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Where are classical music’s Afro-Americans? demands Leonard Slatkin

The Detroit music director is worried abiut the declining visibility of Afro-American artists. He writes:

Over time, the contributions of African-Americans profoundly changed the American musical landscape and paved the way for others. Well before such artists as André Watts, Henry Jay Lewis, William Grant Still, James DePreist and Thomas Wilkins, however, black musicians were forging paths in all parts of the world, albeit in small numbers.

In their time, Beethoven and Haydn were both described as Moors. The former wrote some of his most significant music for the black violinist George Bridgetower. Before that, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges was France’s most prominent black composer. And in England, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had considerable success with a work he wrote entitled “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.”

So where are they now? And why so few?

Leontyne_Price_(color)_by_Jack_Mitchell

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Comments

  1. Answer: Because having a preference for musicians based on skin color or race or gender or ethnicity or sexual orientation or you name it is odious and undesirable. What should always matter is their artistry, provided it is of accomplishment and worth writing about or fighting for.

    • Leonard Slatkin says:

      I agree. But everyone should have the opportunity to experience virtually every aspect of the cultural quarter. The simple fact is that barriers have been put up, for whatever reasons, and it is our responsibility to make sure that any form of discrimination is not tolerated. Of course it is talent that should prevail, regardless of color, gender or anything else. But discrimination, whether intentional or not, is far more odious and undesirable than anything. It is our job to make sure that everyone has equal opportunity. How that translates into a long lasting career is another matter.

      • Dear Mr. Slatkin, it is a privilege and an honor to engage here with you. I feel that Americans, generally speaking, are too fixated on the topic of diversity. To some degree I understand why. But why not focus instead on that which you do best which is to be an undeniably great conductor of music. Of good music. That is your direct and impacting contribution toward improving our lives. I think it is for others to lead and engage in battle over diversity. Otherwise you stretch yourself thin. The other thing I don’t understand is why Music Directors in the U.S. are expected to take on the mantle of social causes, fundraising, etc when, again, their focus ought to be music making at the highest possible level. That missing and they lose my subscription (-:

      • Mr Slatkin is notable for his efforts to provide artists, of all backgrounds and colors, with access to potentially career-making opportunities, and has done more than most conductors to engage with communities, students (not only the juilliard set) and school kids. His high ground on these matters is beyond reproach and it makes it all the more credible when he speaks about the diversity issue.

  2. PR Deltoid says:

    “In their time, Beethoven and Haydn were both described as Moors” – which meant they had dark complexions, something not unusual for Europeans. I’m surprised to see Slatkin referencing this; it looks suspiciously like pandering.

  3. Michael Schaffer says:

    Let’s not forget Dean Dixon who was principal conductor of the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt (now hr-Sinfonieorchester) from 1961-74.

    • …and Michael Dixon, who was GMD in Lüneburg in the early nineties. He wasn’t very good, but he was black, and that seems to be what we’re talking about.

      • Hadn’t thought of him for years until reading this post, so I decided to have a look for him on the internet. He seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Not to be confused with the English conductor Mike Dixon, by the way.

        • Just to labour a point: If you happen to be reading this, William Osborne, you’ll note it is possible to have had a very public career and be absolutely invisible on the internet. Michael Schaffer may or may not be a certain poster’s real name, but it doesn’t invalidate his comments.

          • The odd thing about “Michael Schaffer” is that (s)he comments on many threads and argues with many people.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            The odd thing about “sdReader” is that he* comments on many threads and argues with many people but then he* complains that the odd thing about “Michael Schaffer” is that (s)he** comments on many threads and argues with many people. That’s really odd, isn’t it?

            *I don’t have to write “s(he)” here since it’s very obvious from sdReader’s derogatory comments about various female pianists that “s(he)” is a “he”.

            **Michael is a boy name and it’s my real name, so it’s “he”.

  4. R. James Tobin says:

    Olly Wilson should not be forgotten.

  5. Rich in CA says:

    In Oakland, CA Michael Morgan continues his long affiliation as Musical Director of the Oakland Symphony, and concerts are held in Calvin Simmons Hall, commemorating a talented young conductor and earlier Music Director (1950-1982), whose tragic accident robbed the music world of a promising Afro-American musician. We saw him lead New York’s Mostly Mozart summer orchestra and thought he had a bright future ahead. In addition to his Oakland duties, he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra. He perished in a canoeing accident in Lake George, NY.

    • bratschegirl says:

      A small correction: concerts are held in the Paramount Theater of the Arts downtown. Unfortunately, the Calvin Simmons Theater has been shuttered since 2006.

