Mt. Airy-based orchestra opens the floor to amateur musicians

 Music Director Jeri Lynne Johnson, in white, listens to Marthelène Gabon. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)

Music Director Jeri Lynne Johnson, in white, listens to Marthelène Gabon. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)

Under the gaze of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson, Marthelène Gabon flexed and fluttered her chilly fingers.


With the orchestra’s principal second violinist, Carlos Rubio, and violist Petula Perdikis silently looking on, Gabon drew up the bow of her cello to play a selection of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the Mt. Airy orchestra’s headquarters at Summit Presbyterian Church.

“This is really below tempo,” the Athens-born French musician apologized as the notes fell away.

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“We have five months to get it up to tempo,” said Johnson, the orchestra’s founding music director. Gabon’s head bobbed as she whispered a lead-in count to herself in French, and resumed the music.

“It’s a lot of music — take your time,” Johnson encouraged her at the next pause.

Calling all amateur grown-ups

Like all the Philadelphia-area musicians making their way to Black Pearl’s auditions this month, Gabon doesn’t play her cello for a living. Johnson, the only applicant in Philadelphia to win the Knight Arts Challenge Grant all three years of the competition, won her final $50,000 prize for a program called City Wide Side by Side, which will add amateur adult musicians to Black Pearl professionals for a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

To qualify for an audition, prospective players must be over the age of 18 can’t make their living as a musician. In the string family, violas, violins, cellos and basses are needed. Flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, French horns, trumpets and trombones will join them —provided Black Pearl can find amateurs with the dedication and skill to play the extremely difficult symphony with professional panache after five months of side-by-side rehearsals with orchestra members.

“Are they going to be able to get this reasonably by June 2014?” Johnson said of her criteria, when NewsWorks stopped by to catch the first night of auditions earlier this month. 

“I picked Beethoven Nine not because I want to torture people with it,” Johnson said, acknowledging the piece’s notorious challenge. “I picked Ode to Joy because it is a beloved piece of music.”

The businessperson turned composer

Gabon, who arrived in the US 10 months ago, works as a composer of children’s tunes and as a lyricist for French pop. Though she never made a living with her cello, she has been playing since age seven. She tried to resist the call when she grew up.

“I didn’t want to be stigmatized as a musician,” she said of earning a business degree. She wanted “to be like everyone else” who pursued a traditional career. But it didn’t last. “I came back to music because I understood that everyone [else’s] life was boring,” she laughed. She started to compose for children when her son, a double bass player, was born 12 years ago.

The medical engineer

Next was California native William Lai, who plays the viola in the volunteer Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra.

“I’ve never played in a professional orchestra,” he said. Lai, a medical engineering entrepreneur whose company is developing a non-invasive method to measure intracranial pressure through the eye, got his bachelor’s degree at Berkeley and earned his PhD in bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Fiery,” Johnson said approvingly as Lai finished his selections.

Lai said that music is actually a common hobby for engineers, because they can apply their “rigorous, thorough, persistent” dedication to practicing an instrument as well as they can apply it to the lab.

He has high hopes of joining City Wide Side by Side. “Beethoven Nine is not something you can just get together with your friends to play,” he said.

The lawyer

Last to audition was double-bass player Bernard Max Resnick, a Bala Cynwyd-based entertainment lawyer whose client roster spans international pop, bluegrass, rap and classical stars. 

Resnick, a Villanova graduate, plays the double bass in the all-volunteer Main Line Symphony Orchestra.

He introduced his instrument as Alice, and when the auditioners laughed, he told them to talk to Joe Conyers, the assistant principal bass player of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“His is named Norma. We introduced them to each other.”

“When I go to rehearsal, all the strain and stress of the day…melt away within about 15 minutes of starting to play music,” Resnick said after his audition. Keeping in touch with his double bass after-hours helps him relate to his clients, and “understand how musicians still feel.”

He admitted that Beethoven’s Ninth isn’t his favorite symphony, but it’s a worthy challenge.

“It’s like a track meet, like a 10K race,” he said. “You’re exhausted by the end of it, and you really have to get into physical as well as mental shape in order to play it.”

Why not kids?

After Johnson completes a second round of auditions, she’ll make her decisions. The chosen musicians will rehearse with the professionals twice a month throughout the first half of 2014, in preparation for a concert on June 21.

After Gabon, Lai and Resnick had finished, Johnson explained that she didn’t choose to work with adult musicians because of a lack of quality young musicians —she said many local youth orchestras had wanted to partner with Black Pearl for the project.

“For me politically, I want people who are adults to remember the joy it brought them when they were young, so they recognize how important this is to kids in the school district,” Johnson said of “rekindling that spark” among adult hobbyists. “Think about if you were these kids’ age, and you didn’t have this.”

For more information on Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra’s City Wide Side By Side project, visit their website.

Disclosure: WHYY receives funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

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