What classical music can tell us about the world

UChicago alum describes how the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra transforms ‘grit into grace’

In 2008, conductor and University of Chicago alum Jeri Lynne Johnson founded the Philadelphia-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. The ensemble was designed to be a model for twenty-first-century orchestras, with a mission to transform classical music spectators into participants.

“I wanted to address perceived and real barriers to participation in classical music, like issues of accessibility, whether financial, physical, or cognitive,” said Johnson, AM’05, who studied music history and theory at UChicago. “I also wanted to challenge the perception of elitism—that this music isn’t for everybody.

In 2016, Johnson established DEI Arts Consulting to help not just orchestras but also other arts, cultural, and educational organizations build and maintain diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments.

Johnson, who became the first African American woman to win an international conducting prize when she was awarded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship in 2005, has several upcoming guest conducting engagements, including at the Santa Fe Opera in October.

In the following Q&A, she discusses the origins and mission of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, her UChicago education, and the future of classical music.

What inspired you to found Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra?

Instrumentalists audition behind a screen, but conductors communicate silently with the orchestra; we must be seen to demonstrate our skill. I auditioned for numerous orchestras and didn’t land the jobs—that’s just the life of a musician—but one of the orchestras offered an opportunity for feedback. The gentleman was quite complimentary about my work but said, “You don’t look like what our audience expects ‘the Maestro’ to look like.”

Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra was founded out of this kind of rage against the system, as a vehicle for tempering that rage provoked by the realization that no matter what my experience and expertise were, I would always be running up against this perception of who a conductor is. I wanted to address perceived and real barriers to participation in classical music, like issues of accessibility, whether financial, physical, or cognitive. I also wanted to challenge the perception of elitism—that this music isn’t for everybody.

Where does the name come from?

Pearls are objects of great value and beauty created by a living organism. Grit gets inside, and layers upon layers of mother-of-pearl protect the oyster. The orchestra is a way to transform grit into grace, through programming, community engagement, and music-making. People sometimes assume that we’re all Black musicians, but we’re Black, White, Asian, Latinx—we’re everyone—world-class musicians from the Curtis Institute, the Peabody Institute, Juilliard, and beyond.

What kind of outreach programs does Black Pearl offer?

The idea that the orchestra reaches out into the community assumes an insider versus outsider relationship. We want a reciprocal partnership—for the community to be able to reach into the orchestra, too. Our “inreach” programs provide hands-on opportunities to partake in the music, with a goal to remodel orchestras from gatekeepers of an artistic product into facilitators of the creative process.

Our engagement and education programs are a direct link to the statement that I don’t look like what the audience expects. I decided to turn that idea on its head. I’m going to make everyone a conductor, just for that!

Our most popular event is iConduct!. In its initial iteration, we performed Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 at venues around Philadelphia, and we invited people from the audience to a conducting lesson. No prior experience necessary. It was an opportunity to demystify what goes on in orchestras. The mystery is part of the allure, but we want people to feel like they can connect and relate to classical music personally.+

What exactly does a conductor do?

If I could explain, I would have a million dollars! The first thing I try to explain is that, as a conductor, my musical instrument is the entire orchestra. The way I make music is fundamentally different from the way a horn player makes music. My technical proficiency is what people would call “soft skills” in terms of corporate leadership. It’s communication, the way that I inspire and motivate people, the way I build my team. It’s the way I share responsibility and leadership to build greater responsibility among everyone else. My power and strength as a leader are demonstrated by the fact that I’m giving away my power and strength through the orchestra, giving the musicians space to shine.

How did your UChicago education prepare you for your current work?

A lot of people ask me, why wouldn’t you go to Curtis or Juilliard? I felt like I needed every ounce of factual information, historical knowledge, and musical analytical ability in my quiver of arrows to shoot down any possibilities of questioning my authority. I needed answers to people’s legitimate, pointed, and deliberate questions. I’m grateful to the University for giving me those tools, which serve me in great stead even to this day.

How was DEI Arts Consulting established?

Classical music has been grappling with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion for decades. The murder of George Floyd and the widespread reckoning with systemic racial injustice in America have accelerated this process.

DEI Arts Consulting started about five years ago, focusing on audience development—how can we attract younger, more racially and ethnically diverse listeners? Now my work also involves helping not just classical music but arts, cultural and educational institutions look at their organizational structures and policies, procedures, belief systems and behavioral patterns that together create a system of exclusion. Why is that happening, and how can they fix that? Because the first part of this work is becoming aware.

What’s the future of classical music?

In my opinion, classical music’s future depends upon America’s future. When people come to see a Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra performance, they’re not just hearing music—they’re watching a group of highly trained people of different ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations and races being led by an African American woman: democracy in action. An orchestra is a worldview.

—This story was first published by Tableau, the magazine of the Division of the Humanities.