  6. Mr. Slatkin lists black composers whose enduring legacy amounts to nil. Just quit playing the race card, even if you are in Detroit.
    How many of the works by the mentioned black composers have you programmed with the DSO?

    • R. James Tobin says:

      Eli says:
      February 25, 2014 at 7:49 pm
      Mr. Slatkin lists black composers whose enduring legacy amounts to nil

      This not only extremely offensive, but presumptuous. Many excellent careers and excellent works come to be buried for many reasons unconnected to their quality.

      • Indeed. To name another example related to race: there have been German composers of Jewish background in the twenties and thirties that had brilliant careers and wrote great music which were forgotten because they had to emigrate and find other jobs in other countries or were killed, and after WW II the modernist climate for contemporary music hindered a second chance of performance. For instance, there exists music by Ernst Toch that is of great quality, only recently dug-out by pioneering ensembles like the Kammersymphonie Berlin who put Toch’s brilliant and moving cello concerto on CD. Also Viennese ‘Exil Arte’ foundation is currently exploring this territory with success and with surprisingly good repertoire being heard for the ‘first’ time.

  7. The Proms audience in London is almost exclusively white or, increasingly, E Asian, yet this is the most accessible of festivals. I fail to see what “barriers” have been erected.

    If the audience is short on African-Americans, or Afro-Europeans in this case, it’s hardly surprising that the concert platform looks any different.

  8. this is a serious question? has the author no idea the ridicule and harassment a black child in the seriously ill black urban culture receives when exhibiting interest in anything considered “white” by that race-obsessed culture? only the most remarkable child, with remarkable parents (yes, plural) will pursue such interests in spite of those pressures.

    • The “seriously ill black urban culture”?! My goodness, sometimes there can be no response to profoundly offensive and presumptuous phrases such as that one.

      • Just because it’s politically incorrect doesn’t make it less true. Bill Cosby, for example, has often criticized black culture, especially those “who who put higher priorities on sports, fashion, and “acting hard” than on education, self-respect, and self-improvement … pleading for African-American families to educate their children.” Pardon me quoting from Wikipedia; I don’t have time for a detailed survey at the moment.

        • The issues listed by Cosby are not the root of the problem. Among the root problems are poverty, degradation, poor schools, and social conditions that create hopelessness. These conditions were created by a country that constitutionalized human slavery 1200 years after it had ceased to exist in Europe, continued it unabated for the next 350 years, followed it by murderous Jim Crow laws which only fully disappeared about 4 decades ago, and which now simply turns a blind eye to the massive, dehumanizing ghettos that abysmal history created.

          No one’s denying blacks have responsibilities to overcome these problems, but the largest blame lies on the society whose behavior over the 500 years has created the American ghettos which have no comparison in any other developed country in the world. Blaming the victims here smacks of ignorant bigotry.

          • So what’s the solution? You’re right that society is largely to blame for this situation. But society is unlikely to offer any assistance. If blacks want a better life, they’re going to have to do it on their own, and that begins with wanting better for themselves and getting educated. I’m not sure that desire is there today. Oprah and others have also talked about this problem.

            http://www.creators.com/opinion/roland-martin/oprah-not-alone-in-her-frustrations-with-inner-city-kids-school-systems.html

            It also occurs to me that the entire premise of this thread is ridiculous. Stating that more African-Americans should be involved in classical music is like saying that if the people don’t have bread, they should eat cake.

          • The arts are the bread of civilization. When people are made into slaves they are robbed of their cultural identity and their souls are starved. As our society vividly illustrates, the resulting loss of hope and identity creates a debilitating legacy that lasts for generations. By offering identity and hope, the arts heal cultural wounds and allow societies to heal. So the arts are part of the solution.

            The conditions in many, if not most, of our urban schools are disastrous. It’s far too facile to simply tell these children they should get an education when one is not being offered. And this is to say nothing of the home and social conditions far too many of these children have, which is hardly conducive to doing well in school. Our country has created racial ghettos so dehumanizing it is absurd to think that their residents can improve them without serious, well-planned, long-term help from the outside.

            This is obviously a very difficult problem, but outside of a few half-hearted and short-sighted efforts, we have not really applied ourselves or our resources to solving it.

      • Neville6000 says:

        Perhaps if the majority society didn’t treat the music that young black people like as being beneath contempt, they might be interested in classical music.

  9. This is not to meant to be a comment on the original topic, but an extension – over the last decade or more at student festivals and competitions we have witnessed a distinct change in demographics. There is now an overwhelming majority of Asian participation.
    Where are the others ?

    • I think we are really contrasting “East Asian” (meaning Japanese, Korean and Chinese) and “African” interest.

