Imagining more

Continuing about the session I led at the League of American Orchestras conference…

The story so far (clicking the link takes you to my last post, where I began this):

I asked participants to imagine that in 10 years, all the problems orchestras now have will be solved. They’ll have vibrant young audiences, eager support from their communities, no funding problems, and freedom to play any music they like. 

Yes, that’s a dream. But dreams can be freeing. As a first step toward examining this one, I asked everyone to write down three reasons why we’re not in this paradise now. Participants mostly blamed themselves and their orchestras. They hadn’t done enough to reach out to the world around them. 

To continue, I told everyone that I’d lead them through some steps toward the dream. But that I’d also drop challenges on them, as if they’d landed on the “Chance” square in Monopoly, and had drawn an unexpected card.

So here was the first step, exactly as I wrote it in my notes to myself:

Imagine we’re looking back, from 10 years from now.  

When we look at the first year of this evolution, what stands out? What started to happen in the first year, what did the orchestra do, that made at least some people feel that the problems could be turned around?

Right now I can’t give you the answers I got, which were promising. Because my schedule is tight, I’ve decided for now just to give you the outline of what I did. Later on, when my assistant transcribes the discussions we had at the session, I’ll be able to give a fuller account. If you’re curious now, you can watch the whole thing on video.

Monopoly card!

And then I threw them my first challenge. Imagine, I said, that it’s February. What month is that? Black History Month. So now imagine that the mayor of your city — a dynamic young Latina — is leading celebrations this year of all the leading ethnic groups in your town. And February naturally is the month for African-Americans. The mayor has asked all the city’s arts and community groups to take part. What does your orchestra do?

I asked for ideas. The first I heard was one I’d expected: Play music by black composers. But there are problems with that. Is this music you honestly like? Is it music you play when it isn’t Black History Month? Will you play it again? If your answers are “no,” then you’ve failed. And, as I found, years ago, talking to African-Americans involved with classical music in New York, the black community sees what you do, and thinks that you’ve failed. You drew them in — with (true examples) an opera about Malcolm X, or a piece by a jazz composer, using a gospel choir — and then you never went back to them. They don’t like that. And who could blame them? 

The African-American community might also say that it doesn’t know the composers you’ve chosen, and that their music might not reflect community concerns.

wilson blogHow do you move beyond that? To move further along, I imagined what other arts groups in town might be doing. For the theater company, Black History Week can be a slam dunk. They can stage one of the plays from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which, in 10 installments, looks at life in the Pittsburgh black community in each decade of the 20th century. Or, to celebrate this very special Black History Month, the one the mayor cares so much about, they can announce a 10-year project to do the whole cycle.

The dance company, I said, could commission a new dance, celebrating black life both in the past and now. Using, in alternate sections, blues recordings and hiphop hits.

The art museum could do a show of outsider art from your town’s black community. A few years ago, at Baltimore’s stunning American Visionary Art Museum, I saw a show full of outsider art, much of it by African-Americans, and it changed my view of what art is. “Outsider art” seemed a silly term. Why label this stuff, in a way that sets it off from art by “real” artists? It’s just as strong, just as transforming as work by those with, so to speak, official arts status. The art museum in your town, doing what I’m imagining, may knock you flat on your back, with the power of what they show. And also reveal an up to now unwritten chapter in the history of your town’s black community.

The historical society, finally, might do a show about a pioneering doowop record label, which flourished in your town back in the ’50s, even if it never had a national hit. It was (I imagined) black-owned, which in those early days — before Motown Records, before the Civil Rights movement, before the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision had any wide impact — would have been rare. The lead singer of this label’s most successful group, I imagined, has run a barbershop for the last 40 years. He’s widely known in his community, and he’ll be featured in a panel discussion of what this record label did.

So given all that, what does your orchestra do? How do you stand side by side with these other efforts?

I offered three ideas.

Years ago, I talked to an African-American cellist in the Cincinnati Symphony. In the late ’60s, he told me, Aretha Franklin (then in her first flush of stardom) did a show in a big New Jersey club. She asked for a string section, and said its members had to be black. At that point, nobody knew of many black string players, including black string players themselves. But Aretha (as I’ve seen first-hand) is a commanding woman. We don’t call her the Queen of Soul for nothing. So black string players were found. And, for the first time, realized how many of them there were.

That’s a historical moment most people — of any race — might not know about. Is there someone in your orchestra with another revealing story?

Second: the Brooklyn Philharmonic, last year, conferred with community leaders in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, one of the leading African-American communities in New York. They wanted to find programs that made sense both to the orchestra and to the community. They ended up with hiphop star Mos Def, who comes from Bed-Stuy, doing some of his hits, with the orchestra playing arrangements of their instrumental tracks, made by Derek Bermel, a terrific composer, who’s had commissions from big orchestras, and who’s also (as I know from talking with him) a mad hiphop fan.

So when Mos Def did his songs with the orchestra, the result was both real orchestral music, and real hiphop. Mos Def (who’s now known as Yasiin Bey) also did — powerfully! — Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together, a piece about an event in black history, which requires a speaking voice.

That’s one more model for how your orchestra might engage African-Americans, not just with something theoretical, but with something that really connects.

Finally, I mentioned a warm, revealing book by Elaine Mack, Black Classical Musicians in Philadelphia: Oral Histories Covering Four GenerationsThe book shows us (in such full, deep, human detail) an active classical music life inside the African-American community, much of it in generations past. Much of this, it’s safe to say, has been forgotten (except, of course, by those involved).

So one last thing your orchestra might do, to deeply observe Black History Month, would be to find people in your own black community who took part in this African-American classical music life, and celebrate them, with exhibits, and, best of all, discussions in which they can talk about their history.

Your orchestra might even publish a book like Elaine’s. And in this way you might be going further than anyone else, because you’d be uncovering something that even the historical society might not have known about.

Why did I say all this? Why did I go on so long about Black History Month? Not just because African-American history is a subject that deeply engages me, but for a larger reason. I wanted to make an important point. If you expect your community, 10 years from now, to take a great interest in you, you, in turn, will have to take a great interest in your community. Community relationships go both ways, something I fear that we in classical music sometimes forget.

And when you truly get involved in the community around you, it may lead you to places you never expected to go.

I’ll conclude this on Friday, along with my usual Friday post. 



If not, then you’re not being 

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  1. says

    Thanks for taking your blog readers on this journey, Greg. This is an absolutely fascinating process you’re working through. I’d be very interested to read the feedback of your participants as well. What were THEIR greatest takeaways from this session?

  2. says

    Local genres of music are good places to start collaborating with the African American community. In New York, it’s hip hop. In Chicago it’s house music. In Detroit it was Motown. In DC it’s go-go music. It may be local, but local can get big – like hip-hop, house, and Motown did. Many might find jazz to be as boring as classical. People always want something new. Going forward is more exciting than going backwards, no matter the ethnicity of the composers. Therefore, being contemporary would be more effective. Just my opinion, based on experiences in the pop world.

  3. says

    Great ideas agree, and I would have loved to hear Mos Def perform Rzewski! Anyone interested in the history of black classical musiciansmight enjoy the novel “The Time of our Singing” by Richard Powers.