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Jeri Lynne Johnson is the founding music director and conductor of the Black Pearl Orchestra, which is based in Philadelphia.
What is the Black Pearl Orchestra?
We think of Black Pearl as the 21st Century orchestra. It embraces collaborations with various other art forms, like dance. We are dedicated to diversity, the nation’s most diverse orchestra. We truly reflect a major metro area like Philadelphia. We do a lot of hands on engagement. Classical music is really for everyone. The orchestra started in 2008 as a non-profit. It’s a business because arts organizations have to think of themselves as businesses. We were established in 2007, started operating in 2008, and had first major orchestra in 2009.
When did you first become interested in music?
Friends of my family took me to see my first orchestra when I was seven. “I was hooked.” When I heard the orchestra playing I wanted to make that music myself. I realized as I child I had to make whole group of people my instrument and that’s what conductor did. Most people think the baton is the conductor’s instrument. The baton does not make any music. I use the baton to get people to make music. I grew up all over. Music has been a part of my life and traveled with me everywhere. I lived in the Midwest, Southwest and west coast and London. I’ve been in Philly since 2007.
Do you play an instrument?
I’ve been studying piano since I was four years-old. I to practice as often as I can. I don’t nearly get enough time to keep it up. I always love music. I grew up in a household that appreciated all kinds of music. I appreciate all different kinds. For me, I just love seeing all those people up there.
Talk a little about what it’s like to be a (female) conductor or a maestra?
It’s funny that you ask about that. My mentor Marian Alsop was the first woman to lead a major music festival in London. The perceived reason why women don’t make good conductors is because women don’t have enough authority to lead an orchestra. The reflects the image of leadership, that woman can't be leaders. There’s more women conductors now that have ever been in the past. They are very, very few African American women conductors. There’s a stereotype in people’s head. It’s about changing the image of what a leader should look like. It’s still shocking to see a woman conducting an orchestra. It’s becoming more common though. My role is to be a role model. You can achieve anything if you work hard. No opportunity is off limits to you.
Do children have enough exposure to music these days?
Many school districts are experiencing cuts and downsizing programs, including the arts. I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a national policy on the arts that says this is how we believe the arts are important. One of those things needs to address the importance of arts and the role of arts in education. I think ;people’s view on education need to be much wider than reading, writing and arithmetic. It isn’t just enough to know how to read and write. Now that I know how to do these things now what do I do creatively to problem solve. That’s what creative things like arts, music and dance can do for people. Futher down the line, we will have a whole generation of kids lacking critical, creative thinking skills and problem solve. It’s not an extra add-on feature.
What's your educational background?
For me, I t hought it was important to have a well rounded education. I need to know about history and other art forms and culture. A lot of people don’t realize that music and mathmetics have gone hand and hand. I did my undergraduate at Wesley and graduate work at University of Chicago. I guest conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this year.
What role does music and the arts play in the Philadelphia?
Arts, culure and the humanities is the fourth largest economic driver in our region. It draws other cities here from the tourism standpoint. The Philadelphia Orchestra is a world class orchestra. The arts in the region is an important part of the economy. Music itself plays a critical role as does the history of jazz and R&B. Black Pearl is fairly new to the scene but we have a great role to play in the community. We are able to reach a whole new audience through classical music. We bridge the gap, bringing people people together.
Where can the public hear the Black Pearl Orchestra?
We are the only organization to win three Knight Challenge Grants. Our most recent project contains a new type of community engagement. We are inviting community musicians to perform alongside the orchestra's professional musicians. The piece we will perform is Beethevon Symphony No. 9. There will be auditions to partake in this special event. More details to be posted here.
What’s your favorite musical piece to conduct? And why?
I love whatever piece I’m working on at the moment. When you think about the analysis, you fall in love with what’s right in front of you. But, I have a lifelong love with Beethoven. This season is Beethoven No. 9. People know Beethoven No. 5. It’s iconic. What it is about Beethoven is that he grabs you viscerally. You know there’s a story being told in the music. You may think you don’t know something about classic music, but there’s something gripping about it. He’s trying to say something and he’s something directly to you.
What life lesson can you pass along to inspire others?
Part of the reason why I started the Black Pearl was because I was auditioning for jobs and was turned away. What’s amazing is that even in this day and age people’s stereotypes of other people can block opportunity. I could have got mad but I wanted to change something for the positive. For a lot of people, no doesn’t mean no. You control your own destiny. That was the initial motivation to start Black Pearl. It’s about saying yes to your own possibility and the power to create the life you want create for yourself.