultures, creating multimedia performances, engaging the community through outreach programs and establishing orchestras that look demographically like the communities they serve.

“I think it still takes people a while to realize that diversity in their community presents a great business opportunity for orchestra audiences that many studies have shown over the years are aging out, are not being replenished at the rate they need to for orchestras to continue to survive in the way that they have in the twenty-first century. And the only way that they’re going to continue to be, I think, viable purveyors of culture in America is by reaching out to diverse communities to create new audiences for themselves. And so for me, diversity was always, especially in Philadelphia, a great business strategy,” Johnson said.

While building an ethnically diverse orchestra might be a good strategy for building audiences and bringing in much-needed ticket revenue, it and the orchestra’s innovative musical programming and community outreach endeavors have also helped the BPCO garner some prestigious grants. The BPCO was the only arts organization in the U.S. to receive funding three Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grants, as participants in the three-year (2010-2013) Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia. The BPCO has also been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, financial support that Johnson considers “a very important stamp of approval” on the orchestra’s artistic quality.

Looking Ahead

Johnson has already seen some of her ideas for connecting the BPCO with the Philadelphia community adopted by other orchestras. As she envisions the future of the BPCO, she says she hopes to be something of a trendsetter, coming up with ideas that can help orchestras around the nation reach and better serve their communities and sustain the art form of classical music.

“I would like to see us continue to really bring ideas to the field that other orchestras can use,” Johnson said. “I think Black Pearl brings to the table real street cred, if you will, in terms of putting these ideas into action and really seeing what works and what doesn’t and how to improve it that maybe other orchestras can take to really engage their communities better and build their audiences and really preserve classical music, not just in Philadelphia for Black Pearl, but across the nation for every orchestra.”

For the BPCO itself, Johnson sees continuing to strengthen the orchestra’s brand as an absolute must. And as she continues to show audiences that an African American woman can succeed on the podium, Johnson says she will remain a voice of encouragement for other aspiring African American women conductors.

“When I think of myself as an African American woman conductor, I think also of what responsibilities do I have and to whom do I owe thanks. And there are a few us of out there, but the numbers certainly aren’t there to support that this is a widely accepting field for African American women conductors. I’m truly hoping that I can continue to change that for other younger women who are out there and show them that they can make a way in this field for themselves with grit and determination. They might have to make their own opportunities until other people come along and hand them some.”

Jeri Lynne Johnson leads the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.