Thursday, July 21, 2016

Digging beneath the diversity headlines


A puff for upcoming Proms in the Independent is headlined 'You don't need to be a white, middle-aged man to wield a baton' and it is very good indeed to see the immensely talented 26 year old British Asian Alpesh Chauhan on the podium in the Royal Albert Hall twice this weekend (July 23 & 24). Alpesh Chauhan - seen above - follows in the footsteps of Indian born Zubin Mehta who has conducted thirteen Proms, the most recent in 2011. But, despite that click baiting headline, it is still fiendishly difficult if you are a black man, yet alone a black woman, to wield a baton at the BBC Proms. In more than 2500 Promenade concerts there have been just three black conductors - all men - and the last one was back in 2003. It is also not insignificant that the 2003 Prom conducted by African American Bobby McFerrin was, like Alpesh Chauhan's two Proms this weekend, not the main evening concert but a daytime event. So sorry to spoil a good Indie headline, but the main events on both Saturday and Sunday in the Albert Hall have white, middle-aged men wielding the baton.

But let's be fair, there is progress. The BBC has a 'Black and British' season of programmes exploring diversity airing in November. One of the programmes with the working title of 'Young, Gifted and Classical' is about the 17-year-old black cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who won the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, and in October BBC Radio 3 is hosting a Diversity and Inclusion in Composition conference in Manchester. I just wish I could be more enthusiastic about these BBC diversity initiatives. But in today's BBC, altruism comes a long way behind brand building, and there is little reason to think that these new initiatives will be an exception. The BBC press release headline for the Sheku Kanneh-Mason documentary plugs the BBC Young Musician sub-brand relentlessly, while this weekend's concerts conducted by Alpesh Chauhan are part of a heavily BBC branded education project. Plus ├ža change...

It is wonderful that Alpesh Chauhan and Sheku Kanneh-Mason are in the limelight. But they have already been snapped up by super-agents Hazard Chase and IMG Artists respectively, and their careers are secure. Let's hope the BBC's diversity season also includes a programme about the less fortunate black classical musicians who face institutionalised discrimination. There is no better case study for this than Rudolph Dunbar, who was born in the then British Guiana in 1907, became the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1945 and went on to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra. However Rudolph Dunbar's career went into an unexplained decline in the decade leading up to his death in 1988. Dunbar's brief obituary in the Musical Times recounts how: 'He gradually withdrew from public life, and devoted himself to fighting racism and trying to increase black involvement in Western art music'. But there is compelling evidence that this is not the whole story. In his book Musical Life in Guyana Dr Vibert C. Cambridge of Ohio University recounts how in an interview 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”'.

Investigating these allegations, which have been independently supported, is much more than an academic exercise; because the alleged discrimination would have occurred contemporaneously with the abuse within the BBC that precipitated the Savile scandal. Uncovering the truth about the treatment of Rudolph Dunbar would aid the understanding of the management culture within the BBC, an institution that in the intervening years has increased its stranglehold on classical music in Britain. If the BBC mined its own archives we would finally know the truth about what really ended the career of one of the first great black conductors. What a valuable contribution that would be to the BBC's diversity season. But I'm not holding my breath.

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