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‘An absolutely fundamental moral obligation’: Where are all the Black classical conductors?

When Jonathon Heyward climbed on top of a box in the eighth grade and embarked on a career as a conductor, he couldn’t have guessed how many obstacles were stacked against him.

Those obstacles — the usual culprits of privilege and access that pop up in any story about race in America — have stunted the careers of dozens of talented Black American conductors like Heyward, who will become the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s music director next year.

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“Before you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you first have to own boots,” said Thomas Wilkins, the pioneering Black conductor who recently retired after 16 years leading the Omaha Symphony Orchestra in Nebraska.

In 2016, the New York-based League of American Orchestras surveyed 170 of the approximately 1,600 U.S. symphonies and found that just 5% of conductors at the larger-budget orchestras and 3.6% of conductors at smaller ensembles were Black. And that’s a problem, because an orchestra isn’t just a cultural group. It’s part of a city’s power structure.

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“We have to stop fishing from the same pond,” said Simon Woods, the league’s president. “Orchestras have to reflect our diverse communities on stage, especially in a majority-Black city like Baltimore. It is an absolutely fundamental moral obligation.”

Thanks to a combination of talent, unflagging work ethic and some good luck, Heyward prevailed. The charismatic 30-year-old is poised to become the only Black American to lead a “Group One” U.S. Symphony (the nation’s 26 largest orchestras) when he begins his job in Baltimore in the fall of 2023.

With an annual budget of about $28 million and nearly 200 employees, the BSO is Maryland’s biggest arts organization. Its board members include the city’s movers and shakers.

The obstacles impeding Black conductors reflect the history of American orchestras — and of the nation itself. Notably, U.S. orchestras have a pro-European bias that is so pronounced it keeps even white American men off the podium. Add to that the latecomer status of orchestras in the South, where most Black Americans have roots, and where orchestras were segregated once established. Finally, music education in U.S. public schools “is spotty at best,” according to Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. And access is particularly limited in elementary schools, even though younger children are best able to develop critical music skills.

A European-dominated profession

The nationalities of the conductors of the 10 biggest-budget U.S. symphonies are, in descending order: Venezuelan, Dutch, Latvian, Finnish, Italian, Austrian, Canadian, French, French, and Italian.

To find an American other than Heyward on the Group One list, scroll down past the BSO at No. 18 to No. 23 — the Kansas City Symphony’s conductor, Michael Stern.

“I don’t know if there’s a bias against American conductors leading American orchestras. But there’s definitely a bias in favor of European culture,” Woods said.

Maestro Darin Atwater conducts Soulful Symphony in 2019 at Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center.

Jeri Lynne Johnson, founder of Philadelphia’s Black Pearl Orchestra, told MSNBC this summer that she was passed over for a job as music director of a small regional orchestra in 2005 though her performance on the podium won raves.

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Johnson said a search committee member told her, “We just didn’t know how to market you. ... You just don’t look like what our audience expects the maestro to look like.”

Woods said American orchestras’ preference for European conductors dates to the 1840s, when a huge wave of immigrants from Germany — the land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — began founding orchestras in their new homeland. These fledgling symphonies looked for leadership to the Continent, where classical music had flourished since the 11th century.

“There’s a mindset that we should duplicate European orchestras here in the United States,” said Darin Atwater, founder of Soulful Symphony, a Columbia-based orchestra comprised primarily of musicians of color.

“The great European composers — Mozart, Haydn, Tchaikovsky — looked to their native soils for inspiration. But Americans don’t see music from here as being credible. It’s as if we were still playing cricket and had never invented baseball.”

Symphonies arrive in the South. So does Jim Crow.

It wasn’t long before sizable American cities in the North and Midwest could boast of their own symphonies. It was another story in the South, where 90% of Black Americans lived in 1900, according to census data.

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra was the only classical band in 700 miles when it opened in 1921. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina, where Heyward grew up, wasn’t founded until 1936.

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Jim Crow laws barred Black southerners from orchestra halls, a situation that didn’t change until the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, classical music never gained even a toehold in communities of color.

Wilkins, the recently retired conductor, was in the third grade when his class attended a concert in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1964.

“I had never heard the voice of a full orchestra before that day,” said Wilkins, 65.

“That was enough to hook me. Growing up as the child of a single mother on welfare and living in a housing project, there was no piano in my house. There were no classical music albums. There was certainly no money for private lessons. But there was the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, and it changed my life forever.”

