A conductor, musician, and educator, Jeri Lynne Johnson is determined to make classical music accessible to all Philadelphians. Born in the midwest, she made Philly home to the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, a diverse ensemble that she founded in 2008.
There aren’t many female African American music conductors in the world. A Wikipedia search shows that, in addition to Jeri Lynne Johnson, the only other noted African American conductor in the US is Dr. Anne “Georgianne” Lundy, the first African-American woman to conduct the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1989 and 1990 at the Miller Outdoor Theatre.
Roadblocks along to the way in her career helped inspire her to tackle the lack of inclusion in the classical music space, both in terms of audience and performers. After auditioning for several conductor positions, one music director in California made it clear to Johnson that while she was highly qualified for the job, they couldn’t hire her for the position.
“I didn’t look like what their audiences expected a conductor to look like,” Johnson states.
Although she was the recipient of the prestigious Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2005, she still faced several job rejections almost immediately following her acceptance of the award. The fellowship was established by Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, to support women in the early stages of their conducting careers. Alsop is the first woman to head a major American orchestra.
“I felt that classical music needed to take a fresh approach to equity and inclusion in order to continue to keep the art form relevant to younger and culturally diverse audiences.” – Jeri Lynne Johnson
Johnson was motivated to put the words diversity, equity and inclusion into action, so she created her own orchestra to reflect the community it serves which, according to Johnson, is 56% African American and 34% Caucasian.
The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra is comprised of musicians from some of the best music conservatories around the world; they also come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds including African American, white, Middle Eastern, Latino and Asian. In 2018, Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra received the PNC Arts Alive Award for Innovation in honor of Peggy Amsterdam.
Black Pearl became known as the 21st century orchestra in Philadelphia, a model that is now imitated by orchestras across the country. “I felt that classical music needed to take a fresh approach to equity and inclusion in order to continue to keep the art form relevant to younger and culturally diverse audiences,” Johnson explained. Hence, its tag line, Many Cultures, One Pearl.
In a TED Talk in 2013, entitled, “How to Bring Classical Music to the Next Generation,” Johnson shares with the audience that it wasn’t the music she loved and grew up listening to that needed changing, it was the orchestras that needed to “bring sexy back to classical music.”
Johnson fell in love with classical music at a young age, “I started piano at age four and saw my first orchestra concert at age seven.” While most kids were rocking out to Madonna and Michael Jackson, Johnson was grooving to Sir Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein.
A graduate of Wellesley College and the University of Chicago, Johnson pursued her passion for music eventually winning the Jorge Mester Conducting Scholarship in 1998 to attend the Aspen Music Festival. Johnson has worked with leading orchestras around the world including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Bournemouth Symphony in the UK, and the Weimar Staatskapelle in Germany. At Carnegie Hall, Johnson conducted while Jay Z, Alicia Keys, and The Roots performed.
When asked if her approach to conducting is different, Johnson said, “I approach the music with passion, curiosity, and humility and try to create a collegial and engaging work environment for the musicians by encouraging them to share their ideas and expertise on how to execute my interpretation of the composer’s works.”
Innovative community engagement is a major initiative for Johnson. Black Pearl is the only organization in the country to win three Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grants. The “Orchestrating Youth Leadership” workshop for middle and high school students teaches at-risk youth the art of conducting. Since 2009, Johnson has shared vital tools for conducting that can be transferred to life learning skills.
Black Pearl’s Open Rehearsal with iConducti is an interactive program that invites audience members on stage with Johnson to take over conducting for a few minutes and feel first hand how a conductor connects with the musicians.
Johnson has worked with a number of young African-American musicians through youth orchestras and encouraged them to continue studying. “Hopefully seeing me in my position and role as a conductor may have helped inspire them to continue to work hard and know that there are people who look like them succeeding at a high level in the industry.”