Chicago Philharmonic announced earlier this month its next executive director, Terell Johnson. He’ll succeed Donna Milanovich, who’s led the orchestra for the last 10 years. In the announcement, Johnson reflected that working “with such a profound group of world-class musicians and leaders is a privilege beyond compare, and I look forward to continuing the incredible work that my predecessor Donna Milanovich has accomplished for the Chicago arts community.”
WFMT spoke with Terell Johnson to learn more about his background in music and his vision for the Chicago Philharmonic.
WFMT: How did you first come to music?
Terell Johnson: I’ve always had music in the household; my mom listened to music all the time. She played the Delfonics, she was a big Whitney Houston fan, Earth, Wind & Fire, was always just a part of our DNA.
I started playing music at about age seven; I started on piano and absolutely loved it. In middle school, I decided to pick up the clarinet. I think from that point on, I was on the path.
I went to a performing arts high school; it was a great community of artists. After high school, I attended the University of Central Florida music performance in clarinet performance. From there, I went to Florida State University for music performance as well.
After finishing my degree at Florida State, I moved to Chicago. I had such an amazing experience in the city, connecting with artists, enjoying performance opportunities, and teaching.
While there, I juggled several positions. I had a studio of about 45 clarinet and piano students. I also worked for the Northshore Concert Band, and I was a recruiter for the Chicago High School for the Arts. In building my skillset, the Northshore Concert Band really showed me how to work well with a board, and ChiArts was my introduction to all of Chicago. I traveled up and down, left and right, all over our city and outside of the city recruiting for that program, and I got to meet so many talented potential students.
WFMT: Was there a particular neighborhood or part of Chicago that caught you by surprise, that you really liked?
Johnson: There was so much potential in the South Side. Those students had so much hunger but not the resources that were necessary; they didn’t start at the elementary school or middle school years to prepare for this rigorous career. I’ve always wished that we had more infrastructure built-in upstream, so if they wanted to be on this path, they would have the tools to do it.
WFMT: As you’re taking the reins, we hopefully look to be coming out of COVID-19, at least in this city. It’s also a time when pressure is rightfully being put on classical music organizations to address their systemic racism. In this very particular moment, what are you foreseeing for the Chicago Phil?
Johnson: What I see is a continued and deeper relationship with the community that we reside in. I think we’re on a great path.
I had a wonderful experience last week witnessing the recording of Redemption with the Chicago Philharmonic, Adrian Dunn, and the Adrian Dunn Singers. It’s a very powerful piece that makes important statements about Black music, Black representation, and also honoring those who have died due to police brutality.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to champion those voices that haven’t been heard and for ours to be an inclusive art form. I think myself taking on this new role is a sign that the landscape of leadership in our art form is evolving and expanding. It’s really exciting to be at the helm of an organization that has a board and a community of musicians that are passionate about this change.
The other thing to say is it’s really going to come down to the music. Programming works that represent the communities that we reside in will be incredibly important. At the Redemption recording session, I got the privilege of hearing Marcus Norris’ piece, Glory. He’s one of our composers in residence for the next three years. It’s an amazing piece, and we had a terrific violinist, Njioma Grevious, to perform it.
WFMT: How else are you envisioning the future of the Chicago Phil?
Johnson: I spent the last six years at the New World Symphony, most recently as the director of business development and director of community engagement. New World is a laboratory, really fostering the next generation of leaders and performers. I’ve seen so much innovation in terms of incorporating technology into performance; some of the most state-of-the-art broadcast centers in the world.
I think the ways that New World has incorporated these technologies into their programming is one of the things that I can bring those tools, those experiences I can bring to the Chicago Philharmonic. Over the next few years, I would love to be building our budget and connecting with our community to make this possible. Innovation is going to be key, so we’ll be finding really innovative ways to program, innovative venues to program in, and really exciting, vibrant performance opportunities for our patrons.
Some of what I’ve seen that’s been really exciting is the visual components: creating more immersive experiences with the music. Chicago Philharmonic has great relationships with dance and has been working for a long time with Joffrey Ballet, and I would like to mirror that by working with visual artists in that way.
WFMT: How do you feel to be back in Chicago, and what do you think your first, full-attendance, live performance for the Chicago Phil will feel like?
Johnson: I think there’s going to be goosebumps. I just sat in a 50-person audience for the Adrian Dunn/Chicago Phil Redemption recording session. Even in that small audience, it was electric. If it’s anything like that, it’s going to be an indescribable, wild experience for everyone. It’s been so long.
I’m thrilled to be returning to Chicago. I’m so optimistic for the future. I’m really excited to hit the ground running on July 1st in this new role, and I just have sincere gratitude for the overwhelming positive response I’ve received after taking this position.
To learn more information about Terell Johnson, the Chicago Philharmonic’s incoming executive director, visit chicagophilharmonic.org. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.