Terell Johnson ‘championing diverse voices’ in new role with Chicago Philharmonic
The newly appointed executive director says that the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence program, which began in 2021 before his arrival, can play a major role in his bid toward promoting greater diversity and inclusion.
Terell Johnson was appointed executive director of the Chicago Philharmonic just a little more than seven months ago, and his recent receipt of a prestigious national award suggests that the ensemble made a shrewd choice.
Musical America, a respected journalistic website devoted to classical music, picked Johnson as one of the top 30 professionals in the field in 2021. The selectors put an emphasis on leaders who helped their organizations and the broader classical community contend with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although many of Johnson’s accomplishments last year took place while he was still serving in his previous role at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida, Scott Speck, the Philharmonic’s artistic director and principal conductor, said he has already made a strong impact in his new position.
“He’s forward-looking, which is great, and he’s really open to challenging assumptions about the organization, and then he also brings experience from the New World Symphony, which is an enormous organization,” Speck said.
In December 2020, Johnson was invited to take part in LEAD (Leaders in Excellence, Arts and Diversity), a two-year executive leadership training program overseen by the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based group that promotes the participation of people of color in classical music. “That organization has been tremendous in terms of preparing me for this current role,” Johnson said.
He, in turn, wants to make “championing diverse voices” a central theme for his tenure at the Philharmonic.
“I’m so excited to work with our artistic committee,” he said, “and Scott Speck to make sure that we are continuing to honor the community who resides here and to program great works by many voices, especially voices that haven’t always been heard.”
The Chicago Philharmonic is a musician-run organization, with members of the orchestra filling at least half of the seats on its board. In addition to presenting an annual four-concert season, it collaborates with a range of area arts groups and served as the pit orchestra for the Joffrey Ballet from 2012 through 2020.
“We’re not trying to be a little Chicago Symphony,” Speck said. “That’s absolutely not the goal of the Chicago Philharmonic. What we’re trying to do is find a niche — that there are certain things we can do that the Symphony can’t do.”
Johnson, 36, was born in New Jersey and grew up Cape Coral, Florida., attending an arts high school in nearby Fort Myers. He went on earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clarinet performance from the University of Central Florida and Florida State University, respectively.
He lived in Chicago in from 2010 to 2014, freelancing in area ensembles and running a private music studio where he taught clarinet and piano to some 40 students. He also served as a recruiter for the Chicago High School for the Arts, which he called a “great experience.”
In 2015, he joined the staff of the New World Symphony, an internationally known pre-professional training orchestra co-founded by famed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and what Johnson called a “hub of innovation.”
He ultimately rose to director of business development and community engagement and headed the orchestra’s equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging committee. In April, as part of a program titled “Being Black in America,” he moderated a discussion with pianist Awadagin Pratt and Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch.
While at the New World, Johnson began his participation in the Sphinx program, which he called a “catalyst” in his becoming a leader of the Philharmonic. “I wanted to be part of steering an organization and supporting an artistic community,” he said, “and I think the Chicago Philharmonic has such a terrific mission, being so unique with its governance structure.”
Among his goals in his still-new post is getting the orchestra’s achievements better known, especially its collaborations with area arts organizations. Many people, for example, don’t realize that the Philharmonic that doubles as the Ravinia Festival Orchestra, which performed most recently in September with singer-songwriter Ben Folds.
He also believes that the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence program, which began in 2021 before his arrival, can play a major role in his bid toward promoting greater diversity and inclusion. He called the initiative, which is open to composers of color ages 20-40, a “launch pad for great talent.”
One of the first three participants in the three-year program, Reinaldo Moya, an assistant professor of composition at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, will have a work premiered during the Philharmonic’s March 27 concert at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
“It’s re-illustrating how important it is to launch the career of the composers by putting them on our subscription concerts right next to a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy winner,” Johnson said, referring to noted composer Jennifer Higdon, whose Mandolin Concerto will receive its American debut on the same program.
Speck said he enjoys working with Johnson, and they have become a good duo already. “We have a lot of fun bouncing ideas off each other,” he said. “I think we both have a good, light-hearted sense of humor, and we laugh a lot when we are together, which is really nice.”
NOTE: Chicago Philharmonic, Scott Speck, conductor, 3 p.m. March 27, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E Randolph. Tickets: $25-$75; chicagophilharmonic.org