The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day and President Barack Obama’s second Inauguration Day, The Ear wonders: Why aren’t there more African-American players in and audiences for classical music? Check out this website devoted to black classical musicians. | January 21, 2013

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.)

MLK Day at Capitol

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.)


YoYoMaObama INaugurationGetty Images

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):

WCO lobby

Or in the University of Wisconsin Symphony or Chamber Orchestra and UW Choral Union (below):

UW Choral Union  12:2011

Or even in the middle school and high school groups sponsored by WYSO (below).

Thomas Buchhauser  conducting WYSO Philharmonia Cheng-Wei Wu

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.

Vienna Philharmonic

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?



  1. Comment by Kerry Lacy — March 9, 2013 @ 6:50 am

  2. Comment by Kerry Lacy — March 9, 2013 @ 6:49 am

  3. Hello Jake:

    Here is a link to the article I mentioned.

    All the best,

    Harvey Felder

    Comment by Harvey Felder — February 18, 2013 @ 11:31 pm

  4. To be honest, i’ve never seen a black person at a classical concert. I’ve also never seen one at a indie rock concert.
    It might be the fact that in my country there aren’t that many black people, but Ii always saw Asians and others there.
    The education at an early age that distances the child from such music is most likely the culprit. Some say it’s money, but if the child has an interest worth pursuing then it should not be that big of a hurdle.

    Comment by Puiu — February 13, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

  5. Hi Jake,

    glad you brought up this question which comes up from time to time. I think there are more African-American classical musicians out there than we realize, we just don’t hear about them nearly enough. Be that as it may, that number is still disproportionately low.

    However, the good news is that there are many people out there trying to do something about it. Of course Sphinx is the first and most widely-known organization to come to mind. But there are also other programs, both large and small, with individuals working in the front lines in our communities to do something about the limited diversity in the world of classical music specifically. Project STEP in Boston (where I work) has been working hard for 30 years spearheading that very mission. And every year we are inspired to learn about more and more programs with similar missions, like:
    -Talent Development Program (Atlanta)
    -Atlanta Music Project (Atlanta)
    -Intensive Community Program (Boston)
    -MusiConnects (Boston)
    -Young Strings (Dallas)
    -Youth Orchestra of LA (Los Angeles)
    -Music Haven (New Haven)
    -Music Advancement Program (NYC)
    -Opus 118 Harlem School of Music (NYC)
    -Play On Philly (Philadelphia)
    -and Community MusicWorks (Providence)

    That’s just to name a few, there are more. We have a long way to go, but some of us have started that journey.

    Javier, Project STEP

    Comment by Javier — January 30, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

  6. Awadagin Pratt is a pianist, violinist, AND conductor!
    Barbara Furstenberg

    Comment by Barbara Furstenberg — January 22, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    • Hi Barbara,
      Thank you so much for reading and reploying so succinctly but in an enlightening manner.
      I didn’t know he did all three skills.
      All the more honor to him!

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 22, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

  7. Susan Fiore hit all the nails square on the head. Money and time. Frankly, the bulk of the majority white children don’t do music lessons or music school, so how can we expect black people to embrace the music of the culture that enslaved them. I do a lot of jazz, blues and soul music, and it is always an honor to play with black musicians in those genres, which Black Americans developed. I am not sure the feeling of honor goes the other way. Asian people have this culture thing that is really hitting hard now, but most Japanese, Chinese and Korean-American musicians choose Western classical music over jazz/pop/rock. Status, I suppose, and cachet, and High beats Low or Pop culture. Unless you’re Lang-Lang, then you get to do it ALL at once! MBB

    Comment by Michael BB — January 22, 2013 @ 1:38 am

  8. I’d just like to add James DePreist and our music director here with the Omaha Symphony, Thomas Wilkins, who is also conductor of youth and family concerts for the Boston Symphony. More here:

    As far as William Grant Still is concerned, we just performed his ‘Darker America’ this past weekend and I have twice performed his First Symphony (once in Dubuque (which also featured a young violin soloist who had recently won the Sphinx competition — sorry, I can’t remember his name) and once here in Omaha). Those two pieces certainly aren’t poor compositions in any way, but I also can’t say that I am a big fan of them either. I agree, I would gladly welcome more exposure of his music.

    In my young career of playing in orchestras, I can, sadly, probably count the number of blacks that have played in those orchestras on one hand. I’m not sure why that is, though I would like to speculate that the problem is worse here in the Midwest than elsewhere.

    I also want to include that the Detroit and Pittsburgh symphonies have African-American fellowships for young professionals.

