Jeri Lynne Johnson is an award-winning Music Director and one of the only African-American Conductors on the scene today. She founded the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in 2007 in Philadelphia, which is the only professional orchestra in the region, and one of few in the country, to champion ethnic diversity in classical music. The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra dedicates itself to normalizing minority participation in classical music. This mission is achieved by presenting concerts and innovative community programs of the highest artistic and educational standard, performed by ethnically diverse musicians who represent Philadelphia's rich cultural diversity. Jeri Lynne started conducting during her doctoral studies in music theory and history at the University of Chicago. While a student in Chicago, Jeri Lynne was awarded the 1998 Jorge Mester Conducting Scholarship to attend the Aspen Music Festival. Since then her conducting teachers and mentors have included Sir Simon Rattle, Marin Alsop and Daniel Barenboim among others. Soon after, Jeri Lynne was engaged by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and served as that ensemble’s assistant conductor from 2000-2004.
A recipient of many civic, community and artistic honors, including a 2010 British American Project Fellow, 2010 Philly 360 Creative Ambassador by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation, and a 2009 Leeway Transformation Award, Jeri Lynne has been featured in numerous magazines and newspapers as well as television and radio shows including "20/20" and the “Tavis Smiley Show” on NPR and was heralded as one of today’s leading women conductors on NBC's "The Today Show" alongside prominent woman conductors Marin Alsop and Joann Falletta. In 2005 Jeri Lynne made history as the first African-American woman to win an international conducting prize when she was awarded the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship. For much more on Jeri Lynne be sure to visit: http://www.jerilynnejohnson.com.
Jeri Lynne will be conducting the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in "Paris-When It Sizzled" as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) on April 28 at 7:30pm at the Independence Seaport Museum (211 South Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia, PA 19106).
1. Who or what inspired you to become a musical director? Well, I would say that music itself inspired me to want to conduct. I mean, I have loved classical music since I started studying piano at the age of four. But when family friends took me to hear my first orchestra concert at seven, seeing the musicians onstage really sparked my imagination. The Minnesota Orchestra was performing a Beethoven Symphony and the power and passion of the music instantly captivated me. I still loved playing the piano, but I understood that if I wanted to make that kind of music, I had to become a conductor.
2. Who is the one person in your field that you haven't worked with that you would like to? This is tough question! So I will say the composer I have yet to work with is French composer Marc Andre Dalbavie-I first encountered his work in Chicago as part of a new music series and the elegant way he combined different instrumental timbres and harmonies just blew me away. In terms of performers, I would have to say Yo-Yo Ma. He is, of course, amazingly talented but what interests me is his ability to reach out to other art forms, genres and cultures and create new connections for classical music like in his Silk Road Project.
3. What made you start Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra? Well, I had thought about creating my own ensemble for a while the catalyst was a pivotal audition for the post of music director. After being one of the final three candidates, the search committee explained that while they loved my conducting and ideas, they did not think their core audience would accept me as the music director because I did not look like the stereotypical conductor. And in an age where orchestras are trying to stave off the “death of classical music” because of declining ticket sales, lack of ethnic diversity, and waning cultural relevance, I found this incredibly shortsighted. So I decided to start my own orchestra to prove that being a young Black woman conductor could actually be incredibly beneficial to an orchestra in terms of reaching new audiences and changing perceptions about classical music. What has being the music director of one of the few professional orchestra's in the country done for you both personally and professionally? Well, having my own orchestra has been one of the most challenging and rewarding endeavors of my entire life. Personally, starting an orchestra at the beginning of the biggest financial recession since the Great Depression was a huge risk. But being able not only to survive but thrive in these conditions has me a given me a greater sense of my own strength, faith in my vision, and gratitude for the friends, colleagues and audiences who support me. Professionally, the BPCO has been an amazing platform to get my ideas about arts education, cultural diversity, and audience engagement in the classical music industry out to a wider audience. My goal with the BPCO was to create a new orchestral model of how concerts, education and outreach all mutually reinforce each other to attract and retain a greater number of audience members from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds and thereby diversify the revenue stream for orchestras. Does having a diversified orchestra influence your music selection or style? Yes it does. I love the famous European masterworks, just like everyone else, of course. But there are also incredible works by composers of African, Latin and Asian descent that people within classical music acknowledge are genius but are less widely known in the general public. So I like to find the deeper connections between the famous and lesser known works and present them in a way that contextualizes each piece in the wider path of human history, not just classical music history. And I think the diversity of our ensemble lends my programming an authenticity because our musicians-whether of European, Asian, African or Latin descent- can use their instruments to speak in the same cultural language as the composers.
4. What excites you most about being part of PIFA? I love working with creative people from other disciplines-so to me the most exciting thing about PIFA is taking the creative spark that leaps between people and expanding it to light up a whole city. For PIFA, the dancers, musicians, artists and chefs will be the cultural luminaries who will make Philadelpa another City of Lights! How do you decide what to perform for a festival like PIFA as opposed to a season show? Actually, the PIFA programming mandates of working in collaboration, using art to create connections across centuries and between countries and among cultures is very much part of my programming aesthetic for the BPCO. All of our concerts explore how culture, society and history have intersected in the masterworks of great composers and lesser-known geniuses alike.
5. What is the best advice you've ever received? The best musical advice I ever received was from Daniel Barenboim who said that 99% of the interpretive questions we ask as performers can be answered by the music itself. There are so many recordings by the great conductors so I am a big believer in studying, knowing and absorbing the compositional history and the musical score to find my own interpretation.
6. Favorite way to spend your day off? Well, I never really have complete days off-some piece of music that I am performing or programming is always running through my mind. But for conductors, having hundreds of years of musical scores to study requires solitude and can be isolating. So for me a day off involves reconnecting with the people (and pets!) in my life that I really care about. So I take an extra long hike with my dog, maybe have a spa date with the girls, meet up with friends for after work drinks, have dinner with my family.
7. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? Well, I am going to answer safely and thereby prevent a whole flurry of scandalous FB posts....I would dream about myself but I would want to have one of those flying dreams. I don’t know what they are supposed to mean, but I always wake up full of hope, joy and inspiration! :)
This interview is brought to you with the support of PIFA (Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts). If you liked the interview above and want to help ensure that PIFA becomes an annual event please Like their Facebook Page and Follow them on Twitter!