JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - In the empty concert hall of the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts - its sea of turquoise seats set against sand-colored walls practically shouts "Florida" - four musicians rehearse Mozart's elegant E-flat major Quartet for piano and strings.
Cellist Troy Stuart furrows his brow, saying, "Something's not right." Violinist Tai Murray agrees and asks the pianist to come in "more joyfully." She kicks up her fur boot-covered feet in a little dance to demonstrate the mood she's after.
Nothing unusual about classical musicians trying to deepen an interpretation, note by note. But there is something unusual in this case.
They're all African-American - members of the Ritz Chamber Players.
For Stuart, 39, of Baltimore, the affiliation with the Ritz is deeply satisfying. "I've learned from everyone I've played with, people of all races," he says. "But I can't lie. There's something special about making music with other African-Americans, persons whose experiences are a lot like mine. Just looking at each other gives us confidence."
Although the classical music arena enjoys a reputation for being a color-blind meritocracy, few blacks perform in the nation's orchestras. Just 1.9 percent of the nation's orchestra musicians were African American during the 2006-2007 season; the most recent report available from the League of American Orchestras; the figure was 1.3 percent in 1994-1995. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has one African-American full-time player among 92.
The lack of diversity is increasingly a sore point as barriers come down in other areas, from corporations to Hollywood to the White House. And as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and other music institutions push to attract broader audiences in a difficult economy, the need to improve diversity has become more critical.
Peabody Preparatory alumnus Aaron Dworkin, who founded the Sphinx Organization in Detroit in 1996 "to increase the participation of blacks and Latinos as professional musicians," traces the emergence of black chamber ensembles such as the Ritz Chamber Players to the scant minority representation in orchestras.
Orchestras, he says, "are seen as un-welcoming. Players think, 'If I can follow another route, why not? Because even if I'm successful at getting into an orchestra, I'll probably be the only minority player there for the rest of my life.' "
The Ritz, which this evening makes its first appearance in the high-profile Shriver Hall Concert Series at the Johns Hopkins University, is among a handful of chamber groups on the national scene showcasing musicians of color. Others include the Imani Winds, founded in 1997; the nearly two-decade-old Marian Anderson String Quartet; and Young Eight, a string octet formed six years ago.
The rise of such ensembles could dispel what Stuart describes as "the myth that African-American classical musicians don't exist." Classical music doesn't attract a huge percentage of the public, regardless of race, but the perception lingers that few blacks are drawn to the genre, either as performers or audiences. Asian-Americans, on the other hand, have a greater presence in the field.
The Ritz has a roster of 15 highly accomplished players, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra's longtime, stellar harpist, Ann Hobson-Pilot.
"I know we're a shock to some people," says Terrance Patterson, the Florida-born clarinetist who founded the Ritz in 2002. "It is a matter of changing perception. It will take time, but we're patient."
'Time for some role models'
Today, it is hard to find counterparts to the kind of mainstream celebrity status achieved decades ago by such eminent African-American artists as contralto Marian Anderson, soprano Leontyne Price and pianist Andre Watts. Fresh examples of that widespread acclaim could inspire more young black musicians to enter the classical field. "It's time for some role models out there," Stuart says.
In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the toughest challenge Stuart faced wasn't in the pieces he studied, but in a large mirror on the practice room wall - the reflection of an African-American staring back at him.
"I had to cover it for the first half-year," Stuart says. "I wasn't gaining any confidence from seeing myself. If I had had a Yo-Yo Ma to look up to, I know I wouldn't have had any problem looking into that mirror. I still remember the first time I saw an African-American on a classical album cover, I almost fainted."
Stuart recalls an incident during his student years that left its mark. After he played in a recital at a Baltimore synagogue, a woman approached him and asked, "Where are you from?"
"Baltimore," Stuart said.
"No, where are you from?"
"But where are you from?," she persisted. "Your last name is Stuart."
Finally, he recalls, "I realized that I didn't make sense in her world. There was no way that someone from the hood in Park Heights Terrace could be a classical musician without some explanation." Stuart told the woman that his great-grandfather was Scottish. "That seemed to satisfy her."
In interviews with several African-American musicians, similar anecdotes were common. A particularly frequent experience involves assumptions made about black classical players that would not be made of whites.
Terrence Wilson, a pianist on the Ritz roster, has lost count of the orchestra administrators who ask him if he plays jazz. "My standard reply now is, 'No, do you?' " he says.
Violinist Juliette Jones, who graduated from Peabody last year, offers another example: "I've had people come up to me and say, 'Oh, you're black, you must like soul music.' Classical music is some of the most soulful music there is. I feel this music has chosen me."
'It's a lonely world'
When cellist Esther Mellon joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1977, there were two other African-Americans on the roster. They've since retired. Her singularity seems all the more striking in a city whose population is nearly two-thirds African-American.
"It's a lonely world that you have to get used to," Mellon says.
The BSO engages many black guest artists and collaborates frequently with the famed Morgan State University Choir. But an outreach program that took the BSO into predominantly black neighborhoods ended seven years ago, around the same time the BSO's diversity committee disbanded. Although the orchestra's staff is diverse, the BSO has no African-American on its board of directors.
(The Soulful Symphony, an affiliate of the BSO, is a mostly African-American orchestra founded by Darin Atwater to perform his own music. The ensemble does not focus on standard classical repertoire.)
The BSO's board agreed in September on a new strategic plan that calls for "an institutional priority to increase engagement with African-American and other communities, and to increase diversity amongst staff, board and audiences," says BSO President/CEO Paul Meecham.
The Sphinx Organization's Dworkin advocates the establishment of minority fellowships that would allow players to develop their skills and then have an opportunity to audition for a full-time position.
