By Jacob Stockinger
It happens every year around this time.
Only this year it is a two-fer, so the feelings or thoughts are more intense.
That’s because today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, complete with live radio and delayed TV broadcasts of ceremonies from the Wisconsin State Capitol (at noon on Wisconsin Public Radio and at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television) and other places. (Below is the poster for Martin Luther King Jr. ceremonies with host Jonathan Overby.)
But this year it is also President Barack Obama’s second Inauguration Day – well, at least the ceremonial one since the official one took place by law yesterday on Sunday. (In 2008, cellist Yo-Yo Ma (below bottom) played with violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Gabriela Montero at the first Inauguration.)
Anyway, on this day I always think back to all the many concerts I go to in a year — professional, amateur and student concerts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO). And I always find myself asking:
Why don’t I see more African-American audiences at the concerts. And especially, Why don’t I see more African-American players in the various symphonic and chamber groups or as soloists?
Sure, I see a lot of whites and a lot of Asians. I see some Hispanics, though also far too few. But I am especially struck at how few African Americans I see – although opera seems to outpace symphonies and chamber groups in this regard. (Sorry to say, I can’t think of any black conductors, violinists or cellists and only one pianist — at bottom, you will find a YouTube video of the African-American pianist Awadagin Pratt performing J.S. Bach at a concert in 2009 at the Obama White House — even though the sports world has at least some black managers, coaches and quarterbacks.)
I don’t see many African-Americans in the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below), whose music director and conductor John DeMain is world-famous for his Grammy-winning black production of Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess”:
Or in the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below):
Or in the University of Wisconsin Symphony or Chamber Orchestra and UW Choral Union (below):
Or even in the middle school and high school groups sponsored by WYSO (below).
It is similar to the thoughts I have every New Year’s Day when I tune in the “Live From Vienna” concert with the Vienna Philharmonic and am once again disappointed to see how few women are in that august ensemble – even in the year 2013.
That’s not to say that we won’t today see and hear a lot of blacks in music. But I suspect we will hear jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, spirituals and pop.
And sure, some people may say: Well, after all, those are the traditional genres of music-making in the African-American culture and community.
And they are right in large part, and those are excellent forms of music.
But there is also a large number of blacks who have contributed to classical music. And more blacks – to say nothing of all whites and members of other ethnic groups – could stand to learn more about the contributions of African-Americans to classical music.
Does the cause of such ignorance have to do with racism and bias?
With faulty music education?
With family or community values?
With a lack of role models?
With the lack of aggressive recruiting and hiring by local groups?
Now it just so happens that there are websites that offer visitors comprehensive histories and biographies of blacks in classical music – and even offers a quiz to see how much you know about who they were and the contributions they made.
So on this day when all of the U.S. and, one hopes, the world celebrate the achievements of African-Americans, maybe people can take time to visit this site, educate themselves and get a renewed and greater appreciation for the role that African-Americans have played in classical music.
Here are is a link to one of those websites:
Do you have observations to offer in the COMMENTS section about causes of remedies of such a shortage?
Names of composers and performers to pass along?
Is it something we have to accept as a cultural given?
Are there other websites you can suggest where readers can learn about African Americans and classical music?