Black Classical Composers Making News; Now Activate the Audiences

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I have received numerous inquiries from leaders of the classical music field to support their efforts to cultivate and develop audiences of color. My first response is to encourage them to think about their programming–until they begin to diversify their offerings, everything else is a gesture. That is why I was thrilled to read recent published reports about the breaking down of century-old barriers by African-American composers of classical music and opera..

The flutist and composer Valerie Coleman is the founder of the Grammy nominated chamber music ensemble Imani Winds. She has been commissioned to write music for organizations such as the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Interlochen Arts Academy. In September, Ms. Coleman’s composition, “Umoja, Anthem for Unity,” was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. According to the Inquirer, it was the first time the orchestra had ever performed a classical work by a living African-American female composer. And then the reporter made this critical observation: “That it took it 120 years of actively commissioning composers before landing on this demographic says a lot about how little the orchestra has noticed the city it has lived in all this time. Coleman’s identity is an important factor to many, but especially to children all over who may never have thought this world was open to them — as composers and listeners.”

The New York Metropolitan Opera also announced in September that it will schedule the opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which was composed by the Grammy award-winning jazz trumpeter and Oscar-nominated composer, Terence Blanchard. Mr. Blanchard has been hailed as a “consistent artistic force for making powerful musical statements.”

“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” premiered in June at Opera Theater of St. Louis. The opera is based on the memoir with the same title written by New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow, and the libretto was written by the writer and director Kasi Lemons. It will be the first time that the Metropolitan Opera will perform a work by any African-American composer in its 136 year-old history, however, no date has yet been set for the New York premiere.

Although these major cultural institutions are recognizing the phenomenal talents and efforts of Ms. Coleman and Mr. Blanchard, we must remember there were several African American classical music composers who paved the way, such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who composed the cantata, “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast;” Florence Price, the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major orchestra, and William Grant Still, who composed more than 150 works, including five symphonies and eight operas. We also are very fortunate to have the Sphinx Organization, which is working to champion opportunities for classical music artists of color, from performers to administrators.

The next step is to ensure that there is equitable access to these venues by audiences of color. Equitable, in this case, doesn’t mean having the opportunity to purchase tickets. Instead, it means community engagement activities by the presenting venues that invite, educate and inspire communities of color to explore and experience. The goal is to activate a significant plan and budget to nurture the roots these classical music and opera organizations will be establishing amongst an audience that has not traditionally patronized these institutions or that genre of music because of a lack of programming that represents the diversity of America’s classical music canon.

I am pleased to read about these inroads. It’s a beginning. Based on the prominence of these two composers, cultural organizations with the foresight to perform these works are being handed a wonderful opportunity to extend a welcoming invitation to communities of color to the powerful and emotive world of classical music and opera. Let’s not wait until the performances have been scheduled—the “welcome” sign should he hung up now.

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