Following an assistant conductor position with The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, at just 36 years old, Johnson decided to advance in the orchestral world by starting her own. Having worked in Philadelphia and already a recognized name, she was able to find musicians and put together The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra quickly.
“Just because you’re an arts organization doesn’t mean that you’re not a business. I didn’t want to start out in the business world not being able to pay people, especially as an African-American woman. I wanted to make sure on every level our organization had a stellar reputation, not just artistically but as a business,” Johnson added.
Grants, donations and proceeds from sold-out concerts helped BPCO — which has a core of 40 musicians — rise above the competition. At a time when staple century-old orchestras were cancelling seasons, closing their doors and declaring bankruptcy, BPCO gained a following, always playing highly attended concerts.
“Black Pearl was able to pay their musicians very well, on-time, and the word got out around New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Baltimore that Black Pearl pays well — and they have a great season. I didn’t have any problem finding the top musicians that I wanted,“ said Johnson.
“People are surprised and they ask, ‘How do you start your own orchestra?’ Just because you’re an arts organization doesn’t mean that you’re not a business. Orchestras are kind of viewed in the community as institutions, because most have been around for 50-100 years.”
During Black Pearl’s inaugural season, Johnson recalls selling out in three days with no advertisements. Having to pull radio ads, the only downfall of the orchestra’s upstart was disappointing hopeful attendees. “The toughest part of running an orchestra is finding time for the artistic side. I feel guilty when I take lots of time out to study music or scores, because there’s the business side. There’s also meeting donors and grant writing,” she added.
“I’m the music director and the conductor so it’s tough to find that balance. It’s a continual struggle for arts organizations. Nothing is guaranteed in the arts world and that’s what people need to understand.”