The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How can classical music be made less white? Nine Black artists suggest changes. Which ones will work best?

July 19, 2020

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

With all the attention given to and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement — and other demonstrations and protests against personal and systemic racism as well as white privilege — it comes as no surprise that questions are being raised about the overwhelmingly white world of classical music and how to change it.

Most of the local classical music groups The Ear knows of have posted statements of solidarity.

If he recalls correctly, they include the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players and many others.

But beyond declarations of solidarity with people of color, the music groups face deeper issues that require action, not just words, and remain more difficult to solve: How to attract more Black  classical musicians? How to foster more Black composers? And how to attract more Black audiences?

Diversity and equity are long-term issues, and quite a number of possible solutions loom.

Would performing more pieces, both historical and contemporary, by Black composers (below) work?

Would hiring more Black resident musicians help?

Would booking more Black guest artists and soloists help? (Below is the young and upcoming British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.)

Would changing the music curriculum in schools help? (Some important Black composers are explored in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Would generating more support to and from the Black community help?

Last week The New York Times did a fine piece of work in addressing these issues.

The reporter and music editor asked nine different accomplished Black conductors, instrumentalists, singers, critics and administrators in classical music about how to solve the inequity. The interviews were condensed and edited into very readable statements.

Here is a link to that story:

Please read it.

Then let us know which suggestions you think should be attempted first and which solutions are most likely to work.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: During global protests against racism, a longtime fan of the Madison Symphony Orchestra writes a letter to ask for more diversity and African-American composers

June 9, 2020

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

During the ongoing global protests and demonstrations against police brutality, racism and white privilege, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will hold its annual meeting next Tuesday, June 16, at 3:30 p.m.

The meeting is NOT open to the public — as erroneously stated in an earlier version — but just to season subscribers (not single ticket buyers) and members of MSO boards. The meeting will be virtual and held online via Zoom.

During the meeting, a statement about diversity and inclusion will be read, according to the MSO. 

If you have questions, you can call Alexis Carreon at (608) 257-3734.

With both the symphony and current events in mind, a longtime MSO subscriber has written the following letter to Manager of Individual Giving Jeff Breisach.

Please read the letter and then let us know what you think.

Do you agree or disagree?

What else would you like to say about the role of MSO in adapting to concerns about racism, injustice and privilege?

Do you have any suggestions?

“Dear J. Breisach:

“Please share my following concerns with those planning the annual meeting of the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

“In light of the recent historic events, I hope MSO will add an item or two to deal with the economic and racial injustice prevalent in Madison, as well as elsewhere in our nation.


  • Empty seats should be made available as Rush Seats ($1 or $5) the day of the concert to open our halls to those facing economic disparity. Such disparity rests on a long history of racism and poverty injustice in our town and in our land. Our hall should always be full and should have a more multi-ethnic, multi-age audience than is currently the case. As our audiences stand, we are one of the most racially and economically privileged events in Madison. That must stop.
  • We need more racially diverse composers included in our regular programming–at the very least during the month of February, but even better throughout the year. And I’m not just thinking of “Porgy and Bess” tunes. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (below top) also comes to mind as a composer we need to hear more often. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges — Joseph de Boulogne (1745-1799, below bottom) — is another. (Editor’s note: You can hear the Romance for violin and orchestra by Coleridge-Taylor in the YouTube video at the bottom.) There are more. Having a local black chorus in for Christmas is not enough!

“It is time for MSO to acknowledge its history of white privilege and take some steps to more widely acknowledge the richness of a diverse local audience and classical music history.


Carol Troyer-Shank

“PS: I have been a MSO ticket holder in the economically denigrated balcony for more than 20 years.

“PS2: The architect and designers clearly thought about making more money — not about safety of attendees — when they designed a balcony to squeeze in more people instead of to allow ease of movement for lower-cost ticket holders. Shame on them! So, of course, all those seats should be filled every time. Even at $5 a ticket, the MSO would gain enormous improvement in their local image.”


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Classical music: Are individuals and groups that perform classical music in the U.S., Wisconsin and Madison racist? If not, why don’t we hear more music from African-American, Hispanic and Asian composers?

August 18, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Is classical music in Madison — and in Wisconsin and the U.S. — racist?

Most of the classical musicians I know, and most of the performing and visual artists for that matter, take pride in being politically progressive and liberal in their political leanings and social sympathies.

Wisconsin Capitol

And yet.

And yet, I have to ask the difficult question: If that is true, why are we not hearing more music from “minority” composers who are African American, Hispanic and Latino, American Indian and Asian — but especially African American composers since the other kinds of music they have written, from spirituals and blues to jazz, seem to have inspired so much mainstream classical music, both American and European.

Could it be — at least when it comes to classical music — that this famously liberal city is not really as progressive as we hope or claim, that we are not as culturally tolerant and ethnically diverse as we think we are? Is that why I can’t recall a single live performance of a long or short work by William Grant Still (below)?

William Grant Still

Curiously, it was a famous and popular Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak (below), who is recognized for acknowledging black and American Indian music in his Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”


It is a difficult and embarrassing question to ask and issue to bring up. And I include myself, since my own collection of classical CDs, as I recently discovered, contains almost no music by African Americans.

In “Artists in Exile,” the extremely insightful cultural historian Joseph Horowitz (below) has written about and documented the bias and shows how the American classical music scene has always been Eurocentric and biased toward the Germanic school – Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms for a start.

joseph horowitz

I would add that American musicians also seem biased toward Anglo-American composers. Even Italian composers are generally mainstream repertoire except when it comes to some baroque music and especially to opera, but not much else. And Spanish music seems to come into favor only whenever there is an outstanding Spanish performers – as happened with Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados in the hands of the late pianist Alicia de Larrocha.

Anyway, the issue of classical music and racism came to mind recently when I read a wonderful post on NPR’s outstanding blog “Deceptive Cadence.” Jeffrey Mumford (below), an African American composer, spoke about the situation in an NPR interview. He rightly questioned why more Americans don’t know and hear works, especially symphonies, by African American and black composers performed.

Jeffrey Mumford

Mumford specifically cited works by George Walker (below top), who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and whose early “Lyric Suite” for string orchestra can be heard at the bottom in a YouTube video; and the “The Black Mozart,” Joseph Boulogne, also known as the Chevalier De Saint-Georges (below bottom), whose violin virtuosity and compositions were admired by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven:


Joseph de Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint Georges

So I find myself asking: Does that same criticism apply to liberal Madison and its performing arts scene?

After all, I have a hard time recalling when groups that I love and attend frequently -– such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, various UW-Madison groups, large and small, and other ensembles — have indeed performed African American musicians and put them before the general public with a high profile. 

Could that be why more African Americans don’t subscribe to or attend their concerts?

Here is a link to the thought-provoking essay from the NPR blog, which also has terrific sound snippets:

Maybe I am mistaken in my musings and in my embarrassment at Madison sharing a form of artistic racism.

I look forward to reading the reactions, opinions and facts that I hope to get from other readers.

The Ear wants to hear.

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