Thomas Wilkins conducts the LA Phil in 2011 for a program, "The Hollywood Sound" at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The adults in Wilkins’ life supported his goal of becoming a conductor, although they didn’t share his tastes. “The music in my house was gospel and Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye,” he said.

By the time classical orchestras acquired a social conscience and began attempting to diversify audiences, many Black Americans had turned their backs on an art form that had long shunned them and moved on to more welcoming genres.

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“There are social norms at work,” said Sunil Iyengar, director of research for the National Endowment for the Arts. “A decision gets made about whether a community wants to engage in a particular art form. As a factor, that shouldn’t be underestimated.”

Early music education advantages the other Americas

There aren’t many Black Americans leading major U.S. orchestras. But there are conductors of color — particularly from Central and South America. And they are at the pinnacle of their profession.

Two of the most prominent are Gustavo Dudamel, a Venezuelan who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Argentinian-born Daniel Barenboim, legendary former conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Like their Black counterparts, Spanish-speaking immigrants battle racial discrimination in this country. And yet, American orchestras have hired them.

These standout Hispanic conductors have something in common: All received critical early musical training, and several benefited from classical music education programs for impoverished youngsters, subsidized by their governments.

Dudamel and the San Diego Symphony’s Rafael Payare rose through Venezuela’s state-supported El Sistema, which has provided free classical music instruction to 700,000 children. The Nashville Symphony’s Giancarlo Guerrero got his start in the publicly funded Costa Rica Youth Orchestra.

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It’s not as if American public schools don’t teach music to kids. Most do. A 2017 study by the Give A Note Foundation found that about 94% offer some lessons. But while many schools sponsor a chorus or marching band, few teach pupils to play the string instruments that form the backbone of symphonies. Roughly 24% of public elementary schools in the U.S., 39% of middle schools and 34% of high schools have student orchestras or string ensembles, the study found.

“Teaching a child to play a musical instrument is expensive,” Peabody’s Bronstein said, “not unlike having a kid who dreams of becoming an Olympic skater. They won’t get there without equipment, lessons and coaching.”

It’s no secret which children are less likely to receive those pricey perks. A 2012 report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that schools with the highest percent of students qualifying for free lunch were the least likely to provide music instruction.

Jonathon Heyward at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

Heyward was lucky. In 2002, South Carolina’s public schools had the foresight to put string instruments into the hands of fourth graders. He picked up his first cello when he was 10, an age that was almost — but not quite — too old to learn how to play really well.

“I knew I was late to start my training,” Heyward said recently. “I knew I was behind. But I was determined to catch up. That was the beginning of my work ethic.”

Indre Viskontas, a California-based neuroscientist and opera singer, said maturing brains start grouping together similar pitches instead of hearing them separately. As a result, older children and adults have more trouble distinguishing between slightly different tones.

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“People think hearing is just a physical response to sound waves,” Viskontas said, “but it’s not. It’s the way the brain interprets the signals it receives.”

This pitfall doesn’t merely ensnare instrumentalists. It can also trap young would-be conductors. That’s because mastering at least one musical instrument has become a prerequisite for the podium. While no one would ask Heyward to outperform Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, conductors are expected to have achieved a high level of expertise.

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“You can’t coach football if you’ve never played the game,” the orchestra league’s Woods said. “And you can’t be a conductor and help musicians make a performance if you’ve never been an instrumentalist. You need that knowledge to lead others.”

New initiatives to even the field

About 15 years ago, El Sistema’s success spawned U.S. offshoots that provide free music lessons to low-income kids. The best known are the BSO’s OrchKids, which works with 1,900 youngsters, and the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, which instructs 1,500 kids.

These initiatives have a social change mission and are open to students regardless of talent. Other free local arts education programs (TWIGS at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Tuned-In at the Peabody Institute) tutor musically gifted youngsters who are racially diverse.

Chances are that some students of color will, like Heyward, pick up a baton. But that could take years. The state-supported musical education programs in Central and South America now turning out highly skilled adult conductors began in the mid-1970s. In contrast, OrchKids was created in 2008. Its first graduates are now in college and face years of training before they can take leadership roles at small orchestras.

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But classical music’s advocates say their art form can’t afford to wait.

“These have been a crazy few years,” Wilkins said recently at a California ceremony where he received the orchestra league’s prestigious Gold Baton. “I kind of think humanity is hanging on by a thread.

“Luckily, we have music on our side. But we all need to hurry.”


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