Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Did BBC derail career of black conductor?



National treasure Sir Colin Davis conducts BBC Proms on August 24 and September 4 in programmes that include Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Sir Colin progressed from clarinet to conducting, as did Guyanese born Rudolph Dunbar who is seen above. But, despite conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Dunbar never appeared on the podium at a Promenade Concert. And there is an important story behind that simple statement.

A website focussing on Guyana explains the decline of Rudolph Dunbar's career in these words:

Nobody was now asking him to conduct orchestras. He was not even playing his clarinet at concerts anymore. In fact, he died in obscurity in London in 1988.

Why was Dunbar overlooked? There is no clear answer to that question. In an interview he gave six months before his death in 1988, Dunbar, who had previously conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, blamed the BBC and a particular producer/director in the organization for derailing his career.

In those days, the BBC was powerful enough to open doors and close doors to people in the arts and music. There may have been other factors as well, given that he was one of a group of West Indians in the UK who campaigned openly against racism and colonialism.
This account is corroborated by the profile of Dunbar in the Starbroek News of Aug 24, 2004 by respected academic Dr. Vibert C. Cambridge quoted in my 2007 profile of the conductor:
In an interview with Alex Pascal in 1988, about six months before his death, Dunbar spoke about the particular vindictiveness of a producer/director of music at the BBC who derailed his musical career in Europe. Dunbar described that director of music as "despicable and vile" and the BBC "as stubborn as mules and ruthless as rattlesnakes."
Nicholas Kenyon's official history of the BBC Symphony Orchestra contains no mention of Rudolph Dunbar, despite his importance as a pioneering black conductor. It would be very interesting to see whether the BBC archives throw any light on this important and quite recent episode in music and cultural history.

* Several paths branch off here. Rudolph Dunbar was a war correspondent in Europe during World War II, and his friend Philippa Schuyler was a correspondent during the Vietnam War. While back in the 21st century, up and coming African American conductor Kazem Abdullah also progressed from clarinet to conducting. Will Kazem Abdullah succeed where Rudolph Dunbar failed and be the first black conductor since 2003 to conduct a BBC Prom? Well, a curious twist brings this path full circle: if anybody can put Kazem Abdullah on the podium at a Prom it is Columbia Artists Management Inc, whose founder told black conductor Everett Lee "a Negro, standing in front of a white symphony group? No, I'm sorry". Because today CAMI represents Kazem Abdullah as well as Sir Colin Davis.

* Update - independent corroboration of this story in a new post.


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2 comments:

Philip Amos said...

Bob, I've just had s shufti at Google Book Search. There are quite a few 'mentions' of Dunbar, and these overall gave me no great confidence in the accuracy of those works. Two of them had the idea he became conductor-in-chief of the BPO after Borchard's death, and one of those thought he was a pianist.

However, I did make note of Rudolph Dunbar by Lambert Surhone, et al., 110 pages and apparently from Wiki articles, if I understood the blurb correctly. I can't think that is really the case, but who knows. Published by VDM Verlag in 2010.

And then, Black Conductors by D. Antoinette Handy, apparently a collective biography with Dunbar included. Published by Scarecrow Press, 1995. The snippet visible in GBS does mention that there is much Dunbar memorabilia at Yale.

I was able to see a little more of Analyzing Performance: a critical reader, by Patrick Campbell, Manchester U.P., 1995. That glimpse mentions racism as part of Dunbar's problems in the U.K. There is then an anecdote about Sargent saying to Harold Holt, "Whos is this Dunbar? Have you seen him conduct?" To which HH replied that he hadn't seen Toscanini, but he'd invited him to conduct in London. The problem I have with this is the author's reflexive assumption that Sargent's words to Holt were the product of reflexive racism. Any conductor hearing that someone he'd never heard of was going to conduct his orchestra might say the same. And Sargent, after all, did much to promote Avril Coleridge-Taylor in the 30s and 40s -- a conductor of mixed race AND a woman. Although, and just a short digression here, I've noticed over time that conductors active from that period, including Szell and others of that ilk, were strikingly accepting of woman conductors. The problem lay elsewhere...now where might that be?

Hope this is of interest. I think we'll track down that BBC man eventually.

Pliable said...

How many black conductors at the BBC Proms? - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2011/07/how-many-black-conductors-at-bbc-proms.html