      On the surface, there is no reason why either of these huge clusters of people should be more attracted or connected to Western art music than the other. Both would seem to be distant from the tradition.

      Yet it appears that East Asians more than Africans are interested.

      • There is a tremendous amount of prestige attached to western classical music in Asian cultures. They want it, and they want to be the best at it. Just look at Lang Lang and the millions of Chinese children who are expected to be just like him.

        • R. James Tobin says:

          Some of the enthusiasm in Chin may be a response to the fact that western classical music was forbidden during Mao’s cultural revolution. I learned at first hand that the Chinese share a general distaste for the memory of that, and did not mind talking about it openly when I was there.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Maybe, but then there is also a lot of interest in classical music in Japan and Korea, and these countries didn’t have Mao’s cultural revolution (or anything similar).

  10. No one has mentioned the barrage of publicity about how endangered the classical music world is. Any parent (of any color) must think twice about encouraging a career in classical music, either as a performer or composer, even for a very talented child. Maybe talented young black men and women are pursuing other areas because of the perceived turmoil in the field and the lack of outlets for future advancement.

  11. Classical music is expensive to pursue at A-list level. Instruments are expensive, lessons are expensive. These are substantial impediments to anyone of modest finances and a thinking person of modest finances is probably looking for a pursuit that will have a better financial result to get them out of their modest circumstances than classical music is likely to do.

    Classical music also does not have the constant visibility in the news media that, say, basket ball or law enforcement or pop music or just about anything else does.

  12. Olaugh Turchev says:

    “This has got to represent the actual pie chart of America? Who cares? Funny is the world that I live in. You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that.”
    Jerry Seinfeld

  13. I am deeply impressed that Leonard Slatkin would participate in a forum like this.

    Like most American urban orchestras, the DSO faces demographic problems. The population of Detroit is 83% black and the DSO, like most American orchestras, is probably about 97% white.

    The USA suffers from a racially informed class system that often denies decent educations to black people. A court ruling decades ago prevented the Detroit Schools from being integrated with the city’s white suburbs. This created a racial class system that affords suburban whites that have higher tax bases far better educations than blacks in impoverished, and now bankrupt, Detroit.

    As a result, 47% of the people in Detroit are functionally illiterate. See:

    http://www.detroitliteracy.org/faq.htm

    The illiteracy rate among males is much higher – some reports estimate it at 80%. The Detroit Public School system has been praised recently for increasing high school graduation rates to 65%, but the system is still graduating many students who are functionally illiterate. Here is a good two hour documentary by Dan Rather about the collapse of the Detroit Public Schools:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xypiZ-hqdY

    Detroit is not alone in these problems. In the USA, only 47% of black males graduate from high school. See:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/18/only-47-percent-of-black-_n_686293.html

    When cities collapse beyond a certain point, school systems cannot function. Here is a very good four minute video of an area of North Philadelphia in 1998 that shows very clearly the social conditions that exist in many parts of America’s ghettos. I hope readers will take a moment to watch it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sngBcF5M-AU

    The divisions between those who do and do not participate in the high arts is, of course, related to the same social forces that have caused the country to neglect its urban environments. Facts stand out, like Philadelphia having the 9th largest metro GDP in the world while ranking 175th for opera performances per year.
    Classical music is one of the most urban of art forms. Its status will always be measured by the health and vibrancy of our cities. The problems facing the arts in America can only be fully resolved when we recognize that the well-being of our cultural and urban environments are deeply interdependent.

    This is why the work of people like Aaron P. Dworkin, Founder and President of the Sphinx Organization, a national arts group that focuses on youth and minority involvement in classical music, is so important. At the same time, it should be realized that these efforts will continue to meet almost insurmountable challenges unless we improve the urban environments that continue to debase our children.

    As is so often the case with American ghettos, efforts at redevelopment have been largely ineffective. The sight of large, elaborate, abandoned churches and hospitals fallen into irreparable decay, the massive tracts of once wonderful houses fallen to ruins, and the streets filled with lives wrecked by poverty and a kind of unspoken, de facto racism boggle our minds. Even the most basic city services such as police and fire departments and public transportation are reduced to ineffectiveness. Detroit thus has the highest crime rate of all large American cities.

    This is the atmosphere in which we offer these children a violin.

    These problems became especially vivid to me as a young man when I worked as a substitute teacher in Philadelphia’s ghetto schools. My first day at work was for a teacher in the hospital because his students had beaten him so badly. Two fully armed policemen had a regular beat in the school’s hallways. There was a staff of several strongmen in a sort of muscle shirt uniforms known as “Teaching Assistants” whose job was to protect the teachers. There was a hotline telephone in every classroom. If the teacher just picked it up, even without saying anything, the Teaching Assistants and the police would come running.

