How Music Responds on WRTI: A Conversation with Conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson

Jun 17, 2020

In 2008, African-American conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson founded Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble of classically trained musicians from diverse cultures and ethnicities as a model for the 21st century. She shared with WRTI's Susan Lewis her thoughts about the possibilities for change in classical music culture.


Jeri Lynne Johnson graduated from Wellesley College and the University of Chicago; she's won conducting fellowships and counts Simon Rattle, Marin Alsop, and Daniel Barenboim as mentors. She's conducted symphony orchestras around the world, collaborated with musicians of other genres, and created Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra as an ensemble that reflected the multiculturalism of the community.

"Gustav Mahler said a symphony must be like the world. I took that to a symphony; a symphony orchestra must be like the world. It should contain everyone."

In our conversation on June 2nd, Johnson expressed her distress at the deaths of George Floyd, Ahamaud Arbery, and Brianna Taylor and others, and her thoughts about the social unrest that has followed.

"My first response, once I saw the sadness and anger boil over into action, the very famous poem by Langston Hughes called Harlem came to mind and what happens to a dream deferred."

"The pandemic has ended a lot of people's plans, no matter what your race, color, culture, or creed is. Then you add on top of that the violence against people of color, especially black men and women. What you're seeing is the explosion of these dreams deferred. That was my first thought."

"I'm just as human, and outraged by these occurrences as any other. I've sort of trained myself over years to use that negative energy, that anger, that rage, and transform it into something that I can use to create good."

A self-described 'citizen artist,' Johnson founded Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra "with a very strong sense of social justice."

"We as artists, not just as individual artists, but those of us in power at institutions need to now get off the sidelines and act. ...When I look at where America is right now in this moment with the pandemic and reeling from the injustice that we saw wrought upon George Floyd, what we need to consider as we near USA, 250, is, what is our role as arts institutions in a democracy, in a functioning democracy? ...Artists, I think, no longer have the luxury to stand apart and aside from these matters."

Johnson says arts institutions must get involved in creating systemic change. "That to me means we have to work to democratize creativity. ...We have to transform from being gatekeepers of an artistic product to being facilitators of the creative process for the citizens, because that ability to imagine, and then to act on that imagination is something that was protected and enshrined in this country, by the framers."

It's there, upfront, in the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776:

We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

" Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is to me, creativity and your ability to imagine your best life ... to imagine what it is that you want to be, and then to have the ability and the opportunity to pursue that."

Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra embraces diversity in its musicians, board, staff and the music it plays.

A couple of works Johnson recommends for this time: Lyric for Strings by Dr. George Walker (1922-2018), and Source Code by contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery.