Monday, October 24, 2011

We're just not ready yet for a black conductor

It is October 19 and I have just now seen your July 25 post re Everett Lee. I represented Everett for a couple of years while I was in the artist management business in New York and I ran into the same attitude as Arthur Judson's when I presented him for open music director positions with major symphony orchestras (including Oakland!!): "We're just not ready yet for a black conductor." Ironic because one of the catchwords of African American life, from the white perspective, was "You people just aren't ready yet..."

Anyway, I did manage to get Everett a couple of opera conducting gigs, and 2-3 guest engagements with major orchestras, but then I moved away from NYC and away from the artist management business. I believe he later went on to run an opera company in Philadelphia and perhaps also formed or at least led another orchestra in New York (possibly that is the St. Luke's Orchestra you refer to). Before I met Everett, I had actually met the late Sylvia Olden Lee first because she was my wife's vocal coach at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and thereafter. (She was a pianist and vocal coach, BTW, not a singer.) I got to know their son Everett III and their daughter Eve as well. Quite an extraordinary family.

The common thread in the saga of Everett and Sylvia Olden Lee is Max Rudolf, who had (a) previously conducted in Goteborg Sweden, (b) was first a conductor and then artistic administrator at the Met from 1942-58 and (c) became music director of the Cincinnati Symphony in 1958 and was probably responsible for getting Sylvia her position at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. (When he left the Cincinnati in 1970 to head the opera department at Curtis, he took Sylvia with him.) I was assistant manager of the Cincinnati Symphony in 1965-66 and stayed in touch with Rudolf thereafter. He was very supportive of my and my wife's career undertakings as well. Rudolf was one of the few arts administrators in the USA who dared to advocate for and engage black performers, composers and conductors.

I was unaware for many years that the Louisville Orchestra had provided Everett with his first guest conducting engagement (shameful since Louisville is my home town and I grew up on young people's concerts by the Louisville Orchestra). I do know that Rudolf brought Everett in to conduct the Cincinnati Orchestra on at least 2 occasions, as he had previously done with Dean Dixon.

In answer to your question re: the photo ID from Jet Magazine [see above] - Jessye Norman, Max Roach (who I also once represented) and Martina Arroyo - I believe that is indeed Everett Lee second from left. I had never before seen him with glasses but the facial structure looks the same. Quite a spiffy getup, too.

Ironically, my wife Sylvia and I now live in El Cerrito CA, just north of Oakland, whose Symphony for many years has had a black music director named Michael Morgan, and prior to that had engaged the late Calvin Simmons as its music director. Also, I believe the first black music director of a major US orchestra was James de Priest in Portland, and Thomas Wilkins is now in Omaha as well as principal conductor at the Hollywood Bowl. By all means please update Everett's biographical information and submit it to Wikipedia as well.

Michael O'Daniel
That valuable addition to the Everett Lee path arrived a few days ago. Thankfully attitudes have changed since the days when Everett Lee, Philippa Schuyler, Rudolph Dunbar, Dean Dixon and other musicians of colour were struggling to build their careers. But echoes of that headline do still linger on.

* October is Black History Month in the UK.

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3 comments:

Philip Amos said...

First, I should like to add my thanks to Michael O'Daniel for his exceptionally interesting contribution.

In case anyone should go in pursuit of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, I would mention that it changed its name to the Oregon Symphony Orchestra in 1967. James de Priest was its director from 1980 to 2003. Before that, he had been Director of the Quebec Symphony, Malmo SO, Monte Carlo Philharmonic,and the Tokyo Metropolitan SO. He's currently director of conducting and orchestral studies at Julliard. His honours are legion and include the National Medal of Arts. There is more, and overall he has had, while overcoming the loss of the use of his legs to polio, had a career that gives one hope.

But he was not the first African American to hold the post of Director of an American orchestra. That distinction belongs to Calvin Simmons, who was Director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra (since reconstitued as the Oakland East Bay Symphony) from 1978 to 1982 while also on the staff at the SF Opera throughout his career. Having been Mehta's assistant in LA, he also continued to guest with the LAPO. He conducted at the Met and at Glyndebourne to considerable acclaim.

