Negro at home, maestro abroad
Dean Dixon, who is seen above, has featured in no less than sixteen Overgrown Path posts. By one of those auspicious coincidences that power this blog, just before I uploaded the most recent post - which recounts how he gave the the premiere of Richard Arnell's suite The Land with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942 - news arrived of a forthcoming biography* of the West Indian American conductor. Its author is Dr. Rufus Jones, who has edited The Collected Folk Suites of William Grant Still and is director of orchestral and choral studies at Westglades Middle School in Fort Lauderdale. While studying music education in Austin, Texas, Rufus Jones became aware that discrimination was still endemic in classical music. This disturbing revelation made the young African American realise that, to quote him, "I needed to know more about my history and more about how others in my profession coped with the sobering reality of racial discrimination". So writing a biography of Dean Dixon became Rufus Jones' way of confronting racism in his chosen profession.
Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad is a sobering story of racism, abandonment, self-imposed exile, health problems, spiritual searching, and financial difficulties. But it is also the story of towering achievement. It tells how Dixon returned to conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1970. He had been shunned by the American classical music establishment and this was his first concert in the U.S. for twenty-one years. His conducting moved the Newsweek critic to write:
This was a ripe Dixon, authoritative and precise. He is not a showboat conductor, yet he showered his program with lilting lyricism and controlled grace. And he gave Brahms’s Second Symphony a rich romantic sweep that brought the great throng to its feet in a standing, especially thrilling ovation.But, despite this triumph, the story ends with a diminuendo, with Dr. Jones recounting how the American Dream of the West Indian American from Harlem finally came true - abroad.
With his health broken by the long struggle against discrimination, Dean Dixon died in Switzerland aged just 61 in 1976. But this new biography is much more than an important retelling of history. Speaking at Carnegie Hall in October 2013, Aaron Dworkin founder and president of the Sphinx Organization - a charity promoting diversity in the arts - accused orchestras of failing to diversify. In his speech he pointed out that just four percent of orchestra players in the U.S. are Black and Latino; by comparison the Black and Latino ethnic groups comprise twenty-nine percent of the U.S. population. Aaron Dworkin was especially critical of the New York Philharmonic, highlighting that, at the time, the orchestra had not had a Black member in five years. (The first small step to rectify this imbalance was taken, coincidentally or otherwise, in the following year when clarinettist Anthony McGill became the orchestra's first African-American principal). It is yet another overlooked irony of classical music that so much attention is paid to the deplorable gender imbalance in the Vienna Philharmonic, but so little attention is paid to the equally deplorable but less click baitable ethnic imbalance in virtually every major orchestra. Let us hope that Rufus Jones' timely biography of Dean Dixon helps to draw attention to that imbalance.
* Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad by Dr. Rufus Jones is published by Rowman & Littlefield on June 16, 2015.
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