multi-colored musical notes

Who’s Fighting for Racial Equity in Classical Music?

In his award-winning book, “The Rest Is Noise,” Alex Ross asserts that “many pioneers of black music might have had major classical careers if the stage door of Carnegie Hall had been open to them but, with few exceptions, it was not.” Unfortunately, the policy of exclusion due to ethnicity in classical music is not solely a phenomenon of the pre-Civil Rights era in the United States.

In August, the newly opened Tanglewood Learning Institute premiered Bill Barclay’s “The Black Mozart,” a play inspired by the life of Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Bologne was just as – if not more – accomplished than his younger contemporary: His violin concerti – fourteen in all – are incredibly virtuosic and necessary for understanding the evolution of violin technique. In addition to being a prolific composer and a celebrated conductor and violinist, Bologne was also the colonel of the first all-black regiment in European history. Yet the depth of Bologne’s accomplishments is rarely recognized by the larger classical music world.

Fortunately, there have been people of all ethnicities and nationalities throughout history who have fought for racial equity in the field of classical music. One of the most notable is Eleanor Roosevelt who, upon learning that the Daughters of the American Revolution would not rescind their “white artists only” clause in contracts for performances at Constitution Hall, immediately ceased her membership. Ms. Roosevelt’s resignation was one in a series of actions resulting in singer Marian Anderson’s historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, which was attended by 75,000 people. 

Efforts to promote both diversity and racial equity across the field continue to increase, with organizations like the Sphinx Organization, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the League of American Orchestras spearheading tremendous initiatives. In addition to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s longstanding African-American Orchestra Fellowship, these initiatives include new fellowships and programs sponsored by orchestras and conservatories – such as the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship – a partnership between the Cincinnati Symphony and the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music – and educational initiatives for pre-college students, like the recently created Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative.

What’s notable about the legion of organizations and initiatives working to promote diversity, inclusion and racial justice is that they all engage very thoughtfully with their constituencies. These approaches should be examined by larger organizations as America’s cultural, demographic and philanthropic landscapes continue to change. Here are four of my favorites.

Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles

A student orchestra practices

Rehearsal for the 11th Annual Season Finale Concert – Summer 2019

The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles is the largest majority African-American orchestra presenting a regular series of concerts in the United States,” says Charles Dickerson III, the orchestra’s executive director and conductor. In an interview, Mr. Dickerson shared the events that led to the formation of ICYOLA.

In the 1940s, many musicians’ unions across the United States were segregated. In Los Angeles, this segregation resulted in black musicians being seen as lacking in both knowledge of orchestral repertoire and ensemble experience, thereby denying them employment in the lucrative studio and film music industry. To combat those notions of inferiority, a woman named Mabel Massengill Gunn spearheaded the creation of the Southeast Symphony in 1948 with the goal of ensuring that African-Americans possessed the required skills to be employed in orchestras and film studios.  

In 1995, The Southeast Symphony established the Southeast Symphony Association (SESA) and the SESA Conservatory, but in 2009 the organization did not have the funds to continue programming through the summer. Several students approached Mr. Dickerson with hopes of a more expansive summer program than that which had previously existed, and at the end of that program students expressed their desire to keep things going. “From that summer, ICYOLA was born,” Mr. Dickerson said. In 2011, ICYOLA was the only large classical music ensemble invited to dedicate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

In addition to providing for members’ advanced training and placement in professional orchestras (ICYOLA heads the LA Orchestra Fellowship in partnership with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the USC Thornton School of Music), ICYOLA is committed to being a presence throughout greater Los Angeles. Any interested musician is welcome to join, regardless of skill level; ICYOLA doesn’t charge a tuition and there are no auditions. The orchestra performs an annual concert at Walt Disney Hall and, throughout the year, presents concerts at other venues like Holman United Methodist Church, which was founded in 1945 to serve the growing African-American population of West Los Angeles.  

