'Live, Gifted and Black': BSO concert to showcase African-Americans' works

If black composers and audiences have traditionally felt unwelcome in the classical concert hall, that may change because of concerts such as the one the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, David Zinman, will give this Saturday in Meyerhoff Hall.

The BSO is billing the free event as "Live, Gifted and Black" and the orchestra will perform four works by African-American composers. The BSO hopes that the concert will encourage more talented composers of color to write for orchestra and it also hopes that it will encourage more African-American attendance at symphony programs.


This program, which is co-sponsored by the American Symphony Orchestra League, the Ford Foundation and AT&T;, is among the first of its kind. But programs like it are expected to become fairly common among orchestras in cities -- such as Baltimore -- with majority non-white populations.

"This is a wonderful break for me in terms of exposure and recognition," says Gary Powell Nash, a 27-year-old saxophonist and doctoral student at Michigan State University whose "Variants on the Holiday Season" will be performed. Nash says that, while most Americans know about the musical accomplishments of black people, they tend to assume that these gifts are only expressed in popular music and jazz.


"I see this concert as letting people know that black people can write classical music," says Nash, whose current work in progress, "Heroes," is about an actual shootout in drug wars that have recently terrorized his family in their hometown of Flint, Mich.

"It's about the war on drugs and the heroes who defeat them," says the young composer, who for a while supported himself with disability payments he received after an injury he incurred -- while a U.S. Marine. "You could say that it's a modern, urban update of Strauss' 'Heldenleben.' "

Nash's piece and works by Ed Bland, Anthony Kelley and Rafael Aponte-Ledee were among those that came to the BSO last year after a nationwide solicitation of scores -- a search that concluded when music director Zinman selected four scores from among 13 finalists. Although the 8:15 p.m. concert will have been rehearsed beforehand, it is being called a reading session to emphasize its informality. There will be a panel discussion at 7 p.m. with the composers about African-American music -- actually, one of the composers is Puerto Rican -- and the audience will be asked to fill out questionnaires about what they liked or didn't like about the compositions. The concert will be recorded, and tapes of the performances will be given to the composers so they can let other orchestras know about their work.

"Everything I've done so far has been performed only at schools and workshops," says Anthony Kelley, a 26-year-old graduate of Duke University who teaches in Raleigh, N.C. "I'm finally at the mercy of the public and not of academia."

Even for an established composer such as Ed Bland, whose "Let Peace Be Free" is on the program, the BSO concert will be an important opportunity. A well-known commercial, jazz and rhythm and blues composer for years -- he wrote the music for the recent PBS presentation of "A Raisin in the Sun," worked as an arranger for all three commercial TV networks and was director for Artists & Repertory at Vanguard Records -- he has had very little opportunity to write classical symphonic music, despite being classically trained.

"I didn't have the contacts to get my music played, so this reading session is very important to me," Bland says. "You can write and write, but if you don't hear what you've done, you can't hear either your successes or mistakes. The self-corrective aspect that is essential to an artist's development is missing."

The reading session, therefore, says BSO executive director John Gidwitz, is a matter of equal opportunity symphonic music.

"It encourages minority members to become interested in classical music," he says. "Very few blacks are enrolled in conservatories, very few of them are in orchestras and very few of them get their works played by symphony orchestras. That sends a message that classical music isn't a good career option. We are simply taking concrete steps to change that message. We just want musically gifted black kids to think, 'I guess it's OK to be a composer as well as a singer or a jazz musician.' "


But what will transpire Saturday night at Meyerhoff resembles the phenomenon on college campuses that has been called multiculturalism. That word, says ASOL executive director Catherine French, is a not an inappropriate term to describe what will happen this week in Baltimore, has already happened at the Detroit Symphony and will also occur with orchestras in Chicago; San Antonio, Texas; and Savannah, Ga.

"Any composer brings his cultural experiences to what he's writing," French says. "That's certainly true of the 19th century European composers who are part of the core repertory. We're )) trying to expand the standard repertory and make it more inclusive by welcoming talented creators."

Baltimore was selected for this pilot program not simply because it is a city with a significant black population, French says.

"Baltimore seemed perfect because of the work [the BSO was] doing in building black audiences," she explains. "We're all hoping to learn from it."

The program derives from a reading program that was started in the middle 1980s -- also with Ford Foundation funds -- that was devoted more broadly to encouraging American composers.

"What we discovered was that we were not receiving a lot of material from African-American composers or Hispanic composers," French says. "By the time composers were


selected for the readings, we realized we had no blacks or Hispanics. The advice we received was that we needed to have a special program for these composers."

Impetus for bringing more blacks into the symphony hall was provided three years ago when the Michigan state legislature refused to provide funds for the Detroit Symphony until that institution -- in that almost entirely black city -- bypassed its customary blind audition process to hire an African-American double bass player, Richard Robinson. Two years later, Detroit began its own African-American Composers' Forum, the first in the country and the program upon which the ASOL has modeled its own.

"I wouldn't characterize the response in Detroit as scared, but I would say that the orchestra had its consciousness raised [by the denial of state funds]," says Clayton Crenshaw, an artistic services manager for the ASOL. "If an orchestra exists in a community that has a non-white majority it's important for them to have programs that include music by non-whites. What we're doing is trying to replenish the repertory with a multicultural slant."

BSO music director Zinman says that all four of the pieces he selected for Saturday's concert are "good, accomplished pieces," adding that the concert will "give the kind of help all good composers -- whether they're white, black, green or yellow -- need and deserve."

'Live, Gifted and Black'

When: 8:15 p.m. (preperformance symposium hosted by Ray Sprenkel, 7 p.m.)


Where: Meyerhoff Hall.

Tickets: Free, but tickets needed.

Call: 783-8000.