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Terell Johnson joins Chicago Philharmonic as executive director

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Last week the Chicago Philharmonic Society announced the appointment of a new executive director, Terell M. Johnson. A classically trained musician as well as an administrator, he’ll succeed another musician-turned-administrator, Donna Milanovich, who’s retiring after ten years in that job—and more as a Chi Phil flutist and board member.

They were both in the limited audience at the Harris Theater Saturday night for a revelatory recording session that combined the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, under guest conductor Adrian Dunn, with the Adrian Dunn Singers. Johnson told me the resulting symphonic/gospel mashup is the kind of innovative programming that’ll carry Chicago Philharmonic into the future.

But he’s stepping in at what looks like a challenging moment. Besides the gloomy outlook for classical music in general and the wreckage of the pandemic, which shut down the live performance that’s Chicago Philharmonic’s lifeblood and reduced its seven-person full-time staff to four, the group recently lost its long-standing major gig as official orchestra to the Joffrey Ballet.  

Not to worry, says Milanovich: the staff reduction will be temporary, and the loss of the Joffrey—incurred when the ballet company moved from the Auditorium Theatre to the Lyric Opera House, where only the Lyric Opera Orchestra is allowed to play—will be negligible. The move was announced three years in advance, and “we planned for it,” she says.

“We love the Joffrey, we have a wonderful relationship still. We were sad we couldn’t follow them into the Opera House, but we understand that the rules of the Opera House are what they are,” Milanovich says.

As for the problems now facing classical musicians in general, they’re not so different from the problems that gave birth to this orchestra and made it unique.

Chicago Philharmonic celebrated an official 30th anniversary last year, but its roots go back to 1979, when members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, trying to figure out how to make a living when the Lyric season was only four months long, formed the Orchestra of Illinois. It was a vehicle that would allow the musicians to perform together outside the Opera House, in its own programs or as an orchestra for hire. But it also had a disruptive structure: it was to be a self-governing organization. The musicians would be in charge.

A little background on that: In the 1990s, an international study of job satisfaction among symphony orchestra players came to the jarring conclusion that they were not all that happy. According to the study, these extremely talented, highly trained, extraordinarily dedicated people, making some of the most exquisite sounds ever heard for deeply appreciative audiences, ranked between factory workers and prison guards in their regard for their own positions.  

But it shouldn’t have been surprising. Classical musicians, like professional athletes, train intensely from an early age to stand out in a highly competitive environment and then, unless they’re among the rare soloists, spend their career as a cog in a complicated machine, under constant pressure to perform flawlessly and exactly as dictated by someone else. In the typical symphony orchestra, the musicians have no control over what they play or how they play it.  

The Orchestra of Illinois flipped the control to the players. The group has since been disbanded, reincarnated, and gone through a couple of name changes but, Milanovich says, especially since a 2012 “restart,” has been true to the idea of a “fully musician-governed organization, with a musician majority on our board.”

The Chicago Philharmonic—its name since 2004—is unique in a couple of other ways as well: it operates without a union collective bargaining agreement (unnecessary, Milanovich says, since it’s run by musicians), and without formal auditions. No longer so closely tied to the Lyric orchestra, it maintains a list of about 200 professional “performing members.” Newcomers are evaluated in the course of playing a few events with them, Milanovich says, rather than going through the typical audition process. Since 2013, Scott Speck has been artistic director and principal conductor.  

The Philharmonic produces its own orchestral and chamber concerts, and has a robust community engagement program that includes mentoring music students in Chicago schools.  But the major share of its revenue still comes from contract work at venues like the Auditorium Theatre and the Harris Theater (where it’s a resident company), and its long-standing relationship with the Ravinia Festival. It’ll be making the music when the Joffrey performs there in September.    

Johnson, the new executive director, lived in Chicago from 2010 to 2015, when he moved to Miami for a job with the New World Symphony, winding up as director of both business development and community engagement. He said Saturday’s recording session, which included composer-in-residence Marcus Norriss violin concerto “Glory,” stunningly performed by guest soloist Njioma Grevious, followed by Adrian Dunn’s also stunning Redemption (reimagined spirituals and gospel songs in memory of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and other Black men killed in encounters with police), is “exactly the kind of project that I want to be bringing.” It’ll be available for free streaming starting June 29 on the Harris Theater’s website (virtualstage.harristheater.org).  v

The Chicago Philharmonic performs a free “Side by Side” event in person June 21 at Ping Tom Memorial Park (part of the Chicago Park District’s “Night Out in the Parks” initiative). Anyone who plays an instrument is invited to join them for this same-day rehearsal and play-along performance. Definitely no auditions required. Info, registration, and reservations at chicagophilharmonic.org/side-by-side-with-the-Chicago-philharmonic.  

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