Learn to conduct an orchestra – iConduct Festival part of Barnes opening weekend

At the Barnes grand opening celebration this Saturday, the Mt. Airy-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra is offering an opportunity to anyone who ever wondered how to conduct an orchestra. With the continuation of its iConduct! Festival, which premiered last weekend at the Mann Center’s Philadelphia on Parade festival, Black Pearl’s Maestra and Founding Music Director, Jeri Lynne Johnson, will be giving attendees a chance to take the podium for themselves.

Fewer opportunities for minority conductors

Giving a variety of people access to that podium is a mission very close to Johnson’s heart.

She discovered early on that a career in conducting – highly competitive to begin with – would be even more challenging for her.

After receiving her Master’s in Music History and Theory from the University of Chicago and conducting at every opportunity, Johnson was one of hundreds of applicants when the helm of a California orchestra came vacant.

Her hopes intensified when she became one of the top three candidates, but ultimately she was not chosen for the post. Determined to get the most out of the experience, Johnson asked for feedback.

It turned out the directors had loved her approach and ideas. Instead, the rejection had everything to do with who she was.

“We wouldn’t know how to market you,” the California director admitted. As an African-American woman, Johnson was told, “You don’t look like what our audience would expect.”

“It was devastating, but also liberating,” Johnson says now. She became aware of the need to tackle the lack of diversity across the classical music field.

“I was never going to get anyone to take me seriously unless I did this,” she says of founding Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in 2007. “I wasn’t given access. Fine. I am giving access to everyone.”

Now she’s at the helm of an award-winning orchestra whose core mission is the inclusion of all races and cultures in the performance and enjoyment of classical music.

“Diversity is good business,” she says. Now, through last year’s win of a Knight Art Challenge Grant, Johnson is extending her open perspective not only to include musicians and audiences of all types, but, with the iConduct! Festival, to give those who never thought they could conduct an orchestra the chance to get up and try it.

The Making of a Maestra

Johnson’s dreams of conducting began early. Growing up in Minnesota, she began the piano at age four. “I wanted to conduct since I was seven years old, and saw my first orchestra concert,” she remembers.

It was a Beethoven symphony: “I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.” She immediately longed to make that music herself, but she realized that her piano would be one small piece of an orchestra’s voice.

“It was a whole group of people making this music,” she says now. “I was going to have to be that guy up there on the stage. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a conductor.”

Chemistry, science, sports and literature beckoned in high-school, but music always won out. She earned a double major in Music and Religion from Wellesley before earning her Master’s in Chicago.

Johnson founded Black Pearl after serving as the assistant conductor of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia for four years.

“As a conductor it isn’t just enough to know the music itself,” Johnson says. Whether it’s a world-premiere contemporary score or a Mozart symphony, she makes an exhaustive analysis of the piece: the history behind it, the composer’s context, and even the mathematical laws that govern perception of tone and harmony.

For Johnson, this impeccable scholarship is vital.

“Especially as a young conductor, you have to establish your authority immediately,” she says.

“You don’t want audiences coming to hear something they’ve already heard a thousand times,” she explains of the importance of the conductor’s interpretation. “You want your original voice to come through without disrespecting the composer’s intentions – not just what they wrote on the page but their historical, philosophical and even scientific background.”

A “Revolution” in conducting

The iConduct! Festival, now underway with the help of Black Pearl’s 2011 Knight grant, had its genesis in school programs Johnson pioneered for at-risk or autistic youth.

Citing the benefits of the creative demands of conducting, not to mention the confidence, eye, ear and hand coordination and communication skills it builds, Johnson imagined a city-wide festival that would put the thrill of conducting into the hands of anyone who wanted to try it. “I wanted to give people access to the conductor’s podium, not realizing it was literally like a revolution,” she says of the rarity of what her program offers.

Black Pearl at the Barnes opening ceremony

Inspired by the city-wide dialogue of the One Book, One Philadelphia program, Johnson has chosen the well-known Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as the ideal musical entry-point for all iConduct! events.

On Saturday, a 40-piece chamber orchestra, with Johnson at the helm, will begin by performing the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th, during which aspiring conductors can line up for their chance. Johnson will then offer the group a brief lesson on the fundamentals of conducting.

This involves a few key things: first, a steady, upright, confident stance, and second, how to hold the baton. “People thing we’re just up there waving our arms around willy-nilly, but there is a very physical science to how we have to move our bodies,” Johnson says. Participants will learn that conducting the orchestra is fundamentally about speed (fast or slow), volume (loud or quiet), duration (long or short) and the emotion the conductor elicits.

To help first-time conductors understand tempo, Johnson asks them to imagine the rhythmic movements of dribbling a basketball, and explains the music’s beat pattern. Her students get a crash course in gesturing for cut-offs and cues. Then, they can be unleashed, challenging everything they thought they knew about a type of music too-often dismissed as the bastion of elite artists only.

Johnson is overcome by the “wonder” on the faces of iConduct! participants when they move their hands and the orchestra responds. She calls the chance to direct a real orchestra an “incredibly empowering” experience.

People’s “first immersion” in the magic of the podium is what excites Johnson most about the program: “we want to imprint that incredibly positive, exhilarating feeling in them. Give them that access, and that feeling is going to stick with them for a lifetime.”

Johnson urges locals who are interested in trying iConduct for themselves to arrive early for Black Pearl’s Saturday spot in the Barnes festivities. Attendees are welcome to gather at 11am to catch the chamber orchestra’s rehearsal, and the program will run from 11:30 to 12:30.

The iConduct! Festival will also appear at the Kimmel Center on June 8th and at City Hall on June 13th

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