Why do we still not believe in Negro symphony conductors?
Four years ago an Overgrown Path post recounted how in the 1950s classical music super-agent Arthur Judson told the African American conductor Everett Lee "I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors", and another post described how Rudolph Dunbar died in 1988 a forgotten and marginalised figure, despite becoming the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. That is Rudolph Dunbar in the photo; the Guyanese musician - who was a friend of the controversial child prodigy Philippa Schuyler - was a talented conductor and an outstanding clarinetist, who in 1939 wrote the standard work on the instrument, the 'Treatise on the clarinet (Boehm system)'. Despite achieving considerable success on the podium, Rudolph Dunbar's career faltered and stalled, and another post discussed allegations that a senior figure in the BBC had derailed his career, allegations that were subsequently supported by an authoritative source.
Arthur Judson stigmatized Negro symphony conductors more than fifty years ago, while allegations that Rudolph Dunbar's career suffered because he was one of a group of West Indians in the UK who campaigned openly against racism and colonialism relate to the 1980s, and, of course, times have changed. Or have they? The BBC Proms are a microcosm of the classical music establishment, and in a 2011 post I asked - How many black conductors at the BBC Proms? The answer is that in more than 2500 concerts over the 120 year history of the Proms there have been just three black conductors; Isaiah Jackson in 1987, Wayne Marshall in 1998, and Bobby McFerrin in 2003. Less than 0.002% minority representation is unacceptable by any standards, and what is more serious is there is no evidence of improvement: during the last ten years of our supposedly multicultural society there has been not one black conductors on the podium in the Royal Albert Hall. There is disturbing evidence that the nuanced racism of Arthur Judson lingers on in classical music, as the black American conductor and composer Kevin Scott explained recently on Facebook:
Now many of you will say, "it should be talent, not color" that is the requisite to perform just about anywhere, and you are right - talent and vision are indeed the key requisites to be taken seriously and nurtured. But for some reason or another, there are those that hold the power of position that looks at a black man or woman who can conduct a symphony orchestra and wonders why are they in a field that is Euro-centered and not devoting themselves to their musical roots.The BBC Proms provide a convenient measure of inclusivity, but it is unfair to demonise just one concert series: because the same picture will be found at other prestigious concert series around the world. Quite rightly there has been much criticism of the underrepresentation of women in classical music, but much less about the even more acute underrepresentation of musicians of colour. Very good work has been done in improving the representation of women; one of the results is that the iconic Last Night of the Proms has been conducted twice by Marin Alsop in recent years, and commendably one of these concerts featured a commission by the Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga. But I have a dream that one day we will see a black conductor wielding the baton for Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory at the Proms. So let's make 2016 and the years that follow the decade when musicians of colour take their rightful place on the podium.
My thanks go to Kevin Scott and John McLaughlin Williams, whose tireless advocacy of musicians of colour inspired this post, and to my Guyanese wife Sorojini, who encouraged me to follow the path of Rudolph Dunbar. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.