Jeri Lynne Johnson knows rejection. Not just the normal kind but slams of the door based in gender and racial bias.
After winning what’s now known as the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship in 2005, the Black female conductor was a finalist for three positions — and wasn’t hired for any of them. She recalls one of the search committee chairs being forthright in a follow-up conversation: “You just don’t look like what our audience expects the ‘maestro’ to look like.”
The Ravinia Festival addresses such discrimination head-on with “Breaking Barriers: Women on the Podium,” a mini-festival July 29-31 that includes two Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts, a symposium led by former Sun-Times music critic Wynne Delacoma, an outdoor historical display and a dozen or so other offerings.
The unfair hurdles female conductors face are made starkly clear in 2016 statistics (the latest available) from the League of American Orchestras that showed that at 174 reporting ensembles, just 9% of music directors were women.
“Breaking Barriers” is the brainchild of Marin Alsop, Ravinia’s chief conductor and curator. She has been a standard-bearer for women in the conducting realm, becoming the first woman to head a major American orchestra when she served as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2007 through 2021.
When Alsop entered the conducting profession in the 1980s, joining a handful of others including JoAnn Falletta, now music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, she assumed that waves of other women would follow.
“I was very naïve,” Alsop said. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s going to be lots of women coming into this field.’ Then, five years passed, and then 10 years and 15 years. And I thought, ‘Where are all the women, and why aren’t they coming up? What’s going on?’ ”
Only with the emergence of the #MeToo movement in 2017 and the gender discussions it has sparked have opportunities for women conductors finally surged. Examples include Eun Sun Kim becoming music director of the San Francisco Opera last year — the first woman to hold such a position with one of this country’s major companies.
But parity is still far off.
“The thing that is missing is that sense of support system and community,” Alsop said. “And longevity. This is a rather new phenomenon, women on the podium. So I feel our work is even more important now to really push through to create a more equitable landscape for the future.”
To help provide that support system and boost the numbers, Alsop founded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, which provides coaching and other career support for emerging female conductors. This mini-festival marks the program’s 20th anniversary, and at least 14 of the 30 women who have won fellowships or related awards are scheduled to take part.
Three Taki fellows will be showcased during the CSO’s July 29 concert, with Anna Duczmal-Mróz, the current holder of the honor, leading “Source Code” by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery.
Taki alumnae Laura Jackson and Johnson will join Alsop for a performance of Michael Daugherty’s “Time Machine” for three conductors and orchestra (2003).
Ravinia plans to continue “Breaking Barriers” in future seasons, focusing on other groups that have struggled to find a place in classical music or, as Alsop put it, are “breaking new terrain.”
“We really want to make this an annual, exciting experience,” she said, “because Ravinia lends itself to this kind of multi-dimensional experience. I think it is the perfect venue.”
When Johnson’s career path was unfairly blocked, the budding conductor, who got her master’s degree at the University of Chicago, did not accept defeat. Instead, in 2008, she founded her own Philadelphia-based ensemble, the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, which put inclusion and community engagement front and center.
“A lot of the philosophy,” she said, “is not about the traditional outreach into the community but allowing the community to reach into us. So we call it ‘inreach.’ Part of that means that we give people a lot of hands-on access to the orchestra.”
There are, for example, opportunities for the public to conduct the orchestra and chances for amateur musicians to sit in with its members.
Johnson also has made a point of recruiting diverse, top-level musicians for the ensemble.
“We have a variety of different identities represented in the orchestra,” she said, “so that, when you look out in the orchestra, and you look back at the audience, there is no obvious difference.”
Building on the now-proven artistic and financial success of Black Pearl, Johnson began serving in 2015 as a diversity and change consultant with other organizations. Her website is split between these two sides of her work.
“If classical ensembles,” she said, “are going to appeal artistically to a wider group of their community, representation matters. This isn’t purely for moral reasons. This goes to the bottom line.
“Classical music cannot survive unless we find new and diverse audiences who are going to fall in love with the art form the way we artists have.”