Classical music has more than one glass ceiling

Two things depress me about classical music's treatment of musicians of colour. One is that they are so seriously underrepresented. The other is that there is so little concern about that underrepresentation. Many posts have appeared On An Overgrown Path about this lamentable situation. The most recent was titled Why do we still not believe in Negro symphony conductors? It pointed out that in more than 2500 Promenade concerts in London there have been just three black conductors, giving a 0.002% minority representation. These statistics generated virtually no interest, yet alone righteous indignation. Which contrasts very sharply with the media feeding frenzy that surrounds the appointment of women conductors. And please don't accuse me of political incorrectness. The historic underrepresentation of women in classical music is also a cause for great concern. This blog was one of the first to raise this issue in a post ten years ago titled BBC Proms 2006 lacks the eternal feminine . Since then there have been numerous articles on the subject; including one about the forgotten figure of Antonia Brico who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic back in 1930. Which was fifteen years before the first black conductor took the podium at a Berlin Philharmonic concert. My congratulations go to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for smashing the glass ceiling at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. But the job is not finished until there is a black conductor at the Last Night of the Proms.

Montage shows Kwamé Ryan with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Kwamé Ryan featured in a 2011 post about musicians of colour at the BBC Proms. 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.


DLW said…
What does "under-represented" mean in this context? Seriously. Because some minority group doesn't have "representation" in some profession it's assumed to be evil? Perhaps it's simply not part of the culture and it is a self-selecting group. After all, "classical" music is European in origin and culture, so why should there be a lot of blacks "represented"?

Do you complain about whites being "under-represented" in pro-basketball?
Pliable said…
By 'underrepresented' I mean that that the opportunities and recognition granted by orchestras in the form of conducting positions does not reflect the talent and ambition of musicians of colour. Hard evidence to support this has been provided here in the profiles of Dean Dixon and Rudolph Dunbar - see links below. Moreover in a post linked from today's the immensely talented black American conductor and composer Kevin Scott was quoted as saying the following:

“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.”

I know nothing about pro-basketball. But I do know immensely talented black conductors whose careers have been held back because of the colour of their skin. If that is not evil, please tell me what is.

Rudolph Dunbar -

Dean Dixon -
renee said…
Bitterness and ignorance...
Philip Amos said…
I've already put in my two-penny worth on this more than once, so I shall just cry "Hear, hear!" re your post, Bob. But to EmitF I must make the simplest of responses: There should be "a lot of blacks represented" in the world of classical music because "a lot of blacks" were and are immensely talented classical musicians. Given your argument, I cannot but wonder as to your view of white musicians in the world of jazz.
JMW said…
In response to Emit above, one may begin by pointing out that professional basketball was for the longest time open only to whites. With the easing of racial barriers and the consequent opportunities offered to blacks, they proved themselves to be more than worthy of being members of that lucrative if not august aggregation of professionals.

The same is not yet equally true in Classical music. While there aren't explicit racial obstacles to participation by minorities (any more, that is), in practice the same old barriers are still in place; they just aren't acknowledged publicly. I know so many absurdly talented black classical musicians, many of whom function artistically at the highest levels of manifest accomplishment, yet they are routinely passed over for positions commensurate with their abilities. Did Birmingham (and other orchestras with recent vacancies) call any of them, or look around to ascertain if musicians of color with the requisite abilities could be accessed? One may wonder. A frequent lament is that "we don't know where they are", and to that I will quote a common phrase in current American vernacular: You better ask somebody. Yes, really; ask not just someone, but ask a lot of people. An orchestra could follow this blog and in record time would have tracked down quite a number of gifted minority musicians fit and ready for broad exposure, for Pliable has done yeoman's work in acknowledging their presence.

Lastly, your statement that "classical" music is European in origin and culture, so why should there be a lot of blacks "represented?" is nonsensical; offering that as justification is as silly as stating that because of its European origin, Asians would not be interested and will be less represented within the industry. One can make many ludicrous statements to that effect. I'm sure more are on the way.

Pliable said…
Many thanks for those contributions. Discussion of EmitF's comment is now closed. I have received two more comments from him/her which will not be published, one of which accuses me of being "a PC white liberal manifesting your guilt complex". Which only goes to show how much work remains to be done on changing attitudes towards musicians of colour. Comments and debate on other aspects of this topic are still very welcome.
Simon Brown said…
If anyone lives or is holidaying nearby, I suggest they try the Scarborough Symphony orchestra conducted by my friend, fellow tuba player and musician of colour, Shaun Matthew.
Pliable said…
Scarborough Symphony Orchestra -

Shaun Matthew -

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