A Conversation with Blake-Anthony Johnson, CEO and President of Chicago Sinfonietta

Blake-Anthony Johnson’s multifaceted career has included work as a performer, collaborator, recording artist, and educator. With a focus on community-centric, multi-disciplinary, and educational initiatives that enable cultural institutions to provide equitable access and public service to all, Johnson has been universally recognized and applauded for his civic engagement & transformational leadership.

Describe where you are from. Tell us about a special Chicago childhood memory.

I’m a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but as a very active and ambitious musician; I’ve also lived in Poznan Poland, Paris, France, Nashville Tennessee, Louisville Kentucky, Cleveland & Cincinnati OH, Miami Beach Florida, Charleston South Carolina, and New York City before moving to Chicago, which has helped to shape my ability to easily connect with just about anyone. One of the most catalytic memories of living in Atlanta is at a Waffle House! Specifically, the Waffle House where my older sister worked which I frequented often after school for free food. My sister’s co-worker gave me my first cello, so that particular period of my childhood is quite vivid.

Tell us how you got interested in your industry.

My mother & aunt were gospel singers, but not casually singing in the church a couple times a week, they were back-up singers for legends, then later recording their own albums & shooting music videos in the 90s to launch their own careers. I still remember lyrics of songs that I’ve not actually heard in over 20 years. The work ethic needed to simultaneously raise kids and follow your dreams leaves a lasting impression for anyone lucky enough to witness it, it’s one of the greatest gifts my mother has given me. My mother’s love of music certainly planted the original seed, and it became very clear at a young age that the cello was my golden ticket to the world. I had many other interests, dreams, and certainly more natural talents than music, but I found the access to the world that music provided me impossible to walk away from.

What advice would you give youth looking to join your field of work?

Go for it! I’ve been “all in” on my journey for quite some time- it was an extremely intentional path I pursued, and honestly unbelievable still. I was a mid-distance sprinter in high school, and one thing I always loved was the discipline it took to run your own race. Unlike the other sprint events, running the 400-meter dash has the runner literally starting from a different starting line to accommodate the fact that lane 8 is a larger oval to run than lane 1 going around the field. Different parts of the track require different techniques and acceleration to maximize your time, outside of block work you spend A LOT of time perfecting your pacing formula that ensures your best race- we have every meter marked with specific tasks. The 400-meter dash is about running YOUR race, if you try to go faster and accelerate earlier than you should because you feel like others are too far ahead of you, you will burn out and not have enough in the tank for when it really matters. You actually can’t really gauge who is in the lead until the last 150 meters heading into the final 100-meter dash. So many people in my life had starting lines that were way ahead of mine- I was self-taught on the cello until college! But I focused on running my best “life race” and it’s a huge part of why I have so much in the tank. I tend to be long winded so in short, run your own race- don’t be bothered if you feel like you’re playing “catch up” – you’re doing just fine.

What is your favorite Chicago attraction and why? Favorite Chicago food and why?

My favorite Chicago attraction is the city itself. There is nothing quite like Chicago.Some people eat to live, but I live to eat. Picking a favorite restaurant is impossible in a city that simply dominates the international food scene but one of my favorites is Two Fish Crab Shack on 47th street. Yasmin Curtis, the owner, was one of the first people to welcome me to Chicago. I simply love the food and apologize in advance for any out-of-stock items to anyone wanting to try it- just assume I bought the last one.

Why do you love working and supporting Chicago?

The City of Chicago is simply everything. At the end of the day the city is just a big family of amazing people that take care of each other in a way that is hard to articulate but is so obvious when traveling the world and seeing other cities. Miami Beach is a vibe, Paris is charming, but Chicago is a warmth that I feel with every cell in my body.

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