And then we meet with tragedy, for he died in a canoeing accident at the age of 32."The saddest words the poet wrote: What might have been." Michael Tippett wrote his guitar sonata, The Blue Guitar, in memoriam of Calvin Simmons, and a new theatre in Oakland was named for him. Rinna Wolfe has written The Calvin Simmons Story: Or, Don't Call Me Maestro, published my Muse Wood Press (Berkely) in 1994. It is a slim volume, but one new copy and a dozen used copies are on Amazon.

Unknown said...

Dear Philip,

Thanks for correcting my error re the chronology of Calvin Simmons and James de Priest. I was somewhat familiar with Calvin Simmons' history and untimely demise since an orchestra manager friend of mine was an early champion of his. I also knew that the Portland Symphony had long ago renamed itself the Oregon Symphony and I should have been more accurate re: that matter as well. The more important point is that all of us who are in a position to do so, keep the names and histories of these pioneers alive and likewise celebrate the managers and administrators who had the integrity and courage to make progress happen.

FYI to all, even before my post went live, I heard from Everett Lee III and we had a most interesting conversation. I intend to follow up with the Maestro himself ASAP. Everett III said that his father has catalogued every piece he ever conducted, close to 1000 in all. The next step is for him to dictate his memoirs, since his extraordinary pioneer needs to be published, at the very least online if not in print. Somewhere there must be underwriting available for such an endeavor; suggestions would be welcomed.

Michael O'Daniel

Philip Amos said...

Dear Michael,

Your response to my comment is more than gracious. May I say that these slips are peccadilloes when measured against the fine work you have done and continue to do in this field, to the benefit of readers here, but most of all, of course, for the benefit of African American musicians whose sterling work is so much overlooked or ignored. May I say that a friend of mine, Helen Adelhelm, is a violinist in Portland, else I'm not sure that I would myself have known about the reconstitution of the orchestra.

Having written the foregoing, it will be evident to you that I agree most heartily with your point that what really matters is only that the names and heritage of these pioneers -- musicians, managers and administrators -- are kept alive. And also, of course, made known to a much wider audience and readership. The point that seemed to me to best indicate how deeply wrong this situation is was that Michael Tippett wrote a work in memory of Calvin Simmons, yet this rising star is now remembered by so few. It hardly helps that I have found only one recording he made: conducting the LA Philharmonic as backing for jazz vibraphonist, Bobby Hutcherson.

With regard to underwriting for your work with Everett, may I suggest that we get clear in our own minds the importance of this project and not be modest. What I advert to is that I see no reason not to apply for a grant to the National Endowment for the Arts and to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Also, I don't know where Everett lives, though I think it was mentioned earlier, but I note that there are regional organizations that award grants for arts projects. St. Louis, I think, does so within an area covering sixteen states. I also saw mention of a similar body in Louisville. May I add here, Michael, for I don't know if you have applied for such grants before, that presentation, the content, is everything in making applications, and that means looking very carefully for what the funding organization is looking for. They all have in mind things they want to fund, and it usually varies year by year. I'm an exiled Londoner living in Vancouver and my dealings with the Canada Council taught me a lot about this.

What I didn't know about at all is'crowdfunding'. It seems that this started in the UK. The London Music Masters launched a 'Buy a Bar Facebook Campaign' to raise 4250 pounds to commission a violin concerto. Five pounds underwrites one bar, ten pounds three bars, up to 120 pounds for two pages. And apparently it works.

The Britten Sinfonia is doing the same with their 'Tenner for a Tenor' campaign to raise funds to commission a work for tenor by Jonathan Dove.

There are certain inducements -- emails reporting on the progress of the work, donors' names inscribed on the score. It sounds a little crazy at first, but if it works, so what? Once again it is all in the presentation, and I think those inducements are important (donors names listed in the book as sponsors of the project?). You can read more about this on the blog 'Lee Streby Cultural Lee Speaking'.

My thanks and very best wishes go with you, Michael, as you embark on this most important project and as you seek underwriting. I'm confident it is out there somewhere.