Mt. Airy orchestra only group to be awarded third Knight arts grant

Jeri Lynne Johnson, founder and music director of the Mt. Airy-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, said that when her company applied for their third Knight Arts Challenge grant in as many years, they were afraid to get too excited.

Philadelphia’s Knight Arts Challenge (of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation), a three-year program, announced its final round of winners this week. Since 2010, the contest has awarded a grand total of $9 million to 114 projects of every artistic stripe, chosen from a field of over 4,000 proposals.

A jaw-dropping moment

In spring of 2011, Black Pearl was among the first year’s winners, for a program called iConduct!, which gave ordinary people an impromptu chance to preside over a professional orchestra. Last year, the group won a second grant for their Black Pearl POPS! program, which melded the traditional Western orchestra with contemporary Arab, Latino and African music.

Both projects were directly related to the Black Pearl mission of breaking down racial, cultural and economic barriers to classical music, making an elite, multi-ethnic professional orchestra accessible to all.

“We thought, oh gosh, we got it twice. That was amazing, we shouldn’t get our hopes up,” Johnson said. “Our jaws just dropped when we got it a third time.”

Philadelphia Knight Arts Challenge program director, Donna Frisby-Greenwood, confirmed that Black Pearl is the only organization in the city to have won the award three years in a row.

A musical “fantasy camp”

One of 43 winners this year, Black Pearl will receive a $50,000 matching grant for a project called “City Wide Side-By-Side,” which Johnson said is best described as “orchestra fantasy camp.”

Black Pearl will be looking for adult amateur musicians and choral singers who will train and rehearse alongside professional musicians and singers, culminating in a public performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, tentatively scheduled for mid-June of 2014, to coincide with National Music Day.

“We want people who don’t earn their living as musicians,” Johnson said, explaining that the audition process will be open to any adult who can play an instrument, but who does not teach or perform music professionally.

Johnson emphasized that she wants amateurs with a modicum of skill who are “looking for a new challenge as a musician.”

“Our core musicians will be rehearsing with them side by side,” she explained. Likewise, the choral singers selected will work with professional singers who will ensure mastery of the notes as well as the German diction.

“We’re not going to dumb anything down,” Johnson continued. “You’re going to have to really work.”

Fertile ground in Philadelphia

Johnson said she was inspired to launch this project in Philadelphia because of the city’s wealth of not only artists, but “cultural consumers.”

“Really, this project is about blurring that line between artist and audience, and saying, look, you can take part in this as well…you appreciate the skill that we have, come and try it out,” Johnson said.

Johnson predicts that a wide range of local music hobbyists will “jump at this opportunity to perform one of the iconic pieces of the literature,” under the mentorship of professional orchestra players. 

Now for the challenge

Having won the $50,000 matching grant, “now the fun part starts,” Johnson said with a laugh. Part of the Knight Arts Challenge mission is to bring new supporters to the arts, and to qualify for their grants, winning groups must raise the same amount themselves within a year through new donations.

“It doesn’t take millions of dollars to show your love or support,” Johnson urged potential donors. To her relatively young organization, founded in 2007, even a few dollars makes a difference.

“It’s a great honor to have our ideas and our work recognized like this by the Knight Foundation three times in a row,” she said, adding that, according to a grant administrator, the odds of winning a Knight Arts Challenge grant are smaller than the odds of getting into Harvard.

Black Pearl’s edge

“A lot of times people have one really strong new idea, and then they’ll submit something to us the next year that’s really similar to the thing they already submitted,” Frisby-Greenwood said of the award selection process. But Black Pearl’s ability to sustain multiple creative proposals was what set it apart.

“The Arts Challenge is about bringing new ideas, so for three years in a row, Black Pearl submitted new ideas that were great ideas, to bring new audiences to their art form,” Frisby-Greenwood said of the Mt. Airy orchestra’s success.

“It’s a personal triumph,” said Johnson, one of the world’s only female African-American orchestra conductors. “I started this orchestra with the vision of really creating change in the classical music industry, and I think the Knight awards are saying these are great ideas about engaging communities through music.”


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

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