Orchestra musicians typically audition behind a screen for the first round or two.
"Screens have served the anonymity purpose," says BSO music director Marin Alsop. "It was a mostly gender-related move, initially, and it's been a success - most orchestras are 50-50 [men and women] now."
But to help improve racial diversity, she says, "the audition process needs to evolve. It needs to include some type of interview process as well to find out if the candidate is a good fit, if [he or she] can do more than just play."
Everything depends, of course, on how many African-American musicians audition.
"The pool of players is not there," says Alsop. "The obvious deduction is that we're not interesting young African-American kids in getting involved in classical music." To help change that, the BSO launched an educational initiative called OrchKids that started bringing intensive music education to first-graders at a Baltimore school this year. Patterned after a hugely successful nationwide program in Venezuela, OrchKids aims to grow a new crop of classical musicians or fans in the years to come.
Murray, the violinist in the Ritz ensemble, says that she and her colleagues "were all lucky to have families who supported us. But I had extended family members who were, like, 'What are you doing? That's white music.' But any African-American person that I've seen at a concert appreciates it just like anyone else."
Recent Peabody Conservatory graduate Jarvis Benson, a violist who was a member of the Black Student Union at the school, strikes a similar note. "I don't think the problem is that African-Americans don't like classical music, but that they haven't been exposed to it. It's like golf - after Tiger Woods came along, more blacks got interested in it."
'I love teaching'
Troy Stuart's interest in music was cultivated at the Baltimore School for the Arts and the Peabody Conservatory. He now teaches at both places. Although he served as a substitute player in the BSO a few times early in his career, and occasionally thinks about getting into an orchestra permanently, he has so far been hooked on chamber music. And teaching.
In addition to working at the two Baltimore schools each week, he travels to New York City on alternate days to teach at the Third Street Music School Settlement in Greenwich Village and the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music that inspired the 1999 Meryl Streep film Music from the Heart.
"I love teaching," Stuart says. "I love this music. I respect it. And it's my life's goal to share it."
The cellist, who lives alone in a Mount Vernon apartment, grew up in Park Heights Terrace, one of five children. His parents were not musicians, but music lovers.
Sitting in their Randallstown home, filled with a vivid variety of carefully displayed collectibles, the Stuarts reminisced recently about Troy's musical development. "Troy knew early on that music was it," said his mother, Loy, a self-described homemaker.
First came Suzuki classes (a group-teaching technique) in elementary school. "Troy started on violin and then decided it was too heavy and too big," Henry Stuart, a retired chemist, said, smiling. "So he graduated to something heavier and bigger. Troy actually slept with his cello sometimes."
His mother adds: "I didn't have to push. I knew he would take things as far as he could. Initially, with all the practicing, you don't hear the talent. When he played in public, it was a shock. I was so impressed. He still impresses me. Even if I weren't his mother, I'd be a fan."
'They come for the music'
In the Times-Union Center's concert hall, about 200 people have gathered for the program, which includes works by Mozart and the late African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Performances were initially held in Jacksonville's restored 1929 Ritz Theater, from which the ensemble drew its name, in a neighborhood once dubbed the "Harlem of the South."
Roughly 40 percent of the listeners on this night are black. "There will be some African-Americans who come to see a black group only because it's a black group," Stuart says, "just as I'm sure there will be others who won't come because African-Americans are onstage. I think that people who come to the Ritz initially because we're African-American are less impressed by that when they come back. They come back for the music. It's infectious."
The concert, which finds all of the Ritz players in supple, expressive form, receives a standing ovation. The audience then trickles into a reception room to meet and greet the musicians. Lots of hugs and flashing camera phones. Stuart and his colleagues are quickly surrounded by animated well-wishers.
A young black girl, tightly holding her mother's hand, looks up at clarinetist Patterson with a shy smile and wide eyes that follow his every move across the floor, as if seeing some kind of hero.
'What you believe in'
Back in Baltimore on a darkening autumn afternoon, Stuart recalls his students days at Peabody in the mid-1980s and some memories that still rankle - racial slurs or grades that seemed unfair.
But he had a sympathetic ear from Peabody's first African-American dean, Eileen Cline, who served from 1983 to 1995. (Another African-American woman, Mellasenah Morris, is the current dean of Peabody, where the student body is about 4 percent African-American.)
Now retired in Colorado, Cline recalls that she "ran a lot of interference in those years," trying to help some teachers and administrators relate more sensitively to minority students, black and Asian.
Stuart still cherishes the guidance he received from Cline in those days. "What we learned from her was that how one deals with [racial] issues is through character," Stuart says. "She somehow made you dig a little deeper into your own character, rather than bemoan the fact you were born black."
Cline's essential message - "If I have any philosophy it's: Think what it is that you believe in, what you can bring to the world by your involvement, and just do it," she says - continues to resonate with Stuart. The only thing that seems to throw him off balance is when he suspects that his validity as an artist, or the validity of other African-American musicians, is questioned.
"I have run into people who do double and triple takes when I walk onstage," the cellist says. "It's like, 'Who let you in the door?' It shocks me how some people can assume the least of you before they know you. I'm willing to take any repercussions for not being good enough, for not studying hard enough. But I will not take a [racially based] judgment before I even pick up my bow.
"At the end of the day, you still have to follow your passion," he says, slinging his cello case over his shoulder to head off for another round of teaching. "With music in your life, you really can make yourself happy. And I'm very happy."
if you go
The Ritz Chamber Players perform at 5:30 p.m. today at Shriver Hall, 3400 N. Charles St. Tickets are $17 and $33. Call 410-516-7164 or go to shriverconcerts.org.
'black music': new boundaries?
In the pop music world, black music is getting harder to define. See article in today's You & Arts & Entertainment section.