Monday, September 21, 2009

Philadelphia Inquirer: 'Black Pearl's first concert showcases talent, diversity'

[Jeri Lynne Johnson, Founder and Conductor, The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra]

Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted on Mon., September 21, 2009
By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
"Only a year ago, the arrival of any group of the caliber of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, which gave its first full concert Saturday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, would be greeted happily and without qualification. That's not just because music director/founder Jeri Lynne Johnson, the former assistant conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, is committed to ethnic diversity on numerous levels, but because it is clearly capable of an excellent Beethoven 5th. But with the Chamber and the Philadelphia Orchestra (among others) in financial trouble, you wondered: Can the philanthropic community afford a newcomer without slighting others? Or is Black Pearl's niche something we cannot afford not to have?

"The program of William Grant Still, Astor Piazzolla, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 played to a near-full house, its free tickets having been snapped up in three days, though some seats went empty, perhaps because the world does not always value what is free. Those who were there clapped heartily between movements - a healthy sign that new audiences are being reached - though much texting and Twittering could be observed during the music. Are such people truly being reached when so occupied? Beethoven does not allow texting - the music is too imposing - particularly performed with the 'sound and fury' Johnson mentioned in her program notes. The 40-player orchestra gave a tight, intense performance, not going into full cry until the exalted final movement.

"Elsewhere in the program, Still's 1953 Danzas de Panama was a hugely ingratiating, exotic discovery. Piazzolla's Contemplacion y Danza, a showcase for clarinetist Doris Hall-Gulati, is an eerie case of artistic synchronicity: It would seem to be an Argentine version of Copland's Clarinet Concerto except that the two works were written at exactly the same time, probably unbeknownst to each other. Aldemaro Romeo's 1975 Fuga con Pajarillo ended the first half of the program by creating a bridge to Beethoven, employing a Latin rethinking of the Bach fugue, which was part of Beethoven's foundation. The rhythmic liveliness of these works would be slighted by many conventional orchestras but felt effortless with Black Pearl, and not through any overt efforts from Johnson. She maintained a solid rhythmic framework and let the players handle it. In general, she is a poised, low-key presence delivering musical information from the shoulders up.

"As for the orchestra's mandate, Black Pearl is not necessarily doing anything that other organizations attempted. Its ranks have more ethnic diversity - 25 percent Hispanic, African American, and Arab." [Full Post] [William Grant Still (1895-1978) is profiled at]

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