‘The Black Mozart’: Orchestrating a more diverse classical scene

Black Pearl conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson

This weekend, Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E-flat Major” will feature two female African-American soloists, along with a female African-American conductor. A conductor-soloist-soloist trio of African-American women is likely a first for any professional performance of this iconic piece.

The event is the brainchild of Jeri Lynne Johnson, the founder and conductor of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. Since 2007, Black Pearl has sought to create a Philadelphia-based ensemble that mirrors the ethnic and cultural diversity of the city in which they perform.

“If you attend classical music, you know you only see, basically, one type of person,” explains Black Pearl’s executive director, Julia Rubio. “But that’s not the only type of person that can enjoy the music. That’s silly. It means, as a community, we’re not connecting.”

The three-person staff of Black Pearl is proud to declare that their audiences are roughly 60 percent African-American and Latino, representing a true cross-section of the city.

Along with the Mozart performance, this weekend Black Pearl will present a rare performance of a work by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George (sometimes referred to as “The Black Mozart”), a French composer with African ancestry, much heralded in 18th-century Paris. 

“We’re working toward a day when someone can go into the Kimmel Center or Carnegie Hall and step into an audience that is truly diverse,” says Rubio. “Orchestras aren’t just about putting on concerts. It’s about being a resource for everyone in the community, not just people with a certain socioeconomic background.”

Schools of thought

Much of Black Pearl’s efforts are focused on in-classroom workshops with K-12 Philadelphia schools, both public and private. They also encourage public school students to attend their rehearsals and connect with the more than 20 professional musicians in the company.  



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