Black artists on how to change classical music

By Zachary Wolfe and Joshua Barone

With their major institutions founded on white European models and obstinately focused on the distant past, classical music and opera have been even slower than American society at large to confront racial inequity. Black players make up less than 2% of the nation’s orchestras; the Metropolitan Opera still has yet to put on a work by a Black composer.

The protests against police brutality and racial exclusion that have engulfed the country since the end of May have encouraged individuals and organizations toward new awareness of long-held biases and provided new motivation to change. Nine Black performers spoke with The New York Times about steps that could be taken to begin transforming a white-dominated field. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Monica Ellis, bassoonist

The first step is admitting that these organizations are built on a white framework built to benefit white people. Have you done the work to create a structure that is actually benefiting Black and brown communities? When that occurs, diversity is a natural byproduct. There needs to be intentional hiring of qualified Black musicians who you know are going to bring the goods to your audiences. Intentionally adding qualified Black board members to your organization — that’s going to allow access to these communities you need to bring into the circle. Administratively, people who are in the room will bring different perspectives. Chamber groups like mine, Imani Winds, have the ability to be more nimble; we can make our own rules and make our own platforms. As a chamber presenter, you can support groups that bring Blackness and diversity in their programs.

Thomas Wilkins, conductor

It’s incumbent upon leadership from the podium to be part of this: who gets hired, what repertory gets played, where the orchestra plays. If you’re not willing, for example, to have minority music interns playing subscription concerts because they didn’t take the audition, that doesn’t make any sense to me. This person needs the opportunity to play this repertoire; you have to be willing to let that happen, and you can’t bow to blowback from the full-time players.

In Philadelphia, for a community concert, they once found a high school that was acoustically inferior; aesthetically, no comparison; the chorus in the audience behind me. It made no sense, except for the joy it brought to that community to have the Philadelphia Orchestra in their backyard. They want some sense that they count and they matter, and by going there, it’s us saying, “Yes, you do.”

Jessie Montgomery, composer

I’m in my fifth year on the board of Chamber Music America, and more than half the board is people of color. It’s very evenly balanced as far as gender and race; those changes were implemented through consulting work and training and facilitated discussions among the board to make sure everyone was on the same page. Going through that process has been eye-opening and proves how much time it takes. Now we are equipped to have these discussions about how this can trickle down to membership and granting opportunities. And I think presenting organizations need to take the time to get to know the artists. Getting to know new artists takes time and commitment; it’s a commitment to widen your perspective.

Roderick Cox, conductor

I would like changes to be made in how we train musicians in conservatories and universities. A lot of our thinking and our perceptions of what’s good music becomes indoctrinated at that stage. I say this because even though I’m a person of color, I was guilty of not being accepting of new voices and styles outside of Beethoven, Schumann, all the usual music of the past. When we start with preconceived notions, we limit ourselves. People are afraid of being uncomfortable, but with discomfort comes growth. If students learn about composers like William Grant Still or Florence Price — and their approaches to making music — then they will become more versatile. And we will see that change taking place in our programming; schools won’t just be producing conductors who want to do Wagner, Strauss and Mahler. I love these composers. But there are more voices to hear.

Anthony McGill, clarinetist

Over the last month, you’ve seen all these outpourings, and it’s in these moments when you see: Are we really connected with the communities we’re doing this work in? At the New York Philharmonic, where I am principal clarinet, I think there’s been incentive to partner up with the Harmony Program, which does after-school music education. I’m doing the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard; the mission revolves around students from underserved communities. It’s being a citizen in that way. The new way is actually getting on the ground and teaching, getting on the ground and having tough conversations about the state of our field and who we’re trying to reach, being there to help people understand that the orchestra is there for them.

Lawrence Brownlee, singer

Artistic institutions need to be focused on representing and really serving the communities that they’re in. There needs to be community engagement, not community outreach. Outreach is something you do occasionally. But you’re always in the act of engaging; it’s a constant effort. If there are changes in the administration and the makeup of the board — every level of every artistic organization — that will spill into how this stuff is packaged. This is the beginning of change that can be meaningful. If we reinvent what the opera or classical music audience is, we won’t have the disparities in people hired, people attending, even what’s presented, because you will have different people coming up with new ideas.

Terence Blanchard, composer

It’s like anything else: The organizations need to represent what America looks like. Well-intentioned people can just have blinders on. I don’t look at it like a sinister plot; I look at it as, people are going with what they’re comfortable with. If we had more representation in the leadership, in terms of who is signing off on projects, you’ll have more people bringing things to the table. What I saw at Opera Theater of St. Louis — where I did “Champion” and “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which is going to the Met — is, those people are open to a lot of ideas. But we have to bring the ideas to them. We have to open their eyes. I really think in the art music world, people are clamoring for something different. When we did “Champion” in New Orleans, this African American guy in his 70s said, “If this is opera, I will come.” That’s a new audience member we didn’t have before. “La Bohème” doesn’t mean anything to him. But these contemporary stories do.

Latonia Moore, singer

Please, in the future, cast with your heart, not just with your eyes and your ears. Who gives you the goose bumps? Pick them. Some people see a Black tenor, and they think Otello. Or they see a Black soprano, and they think Aida. “Who wants to see a Black Cio-Cio San?” You’ll hear that. But yes, opera is a suspension of disbelief. When someone does “Eugene Onegin,” they will often cast someone Russian or fluent in Russian. It doesn’t have to be who you expect. There are other people who can sing it. When it comes to “Otello,” you could paint everyone blue and paint Desdemona green. When it comes down to it, it’s not about color; it’s about difference.

Tania León, composer

Certain groups of people have felt that they did not belong, because most of the time they didn’t see people who resembled them onstage. But even if things look good onstage, internally is that what is happening in the institution? It’s a family type of thing. That person working in the office goes home and tells the people at home, and they usually have other friends. That is how audiences change. It has to be from the inside out. And if the stage reflects the society, you can find the best artists to be the ambassadors to those coming and put them in front of the people. It could be the administrator, the person in charge of programming or a member of the orchestra. People have to address the audience, to let them feel “I am one of you.” And you will see, the whole thing will change like you have no idea.

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