The following interview first aired on the “Afternoon Concert” hosted by Garrett McQueen on 91.9 FM WUOT. To hear the audio recordings please visit http://wuot.org/post/relationship-between-race-and-classical-music.
Part I: The Relationship between Race and Classical Music with Kelly Hall-Tompkins, Alex Laing, and Lecolion Washington.
Garrett McQueen: In February of this year I saw a performance of a work by Joel Thompson called Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. The piece pays homage to black victims of police brutality. This inspired me to further explore the relationship between race and classical music and I spoke with three classical musicians from across the country on this topic. To get a historical perspective on the relationship between the black race and classical music I spoke with world-renowned violinist and Broadway’s most recent fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof, Kelly Hall-Thompkins.
GM: Kelly, first of all, how are you exposed to these black musicians who are all too often forgotten by history?
Kelly Hall-Thompkins: Well, I definitely don’t consider myself a scholar or specialist in any respect, but I do recall being first introduced to Joseph Bologned, Chevalier de Saint-George through an older colleague who did her dissertation at Eastman School of Music on him. And she’s the first person who literally ever mentioned his name and through her I discovered a string quartet that I went on to play for many years. And literally every other composer of color that I have come across has been a similarly, introduced through a kind of a word of mouth tradition which therein lies a little bit of a challenge. I also heard about and then read references, scant references, to George Bridgetower, who was a contemporary of Beethoven and premiered his Kreutzer violin sonata and also, played with the composer I believe for the premier of his piece. That work was originally named for him but apparently, they had a falling out and he renamed it the Kreutzer Sonata.
GM: One black composer still upholding the tradition of classical music is a man named George Walker. I understand the two of you once had a very interesting exchange.
KHT: He said, well do you know XYZ concerto? I said, no. Do you know XYZ concerto, XYZ concerto? I said, no, no, no. And he was listing all these concertos by composers of color. And he looked and me and in his very direct way of speaking, he said, I’m sorry but your education is incomplete. And I thought to myself, and I said to him, what are you talking about? I went to the Eastman School of Music, and so did you. It’s the best conservatory in the country, one of the best in the world. And he said, well, your education is incomplete. And that really got me to thinking about all that I not been exposed to at that point. And so I think over the years I have had various opportunities to get to know these composers in different setting and I performed, I recorded actually a piece of David Baker, Ethnic Variations on a theme of Paganini, on my second CD and also William Grant Still Summerland, along with five other works, and that CD is now in the African American History Museum and Culture at the Smithsonian in Washington.
GM: To further explore the reason why Black classical music still seems to be relatively obscure I spoke with Principal Clarinetist of the Phoenix Symphony Alex Laing. Alex, are there statistics that give us an idea of the break down of diversity in the classical music industry?
Alex Laing: So, according to the League of American Orchestras, as of 2014, American orchestras are about 86% White and 14% non-White. Now that’s the ensemble, the performers on stage. And of that that breaks down to be about 9.1% is Asian or Pacific Islander musicians, about 2.5% are Hispanic or Latinx musicians, and about 1.8% are African American musicians.
GM: These numbers only seem to fuel the idea that racism may be a factor in classical music today. Are you able to think of any musician or musical response to this?
AL: Yeah, I mean, the image that comes to mind is the iconic picture of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, right? Having been denied her concert appearance at Constitution Hall in D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolutions. Already, I think, that image of someone standing up in opposition to racism in our art form, in our field, that definitely comes to mind as an iconic symbol.
GM: Another form of musical protest came in the form of a piece by Joel Thompson entitled The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed and it was recently performed in Memphis, Tennessee, by the PRIZM Ensemble, formerly led by Lecolion Washington. I asked him if he believed there are connections between classical music, its black musicians, and this country’s race issues.
Lecolion Washington: I would say that, yes. I would say that it’s important to understand that there are some things that are systemic, that impact a lot of different areas whether it be the criminal justice system, or classical music, or education, and I think that people tend to try to avoid the racial impact of the disproportionate number of African Americans that are impacted by the systemic inequalities that exist. So, yeah, I would say that those things are all related. I would say that on the classical music front there is a push to diversify classical music stages but I think that there’s not enough of a push to instill a version or some kind of cultural competency on the administrative side and on the artistic side as well and so what you end up doing is that you diversify a space and you put these musicians of color into a place that is very oppressive for them.
GM: What inspired you to expose an audience in Memphis to the piece by Joel Thompson?
LW: Some people would say that, well what did those men do? The first question is, what did they do? People want to hear the circumstances under which their lives were taken, and I realized that people forget that they’re human beings. That was a person. And people couldn’t even take a moment to lament the loss of life. The first question is, where does that fit in my political beliefs? And that just really hurt my heart, every time I hear that and every time I’ve heard that, and, I feel like this piece, it shows people that regardless of what you think, we can at least come together and lament the loss of human life that was someone’s son, that was someone’s father, that was someone’s brother, and we should all shed a tear for those men, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. But, again, the first, often times, some of the first things you hear is, what did this person do? And I feel like this work starts to open that discussion up because it starts to humanize black men.
GM: As we move forward, do you think classical music as an industry is beginning to rise above our nation’s race issues?
LW: I think there are more efforts, but I think that we are still quite a bit away from that. If you look at the pieces that are performed, if you look at the guest artists that are brought it, I think that to say that that is an environment that is inclusive, I think that we are quite a bit away from that. I think that there are some that have tactics that are leading towards inclusion but I don’t necessarily believe that there’s any one that’s gotten there, or on some level, that’s even gotten close.
GM: Racial inequality continues to be a struggle for us in the United States, including in the world of classical music. Hopefully efforts towards changing this will help us move towards a reality in which the Black voice is celebrated and respected, not only within classical music but throughout our culture as a whole. From WUOT, I’m Garrett McQueen.
Garrett McQueen is the host for “Afternoon Concert” on WUOT Knoxville and Second Bassoonist for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.