Black musicians matter
Tomorrow (July 13) the activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished presents a concert at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, New York paying tribute to the black women impacted by racial injustice, and the female activists of the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. Among the featured composers are Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Ethel Smyth, and Courtney Bryan, and the conductors are the miscegenetic duo of John McLaughlin Williams - seen above - and James Blachly. This concert has been given a very specific and tragic relevance by the recent racially motivated killings of blacks and whites in America. But the mission of The Dream Unfinished to allow classical musicians to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement also has a powerful relevance closer to home. Someone with a not inconsiderable profile in the UK classical music industry recently wrote on social media à propos the EU referendum: "I don't think I realised, until two weeks ago, just how much intolerance and stupidity there is in this country", a statement with which a considerable number of the great and good agreed. Yes, of course there is a surfeit of intolerance and stupidity in the world. But I suspect that this social media maven and the others nodding their virtual heads in agreement do not include themselves among the intolerant and stupid. The truth is that not only are we all intolerant and stupid to some degree, but also we are blind to our own shortcomings and generate hate by blaming others without accepting at least some of the blame ourselves. Black lives matter, and no more than in the world of classical music where the sentiment expressed by a leading impresario that "I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors"* still prevails, and where musicians of colour have inexplicably not received the same activist attention as other marginalised groups. Let's hope The Dream Unfinished helps change both the whole intolerant and stupid terrestrial world, and the smaller but equally intolerant world of classical music.
* Other black musicians who suffered from this intolerance include Dean Dixon and Rudolph Dunbar. A biography of Dean Dixon is subtitled Negro at home, maestro abroad. Rudolph Dunbar, who was the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, later in his career allegedly suffered from discrimination at a senior level in the BBC. Header photo via The Dream Unfinished. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.
Such is the case where I also mentioned that no fewer than three black conductors - the Americans Kazem Abdullah and Brandon Keith Brown, and the German Kevin John Edusei - have lucrative conducting careers in Germany, with Abdullah serving the music director in Aachen and Edusei the music director of the Munich Symphony Orchestra. Here in this country, you have Andre Raphel leading the Wheeling Symphony in West Virginia and Michael Morgan conducting California's Oakland Symphony, where he's been the music director since 1990, the longest position any black conductor has held with any symphony orchestra in this nation.
Yet this simply is not enough. There are far too many black male conductors out there, and when you do find them most likely they're either in charge of a collegiate orchestra or wind ensemble, or even a community-based ensemble such as myself. The chances of a black conductor being viewed as a possible candidate for a major American orchestra seems slim these days, and if one is invited to perform with a major orchestra, nine times out of ten we're asked to participate either in a Black History Month or Martin Luther King, Jr. concert. This also applies to black composers, meaning that the only chance you might get to hear their music is at one of these concerts and not on a subscription program. Recently, Kirk Smith elicited high praise for his performance with the Houston Symphony on a Black History Month concert, but at the same time he should be welcomed with open arms to lead the orchestra on a subscription concert and not the one-shot only gig.
Because of these issues and more, this forces many conductors or color to either start their own orchestra, or to seek better opportunities by performing on the European continent, where they are treated with the same respect and equality as white American conductors. Even sadder is the scarcity of black women conductors, who do not get treated with the same respect or courtesy as do many of their white colleagues.
It should be noted that three days after The Dream Unfinished concert, Joseph Jones is conducting a concert with Orchestra Amadeus (New York) dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy in Orlando, performing Beethoven's ninth symphony alongside music of Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and John Corigliano. This is not the first time Jones, a young black composer-conductor who studied at Peabody in Baltimore, has done this. Since 2010 he has led concerts with his orchestra, whose mission statement is "Social Justice through Classical Music", raising funds for victims of tragedy in Haiti, Nepal and the Boston Marathon, while showcasing new talent in the New York area. He has also been a controversial figure because of his stance on these issues and much more, and solely publicizes his concerts using Facebook and Twitter to get the word out, as well as recruiting musicians to join Orchestra Amadeus. He has yet to be invited to guest-conduct more established orchestras.
And this goes for John as well. Even though he has several major American orchestras, they have been special one-off concerts where he is not able to perform the repertoire that has established his name, basically forgotten and unknown American composers from the first half of the last century, and has yet to be invited to perform on subscription concerts with major, internationally-recognized orchestras. This is an oversight that must be addressed with continued and tenacious concern.