Music Director Jeri Lynne Johnson fell in love with music at a very early age, and was determined to become a conductor, making all the music happen. But despite her obvious talent, her degree from the University of Chicago, experience as the assistant conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and becoming the first Black woman to win the international Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, the classical music world was not yet ready to embrace hiring an African American female conductor. But why?
Clearly the talent was there! The musicians loved working with her, and they appreciated her passion and ideas. But in reality, ensemble administrators simply didn’t know how to market her to audiences that are used to a world of male-dominated European conductors.
Johnson decided she would take on the challenge of changing that “awful sterotype,” and building a model for the modern American orchestra.
In 2008, Johnson founded the Black Pearl Chamber orchestra in Philadelphia, the first classical orchestra in the U.S. run by an African American woman. The goal of this diverse group of professional musicians who had trained at some of the top conservatories across the U.S., is to make music accessible to all people, and to reflect the values of years ago when classical music was a unifier, no matter a person’s background, cultural heritage, economic status or language. Classical music is the language that transitions all borders.
So strong is Johnson’s passion to make classical music inclusive and interactive, she and Black Pearl have established programs like iConduct, which gives audience members an opportunity to come on stage and see close-up how the conducting process works. There is also an orchestra fantasy camp, where amateur musicians can play side-by-side with the professional members of the orchestra, and a recently established DEI Arts Consulting firm that focuses on audience development among younger, more racially and ethnically diverse listeners.
Learn more about Jeri Lynne Johnson and the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra.
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