PMAY Artists’ Initiative

Student musicians stand on stage after a performance

2019 Showcase Recital

The brainchild of Settlement Music School’s CEO Helen Eaton, the Philadelphia Musical Alliance for Youth (PMAY) is a collaboration of music organizations across Philadelphia with the goal of providing music education to youth in the Philadelphia area. The PMAY Artists’ Initiative, funded by means of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, supports students from low-income households and African-American, Latinx and South-Asian communities who are pursuing the goal of becoming professional classical musicians. “There is a lot of information needed to enter the field,” says program manager Najib Wong, “and the mentoring aspect of our program assures that students and families understand [that] the process of becoming a classical musician goes beyond college. We have, with this program, created intentionality in our ecosystem to ensure that all necessary information and support is provided to students.”

With financial support including funding for lessons, college trips, youth orchestra participation and summer camps, the PMAY Artists’ Initiative is uniquely tailored to each student and family. Students participate in workshops on entrepreneurship and college preparation and, through partner organization Project 440, they attend a college fair held at the Kimmel Center where they can meet representatives from over 40 conservatories, colleges and universities. To date, graduates of the PMAY Artists’ Initiative are pursuing music degrees at schools like the Cleveland Institute of Music, the New England Conservatory, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon, the UT Austin, DePaul and Temple University.   

Arts Administrators of Color Network

Speakers sit in a row on a stage

2018 Annual Convening

Recently named executive director of Arts Education in Maryland Schools, Quanice Floyd founded the Arts Administrators of Color Network (AAC) in 2016 as a response to her experiences navigating a career in arts administration. Floyd said that she “understood that there were disparities in both leadership development and professional development for people of color pursuing careers in arts administration.”

To address the inequities that Floyd experienced on her own career path, AAC established a 10-month-long mentorship program that provides early level arts administrators with a community of both peers and experienced mentors.  

Since its founding, AAC has experienced rapid growth: Its annual convention is poised to be the largest since the organization’s inception. This year’s panels address issues like “Legal Implications for Arts Administrators” and “We Are Enough: 10 Years of Multicultural Arts Leadership Development in Silicon Valley”; it also features the newly-formed Cousin’s Regime (a partnership between AAC and other national organizations focused on people of color in the arts). On the local level, AAC hosts regular networking events for arts administrators and advocates.

Ritz Chamber Players

A chamber orchestra performs on stage

Ritz Chamber Players

The Ritz Chamber Players take their name from the Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum, located in Jacksonville, Florida’s historic African-American community of LaVilla, which was known as the “Harlem of the South.” During its heyday, the Ritz Theater was “one of the few places in the South in which artists were able to perform for black audiences,” according to Terrance L. Patterson, founder and artistic director of the Ritz Chamber Players. “It was important for us to acknowledge this history, as it has shaped our approach to community engagement and programming.”  

Founded in 2002, the Ritz Chamber Players consist of musicians who regularly perform with the New York Philharmonic as well as the Boston, Chicago and Houston symphonies while presenting a full season of concerts both in Jacksonville, Florida and throughout the United States. Through the mentorship of pianist Armenta Adams (Hummings) Dumisami, who is also the founder of the Gateways Music Festival, Mr. Patterson is keenly aware of the need to engage the African-American community in a holistic way. “Our audiences are different than those that attend other concerts, and we understand that to approach our communities, we have to work differently.” That means forging relationships with civic and social organizations like The Links, Incorporated, one of the nation’s volunteer organizations created by women “committed to sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African-Americans and other people of African ancestry.” Through this level of direct community engagement and its numerous educational programs – with the latter producing musicians who now regularly perform as members of the ensemble – the Ritz Chamber Players have proven that African-American participation in classical music is not an anomaly.

While there are many initiatives across the United States – and the globe – working for diversity, inclusion and racial equity in the field of classical music, what impressed me most with these four organizations was their acknowledgment of and respect for history, purposefulness of action and the larger results of sustaining a true sense of community: They value excellence both within the organizations themselves and within their respective constituencies. Who did I miss? Please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments!  

Samuel Thompson

Samuel Thompson is a professional violinist and administrator who currently serves as Program Director of the Bridges Program in Baltimore. His writing has appeared in Strings Magazine, …more 

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1 Response

  1. Sandra Conners says:

    You should check out what Garrett McQueen is doing at American Public Media! Since he joined them last year I’ve learned so much on this topic. He also hosts a podcast that’s worth a mention called Trilloquy.

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