    A memory that haunts me to this day is of a girl in an 8th grade music appreciation class who was a pregnant heroin addict.

    My wife, Abbie Conant, received her Bachelor’s degree at Temple University which is in the North Philadelphia ghetto. It’s a good university, with a very fine music department that draws much of its faculty from the Philadelphia Orchestra, but the school has suffered along with the community that surrounds it. Abbie had to go to her teacher’s home for her lessons (Dee Stewart of the Philadelphia Orchestra,) since he refused to even visit the campus.

    Abbie was sexually assaulted on the campus after arriving early one Sunday morning for a orchestra rehearsal for a concert that day. The perpetrator strangled her to the point she blacked out. The were huge bruises on throat long afterwards. She was saved from worse when two students happened by. A few day later the same person attacked another woman student on campus with an ice pick. The police then put out a pretty police woman as a decoy. He attacked her and was arrested and sentenced to prison.

    We can experience poverty as whites, but of course it is very different than the poverty experienced in our racially informed ghettos. In spite of occasional improvements in our racial ghettos, poor whites still have so many more avenues to hope and social ascendancy. We might feel shame at our own poverty, but the even greater shame is how much more deeply poverty affects those who aren’t white. So I wonder why American artists, and especially in classical music, so often turn their backs to these appalling social issues. That is why Leonard Slatkin stands out as a beacon of light.

    • This is a heartbreaking story. Classical music, i.e. ‘art music’, seems to have mostly florished in spite of atricious social circumstances. The poor in Vienna will never have heard a Beethoven symphony, but it seems even more unacceptable that in these times people could not even hear such thing on a radio set. On the other hand, it is not the task of high art to improve social conditions but the other way around: society should make art accessible to anyone.

      I think of the life story of black jazz trumpeter Russell Gunn who grew-up in a dangerously neglected area in St Louis, who said he was saved from a criminal life by discovering jazz, his talents, and played his way up to the well-known player and composer he currently is. Music can be a stimulant to fight for a better life.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      For 2011-2012 per pupil spending in Detroit City Public Schools was $15,822 vs. $9,531 for the entire state of Michigan (http://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/b1014_12_422158_7.pdf). Detroit’s spending was 29th out of nearly 800 Michigan school districts. So let’s not continue with the fiction that mean, nasty racists have somehow starved Detroit of educational funds.

      Nor did they impose buffoons like Coleman Young or corrupt felons like Kwame Kilpatrick on Detroit. Nor did they raid the pension fund for “13th month” payments to workers and retirees. Nor did they inflict public unions on the city that protested eliminating a position for a farrier (!!) in the Water Department.

      Other cities have lost historic industries without becoming wastelands of unutterable destitution. To do that you need a political monoculture of progressive governance.

      • It’s true that Detroit receives more money than rural districts. Average per-pupil spending on student support services in city districts approached nearly three times that of such spending on average in rural districts in fiscal 2010. So much work has to be done before instruction can even begin. This illustrates the challenges inner-city schools face. Even with these extra funds, the DPS graduation rate is only 65%. With ghettos like Detroit’s, the problems will not be solved by better school funding alone. We also have to improve the social contexts in which the schools exist. Higher funding alone cannot cure the problems of white flight and the history of racism that has crushed the people in our ghettos.

  14. Dylan Mills was kicked out of four schools in London. At his fifth the only class he wasn’t excluded from was music. His teacher, Mr Smith, encouraged him to explore the use of computers in music. I read that Mills’ early attempts at composition used such strategies as transferring the proportions of ringtones into larger architectural periods; the sort of thing Stockhausen did in Mantra.

    Mills is now a composer of original and smart dance music, better known as Dizzie Rascal. Quite a few of his releases reach Gold or Platinum sales figures. And that’s what happens now.

    It’s not axiomatically bad, either.

  15. I think it was Duke Ellington who said that there are only two kinds of music “good music and the other stuff”
    As someone who is in their mid 60s I have loved and appreciated music of all genres and see no distinction between so called high are (classical) and the rest.
    I remeber the sheer excitemet of hearing Sibelius 2 in my early 20s but befoer this had been enraptured by the sounds of “Northern Soul” (for American readers look it up) and artists such as Frank Wilson and Chuck Wood.
    I moved on to develop an interest in jazz and loved the work of Ornette Coleman, Mike Gibbs, Miles and the giant of 20th century American music Edward Kennedy Ellington.
    Throw into the mix Ry Cooder, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nusrhat Fata Ali Khan along with bands such as the Stones and Led Zeppelin and what a feast we have before us.
    My highlights form concerts I have seen?…………The Four Tops first concert in Manchester in the mid 60s and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in Sheffield early 80s doing Sostakovich 10, and two years ago the Berlin Philharmonic doing Takemitsu.
    Biut I would suggest starting with some easy accessible stuff such as Spirits Rejoice by Albert Ayler…………..!

