“When I was younger and I’d say, ‘I’m a conductor,’ people would look at me all confused, like, ‘You drive a train?’” says Jeri Lynne Johnson, bursting into a bright laugh. “I had to step back and realize that this is normal for me, it’s what I wanted to do my whole life, but it might be unusual to other people.”
The vivacious Johnson, 40, is the founder and music director of Philly’s acclaimed Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, and one of a precious few professional African-American female conductors in the nation. A first-rate ensemble, the nonprofit Black Pearl is as notable for its ethnic diversity as its musicality: The 40-member core is comprised equally of blacks, Latinos, Asians, whites and Middle Easterners.
“It’s always been a primary concern that the orchestra reflects the community, and Philadelphia is such a diverse city,” says Johnson, “but quality is an equal concern. The two are not negotiable.” To that end, many of Black Pearl’s players hail from such prestigious musical training grounds as Philly’s Curtis Institute, New York City’s Juilliard School and Baltimore’s Peabody Institute.
Watching Johnson lead them is remarkable and engrossing. During quieter passages, her body movements are as fluid and graceful as a ballet dancer, her baton gently arcing through the air like a natural extension of her index finger. In the more bombastic moments, her physicality turns forceful, dynamic and intense, like a fencer parrying and thrusting but never relinquishing poise or control.
There’s an old saying that “every dictator aspires to be a conductor,” and while Johnson jokes that her job provides her with “one of the few times in your life where you can do whatever you want and people have to do what you tell them,” she says she’s avoided embodying the stereotype of the pompous maestro terrorizing musicians in a quest for perfection.
Johnson’s presence, skill and ability to coax the best out of her players has earned her attention and guest-conducting gigs outside of Philly. In February, she led an orchestra that backed rapper Jay-Z at a pair of benefit concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall. But Black Pearl, which Johnson founded in 2007, is her truest love, the actualization of a dream the Illinois native harbored since seeing her first classical performance when she was 7.
“It was incredible, and right then I wanted to be a conductor,” says Johnson, who is classically trained in piano but explains that the “orchestra is my instrument to the extent that—and I don’t mean this in a bad way—I can manipulate people to make sounds.”
A graduate of the University of Chicago, where she conducted the school’s chamber orchestra, Johnson first came to Philly in 2000 to become assistant conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. After four years, she moved to London for a few years to work and study.
Then, in 2007, she had the pivotal experience of her life, one that she describes as “both devastating and inspirational”—the irritant that created the pearl, so to speak. Trying out for a music director position with an orchestra in California, competing against hundreds of applicants, she was one of the final three candidates. But she didn’t get the job, and when she asked a member of the search committee what she could improve on, “he said, ‘You just don’t look like what our audiences would expect a conductor to look like.’”
Johnson was appalled. “He was a nice person but it was horribly racist. I could have written letters or sued them, but it gave me hope, too, because it wasn’t that I’m not talented. And it seemed crazy to me, because ticket sales have been plummeting and orchestras have been trying to attract diverse audiences for decades, but people are afraid to risk their financial welfare on me as the face of the orchestra? So I decided to start my own group that would be all about diversity and quality, and prove it can work.”
Johnson returned to Philly later that year and founded Black Pearl, starting out with a handful of musicians she knew well. These days, their performances around town— from the Kimmel Center to the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral—typically sell out.
As Black Pearl’s president and music director, Johnson’s work is varied and hectic. Much of her day is spent on the administrative and marketing side, particularly fundraising efforts. But, of course, there’s the artistic part, too. There are rehearsals: “That’s where I earn my money,” she laughs. And she sets aside at least three hours a day at home—typically from 10 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning, since that’s when the emails and phone calls cease—to study scores, taking apart each piece instrument group by instrument group. “I know every single instrument note by note by the time I’m done,” she says, “and you want to study the different ways of balancing sound.”
Still, Johnson’s never too busy to think about Black Pearl’s social mission beyond the music, or her own career path. “The world is going to tell you ‘no’ and you have to decide whether or not you’re going to accept that, whatever the barrier is—ethnic, socioeconomic, a physical handicap. Are you going to take no for an answer, or make your own fate?”
Workin’ It is written by staff writer Michael Alan Goldberg, who peeks into the working lives of Philadelphians.