African-Americans slowly fill orchestra seats

Black pianist Adawagin Pratt is among a handful of performers drawing African-Americans to classical music.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In classical music, black singers and conductors have gradually become more visible over the years. But some concertgoers are asking: Where are the black instrumentalists?

Since his breakthrough as a teenage pianist 40 years ago, the virtuoso Andre Watts has, until recently, been the only high-profile African-American performer in the traditionally white world of highbrow music. Now, however, classical concerts are beginning to show more racial diversity.

Young Texan-born pianist Adawagin Pratt, for instance, has made several vivid recordings for EMI. Ten years ago, Mr. Pratt won the prestigious Naumburg Competition in New York more for his vigorous, impulsive playing than for technical poise. (One judge likened his sound to "an airplane taking off.")

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He is "a black kid in dreadlocks who plays the piano beautifully.... The way he appears and the attention he will draw is part of the package," says EMI producer Tony Caronia.

(The pianist's distinct, casual style is modeled, Pratt admits, after the dashing French tennis star Yannick Noah.)

Marketing potential aside, other African-American soloists and orchestra members are also breaking into classical music because of their artistry and skill.

The brilliant Nigerian-born pianist Glen Inanga (now living in London) has won international plaudits for his new recording of Ravel's music (Somm Records). Mr. Inanga says concerts by African-American conductors and vocalists, from James DePriest to Leontyne Price, allow black audiences to identify better with performers.

"This has been the case for me," he says. "These new 'converts' to classical music normally go on to listen to other performers as they soon see the universality in classical music...."

Inanga and his piano duo partner, Jennifer Micallef, recently put on a concert and workshop for 500 underprivileged children in Naples, Fla.

Some of the younger kids "had never seen a piano before," he recalls. But the performers were "a source of encouragement to them, growing up in a society where being 'different' because of your race is looked down upon."

Orchestras have made some progress, but there are still no African-American musicians in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and only a few in the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, however, has created programs to attract more black musicians, including an annual Classical Roots concert that showcases works by black composers, an African-American composer residency, and a fellowship program that prepares musicians of color for orchestra positions.

"The number of black audience members at our DSO concerts has been growing, although very, very slowly," says Richard Robinson, bass player for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. "Very few blacks in Detroit feel that classical music has anything to offer them, especially since to get anything out of classical music, one must build on the experience, collect recordings, read about the music, and imagine ... what the music might mean! It is a lot to ask of anyone initially...."

This gap in understanding exists, Inanga says, because young black students are "not in environments that encourage exposure to classical music."

Conservatories, Mr. Robinson adds, are notoriously difficult places to make a career, regardless of race.

"Mastering an instrument in the classical tradition ... is much more difficult than anyone thinks," he says. "Those of us who have made it to a big job ... we are not surprised there are not more of us winning auditions. The bar is set ... very high because 'one bad apple [in an orchestra] can spoil the whole bunch!' " Simply the visibility of a performer like Pratt may not be enough to entice more young minorities to embrace classical music, Robinson says.

"To the extent people are inspired enough by the career of Mr. Pratt to push their kids or to attend more concerts ... it is good," he says. "But if people only want to see [an African-American] make a social statement onstage, they will miss the point of the music."

Though there has been progress, some orchestras still struggle to overcome prejudice against black performers.

In "major orchestras there has been – and still is in some instances – an unwritten law of nonacceptance of black instrumentalists in substantial numbers," says Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, a classical composer who is also the performance coordinator at The Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. The center's aim is to foster an understanding of classical music through education, publications, and performances.

"There are exceptions," he continues. But "in most instances, the cause is a reflection of the philosophy of the individuals whose financial support is very necessary for the ensemble's existence."

Mr. Perkinson sees the success of Pratt and others, including the talented viola player Nokuthula Ngwenyama, as "a good sign, though the number of qualified musicians who are deserving of opportunities is in no way commensurate with the number of accepted musicians."

Integration of the instrumental scene, Inanga says, will likely "take a generation."

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