JERI LYNNE JOHNSON
by Genea L. Webb
When most people think of classical music, the words soft and relaxing come to mind.
But not for classical conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson.
“Classical music is live instruments. There are no driving beats but there’s something powerful, sexy and exciting about it and it allows me to have greater imagination. With a song with words, the story is being told by the songwriter.
Classical music has its own interpretations based on who hears it,” said Jeri Lynne Johnson, founder and music director of the Philadelphia-based Black Peal Chamber Orchestra, the first and only multi-ethnical professional orchestra dedicated to bringing new music to the stage.
Founded in 2007, the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra boasts a roaster of approximately 40 musicians ranging in age from late 20s to early 40s.
“You are not going to see gray-haired people in this orchestra,” said Johnson who was born in Illinois and currently resides in Philadelphia.
Through audience participation, unique artist collaborations with some of today’s greatest artists and the creative use of technology, Johnson and the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra are steadily shattering the images of what people think a conductor should look like—a White man with a tuft of gray hair standing behind a podium waving a stick around screaming at musicians—and what classical music should sound like.
“I always have to bear in mind that this is new to someone and they have to see me as an equal,” said the maestra who began conducting during her doctoral studies in music history and theory at Chicago University. “Being a conductor was something I was drawn to. I just loved classical music and it was what I wanted to do. I didn’t think it was strange that there wasn’t anyone who looked like me until I started trying to get jobs.”
Johnson has served as the assistant conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia from 2000 to 2004. In 2005 Johnson made history as the first African-American woman to win the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, an international conducting prize.
In 2011 Johnson was named a Woman of Distinction by the Philadelphia Business Journal and a Creative Connector by Leadership Philadelphia, and a British American Project Fellow in 2010.
“I don’t ask people to get past that fact that I am an African-American female,” Johnson said. “We want people who look like me to believe that classical music is for them. When I stand up there and conduct, I’m saying that classical music is for everyone.”
The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra helps the next generation by spending 30 weeks annually performing innovative and fun music for school aged children in the Philadelphia region of the commonwealth.
“Everything they are and what they value is being put out to the world. Walking into a room with a look on their face translates. It’s non-verbal communication. What you put out is what you’re going to bring in,” Johnson said. “Conducting is about connecting with people without saying a word. You have to craft and being very prepared.
“When I’m up there conducting I know what I’m doing. The orchestra wants to know that you know your stuff.”
When she isn’t conducting, Johnson enjoys walking her chocolate lab, spending time with family and friends and exercising.
For more information on Jeri Lynne Johnson or Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra visit www.jerilynnejohnson.com
Digital Daily Signup
Sign up now for the New Pittsburgh Courier Digital Daily newsletter!