Realizing that a piano wasn’t necessarily part of an orchestra, she knew that if she wanted to produce and control the music that the entire orchestra makes, her role would have to be that of a conductor.
Taking freelance jobs, winning the acclaimed Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2005 and founding the BPCO lead to one of Johnson’s greatest experiences in music. In February of this year — through a Philadelphia connection with music group The Roots — Johnson conducted a 36-piece orchestra alongside Jay-Z, Nas and Alicia Keys at Carnegie Hall.
“The Roots were the back-up band for the Carnegie Hall performance. I’d known those guys so when Jay-Z said he wanted to do a fundraiser and have an orchestra along with the band, they called and asked if I’d be interested in conducting,” said Johnson.
“It was all kind of last minute; we had a week of rehearsals and it was just a really wonderful experience. People don’t think about needing an orchestra for a hip-hop concert, but a lot of Jay-Z’s music has samples, strings and brass instruments so it all just fit together.”
Although BPCO only plays classical music, conducting at a hip-hop concert isn’t the only time Johnson has integrated other genres and mediums. Aside from rehearsals, composing and prepping for new seasons BPCO participates in community outreach programs. Musicians from the orchestra visit schools and speak to students about orchestra and conducting.
At BPCO’s upcoming iconduct Festival, onlookers will have the opportunity to participate in mini conducting lessons and even get a chance to practice with the orchestra — to understand what Johnson is so passionate about and to actually feel what Johnson feels when she closes her eyes and sharply swivels her baton.
“When that gentleman in California told me [my image didn’t fit the part], I could have gotten really angry, called up the NAACP, written an open letter and cried discrimination,” she said. “Instead I said, ‘I understand what you’re saying, I’m going to prove you wrong’. As black women we have to use that anger for positive change. Sometimes no is an incredibly motivating word.”