  16. I think it was Duke Ellington who said that there are only two kinds of music “good music and the other stuff”
    As someone who is in their mid 60s I have loved and appreciated music of all genres and see no distinction between so called high art (classical) and the rest.
    I remember the sheer excitemet of hearing Sibelius 2 in my early 20s but befoer this had been enraptured by the sounds of “Northern Soul” (for American readers look it up) and artists such as Frank Wilson and Chuck Wood.
    I moved on to develop an interest in jazz and loved the work of Ornette Coleman, Mike Gibbs, Miles and the giant of 20th century American music Edward Kennedy Ellington.
    Throw into the mix Ry Cooder, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nusrhat Fata Ali Khan along with bands such as the Stones and Led Zeppelin and what a feast we have before us.
    My highlights form concerts I have seen?…………The Four Tops first concert in Manchester in the mid 60s and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in Sheffield early 80s doing Sostakovich 10, and two years ago the Berlin Philharmonic doing Takemitsu.
    Biut I would suggest starting with some easy accessible stuff such as Spirits Rejoice by Albert Ayler…………..!

  17. dawn rivard says:

    I have a question, how often does one that is concerned with this situation hire the singers that exist?

  18. The subject at hand is certainly of great concern to all who care about the viability of classical music in the 21st century. The good news is that there are many black classical musicians worthy of international exposure. Personally I believe the greatest barrier to such exposure is not pigment-based discrimination, but one of sufficient opportunity for such accomplished musicians. In a declining business that is increasingly drawn to models of success as defined by star driven pop music economics, many orchestras and presenting organizations are too craven to take a box office chance on a gifted but less known minority musician. Our business needs boldness in this and in other regards. So, I have a suggestion for you; at every opportunity, lobby for the inclusion of a gifted minority musician. Talk them up, spread word of their names and accomplishments, and not just in the month of February. They will be black for the other eleven months as well, and thus are available to enrich concert life at any time. Let’s not complain. Let’s all pitch in and help rectify the situation. Call your neighborhood arts administrator and give him some names. You would be surprised at what a verbal recommendation can accomplish.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      John McLaughlin Williams says:

      The subject at hand is certainly of great concern to all who care about the viability of classical music in the 21st century.

      Why? I agree it’s great if “classical music”, whatever exactly one may mean by that vague term, is as accessible to and reaches as many people from as many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds as possible, and if people from backgrounds in which classical music didn’t traditionally play a big role are encouraged to study classical music and, if they are good enough, become professional performers. But it’s not as if classical music hasn’t been “viable” enough so far.

      So, I have a suggestion for you; at every opportunity, lobby for the inclusion of a gifted minority musician.

      Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, to name just a few who come to mind spontaneously, didn’t need quotas or special lobbying to make great careers – and in times in which there was much less awareness that racial discrimination is a really bad thing. I think that’s the way it should be. People should make it because they are good musicians, not because they receive preferred treatment because they happen to be from a minority population.

      The classical music business has always been quite “star driven”, that’s not a recent development. Big name conductors, singers, pianists, violinists etc, that’s not a concept only recently borrowed from the world of pop.

  19. Has anyone yet mentioned Sphinx, a Detroit-based organisation lead by Aaron Dworkin which has been working tirelessly on the inclusion and access issue for many years now?

    http://www.sphinxmusic.org/

  20. My experience is mostly limited to young singers, and I have found that young African-Americans interested in a classical (opera) vocal career are already way behind their age peer group by the time they are auditioning for good summer school programs – early college age. It seems to me that they have spent far too long as big fish in little ponds. In order to be competitive, they need to have been exposed to better teachers, already started on language programs, and coaching. They need to have made the move earlier to be minnows in the big ocean – to see what and who is out there, what kind of training they need to support their innate talent, which isn’t enough on its own.

    Incidentally, this condition is far from limited to African-Americans, but since they already make up only a small percentage of the total auditioning group, very few make it through. Those who do make it to Curtis, Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, and other conservatories are as wonderful as their peers. Some of them have graduated into successful careers around the world.

    I just heard an opera by Nkeiru Okoye, HARRIET TUBMAN, which was presented by American Opera Projects and which featured a mostly African American cast. So there are not only singers on the creative horizon, but composers too. They haven’t broken into the big time yet, but they’re there and doing very good work.

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