Musicians and Composers Respond to a Chaotic Moment
July 4, 2020 11:49 AM   Subscribe

The pandemic and the protests inspire works of lamentation and rage. African-Americans are severely underrepresented in classical music, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the frequency with which people of color are now featured in promotional brochures. Online discussions in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests have made clear how uncomfortable the role of a black classical musician can be.

One day, with the collaboration of the Los Angeles Opera, the mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges led a Zoom panel on racial inequality with a distinguished group of colleagues: Julia Bullock, Karen Slack, Lawrence Brownlee, Russell Thomas, and Morris Robinson. After the singers described their reactions to Floyd’s killing and their own fraught encounters with the police, they addressed subtler but pervasive tensions in the opera world. Robinson spoke of the “perpetual paranoia” that he felt as a six-foot-three, three-hundred-pound black man: “I walk around every opera rehearsal I’ve ever been to guarded, cognizant of the fact that my interaction needs to be very public, in front of everyone and very innocuous. . . . This practicing safe distance has always been a practice of mine.” He revealed that he has never been hired by a black administrator, has never shared the stage with a black director, and has never taken a cue from a black conductor.
posted by Ahmad Khani (5 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
My friend almost quit playing the viola after the racism she experienced in her undergrad and graduate programs. She posted a picture of a student’s program that her program director and school administration found no problems with.
posted by apex_ at 1:52 PM on July 4 [2 favorites]

This article by George Lewis is essential reading: "If Black lives matter now more than ever, hearing Black liveness in classical music also matters. The alternative is an addiction to exclusion that ends, as addictions often do, in impoverishment."
posted by cushie at 6:30 PM on July 4 [6 favorites]

Highlighting this from the New Yorker piece because it deserves more eyeballs and ears:
Anthony McGill, the principal clarinettist of the New York Philharmonic, posted a recording of himself playing “America the Beautiful.” It is a rendition with a difference. McGill begins by swelling slowly into an initial G, from silence. When he reaches the portion of the melody matching the words “America, America,” he changes a high E-natural to an E-flat . . .
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:46 PM on July 5 [3 favorites]

Been a long road.

L. A. Opera: 6 Black Opera Singers Who Changed the Game

"After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let [Marian] Anderson sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., [the Roosevelts made] arrangements for Anderson to perform in a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939...

"[In 1948] Joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 16, [prodigy Henry] Lewis was the first African-American instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra....

"in 1955, [George Shirley] became the first African-American to serve as a high school music teacher in Detroit....

"In 1966, [Leontyne] Price sang at the inaugural performance at the new Metropolitan Opera house at Lincoln Center...

"In 1978, [Simon] Estes became the first Black male to sing a leading role at the Bayreuth Festival..."

(All these links lead to Wikipedia. The LA Opera page also contains a link to non-Wiki bios for each of these artists.)


Grace Bumbry "gained international renown when she was cast by Wieland Wagner (Richard Wagner's grandson) as Venus in Tannhäuser at Bayreuth in 1961, at age 24, the first black singer to appear there...."
posted by Twang at 2:55 PM on July 5 [1 favorite]

Speaking as an amateur in the Western classical art music tradition, it is painfully noteworthy how very white are the community performing groups in the US. My own organization has been gradually becoming slightly less monochrome in recent years, but there is still a long, long way to go before people of color are represented even in proportion to the fraction of people with the relevant musical skills.

Since last season, I'm now playing under an African American section leader, so there's that. If there is a next season, which I think is (very sadly) not a foregone conclusion. The average age of our members (and our audience) is squarely in the heightened-risk-of-complications range.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 8:38 AM on July 6

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