    Comment by Patrick P — January 21, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

    • Hi Patrick,
      Thank you for reading and then replying with such detailed and lengthy information on so many different counts.
      You have added a great deal of information to the subject, and helped to educate me.
      Clearly, there should be more media coverage about black classical musicians than currently exists.
      As for the music of William Grant Still, I am glad to hear it is played. And even if it seems less than stellar, think of how much second-rate music by white composers gets performed — and often quite frequently.
      Thank you again for your enlightening and educating comments.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 21, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

  9. Bobby McFerrin conducted the St. Paul Chamber orchestra in the 90’s and, according to his website, has also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Kirov Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and the Orchestra of La Scala.
    The question of black violinists was posted to and received some interesting responses including a story about George Bridgetower (African-Polish) and the premiere of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” (premiered by Bridgetower and not played by Kreutzer).
    That site also mentions the violinist and composer Clarence Cameron White. He and his mother studied at the Oberlin Conservatory. She graduated in 1876. He was there from 1896-1901. Also see Aaron Dworkin asks the same questions you are asking and is working to change the answers. There is also the bassist Nathaniel Ayers, immortalized in Steve Lopez’s book “The Soloist.”
    Mikko mentions the Africa-American composer William Grant Still (whose “Festive Overture” was just played on WERN the other day). Still is reported to have admired the Afro-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who has been called “the African Mahler.”

    Comment by Steve Rankin — January 21, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

    • I saw McFerrin conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra several decades ago, with Chick Corea performing a Mozart piano solo. He seemed to do a fine job but, not knowing whether or not he has classical music training, I cannot be sure how “authoritative” (if that’s the right word) he was in wielding his baton.

      Comment by Michael Muckian — January 21, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    • Hi Steve,
      As always, thank you for reading and replying in such informative detail.
      I knew about Bobby McFerrin but forgot to include him.
      I still think of him as a largely pop musician, though he also classical credentials, as you demonstrate so well.
      I learned about the Kreutzer sonata story from But thanks to you and Mikko for the violin website.
      And I did know the name of composer William Grant Still, but I have never heard his music programmed live and it is on very few recordings.
      That is too bad.
      I guess I know more than I thought I did.
      But that’s still not a lot — or not nearly enough to satisfy what the achievement of black classical musicians is.
      And it certainly doesn’t speak well of the local classical scene.
      I still think it remains a problem in our society that has yet to be solved.
      Thank you again for expanding our knowledge.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 21, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

  10. I would consider these factors:
    – Public school funding of classical music education has been declining for forty or more years.
    – Private music lessons (not to mention instruments) are expensive, require regular transportation to and from lessons and other kinds of support from parents who have the leisure and income to provide said support.
    – Cultural role models, lauded in the media, tend to be pop musicians and athletes.
    – The road to success for a classical musician requires the financial stability to spend many hours a day practicing, and there are no guarantees of a living wage at the end. (One of my UW School of Music professors said that becoming a professional (classical) musician required “90% talent, 90% hard work and 90% luck.”)

    Comment by Susan Fiore — January 21, 2013 @ 10:37 am

  11. Good observation, Ear, and on the most appropriate of days. And the Africlassical website is very interesting. But everyone seems to have overlooked Milwaukee native Harvey Felder, currently maestro of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra and associate professor and director of orchestral studies at the University of Connecticut. Maestro Felder has appeared with the Milwaukee Symphony Symphony Orchestra and even subbed with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra before the hiring of Andrew Sewell. Not sure why he has fallen off the radar screen, but he is a local African-American classical talent who should not be overlooked.

    Comment by Michael Muckian — January 21, 2013 @ 8:07 am

    • Hi Mike,
      Thank you, thank you,thank you for that reply as well as for the kind words.
      I do not know the Milwaukee classical scene at all, or at least very very little, so I am very pleased that you can put foreword that name of Harvey Felder.
      He should indeed be on everyone’s radar and get more recognition and respect than it currently does.
      Enjoy your MLK Day.
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 21, 2013 @ 8:42 am

      • Hello Mr. Stockinger:

        Great post, interesting questions, and thought provoking commentary. From my wealth of frequent flyer miles and rare days off it is hard for me to associate my professional activities with the phrase “…fallen off the radar screen.”

        As is always the case, the anointed get covered while many continue to do important and meaningful work out of the limelight. For example, please see my recently published article on diversity in “Symphony Magazine.”

        All the best,

        Harvey Felder

        Comment by Harvey Felder — February 17, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

      • Hello Maestro Felder,
        Thank you so much for reading my blog post and then responding.
        What you say has special meaning and credibility, coming from you. How well I remember your conducting appearance in Madison.
        You are absolutely correct about people who work out of the limelight and the need for the public not to forget them.
        But I look at the small numbers of black classical music students and I still think that African American young people need some prominent role models to show them that classical music is not square or outdated or irrelevant to them and their lives. here is more to music than jazz or hip-hjop and rap or Broadway musicals.
        It is much like the way President Obama helped pioneer a role model of a successful lawyer, community activist and politician to black young people who too often think of sports as a major professional calling, only to be disappointed in how selective professional sports really are.
        Anyway, I will seek out your story, and hope it is available without subscription on-line for me and others to read.
        Please accept my best wishes and congratulations and please keep up the good work.

        Comment by welltemperedear — February 18, 2013 @ 9:53 am

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