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.