For a couple of centuries, symphony orchestras in the West were populated almost entirely by white men.
No one considered this odd. After all, a career in music was, especially in Europe, a worthy pursuit, and most careers (until the last half of the 20th century) were only meant for men.
Nowadays, orchestras are still mostly white, though female and Asian musicians have made important inroads.
The main reason for this advancement is access. Women have been welcomed into conservatories where they flourish (and sometimes outnumber men), and the best musicians among them have found solid footing in the profession.
And as Eastern societies have opened up to outside influences, Asians have gained access to Western musical traditions and training centers. With exposure and education, they have developed refined musical sensibilities and secured positions in major orchestras.
But for most black people, the classical music world largely has remained a rarified and exclusive environment. A new Charleston festival, the Colour of Music, is meant to shake up that environment and shine a bright light on the contributions of blacks.
An all-black orchestra, led by the African-American conductor Marlon Daniel, will present two big programs at Memminger Auditorium Oct. 25 and 26, featuring orchestra works by black composers, some of whom are still living, and one of whom will attend the performance.
Other programming is planned: chamber music concerts, voice, organ and piano recitals and a capstone performance of the Mozart Requiem, sung by members of the CSO Spiritual Ensemble and Gospel Choir and conducted by David Richardson.
The festival is meant to blur the lines between genre, showing how European and African-influenced musical styles inform one another; educate audiences and students about the contributions of blacks to classical music; celebrate the music of black composers and performers; enhance the musical landscape of Charleston; and establish a vibrant new event that can develop over the years, according to organizer Lee Pringle.
“If there’s any place that can do this, Charleston, with its rich arts culture, is the place,” said Pringle, who is the main force behind the Gospel Choir and Spiritual Ensemble. “This is probably the most exciting thing I’ve done to bring people together.”
In a sense, Colour of Music has been years in the making. Pringle has long been dedicated to serious music produced by blacks, both in America and abroad. The Gospel Choir was formed in 1999.
About 10 years ago, Pringle spoke with composer Trevor Weston, then teaching at the College of Charleston, about organizing a festival devoted to the music of black composers, but it didn’t materialize.
A few years later, Pringle was thinking hard about the spiritual.
“I realized I needed to figure out a way to educate audiences about the origins of black music (in the U.S.) — the spiritual,” he said.
In 2008, he introduced the Spiritual Ensemble.
Then, in 2009, he happened to attend a concert in Toronto that featured the music of Joseph Boulogne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Boulogne was a contemporary of Mozart who lived 1745-99 and achieved enormous stature in the music world of the time as a composer, performer and conductor. He was admired by other established musicians of the period and was known (somewhat disparagingly) as “the Black Mozart.”
“I was just blown away,” Pringle said. “Why have I not heard of this guy?” he wondered.
The new festival will feature his Symphony in D Major, Op. 11, No. 2 on the Oct. 26 concert.
Pringle said the project will cost about $45,000 and is funded with grants and contributions. He hopes to repeat the festival annually.
In addition to Daniel, he secured Kenneth Law to serve as artistic director of classical musicians. Law is senior artist-teacher of cello at the Potomac Arts Academy in Fairfax, Va., and a cellist in the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, Ars Nova Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble Argos.
“I want to be known most for this legacy,” Pringle said.
Blake Stevens, a music history professor at the College of Charleston, said the project was important for several reasons.
“I think the festival is a great idea,” Stevens said. “It’s going to shine light on something that historians and performers haven’t been (focused on).” It will highlight the central place blacks occupy in Western music generally, it will explore different expressions of a common musical language, it will heighten awareness of these black players and composers and it will raise questions about how we define musical identity.
“The interesting thing about this festival is its attempt to define a black classical musician,” Stevens said. Surely stereotypes will be shattered, he said. “For me, the question is: Is it going to be composers who are African-American, or African Americans who are composers? What is the distinctive quality?”
Weston, who is now chairman of the music department at Drew University in New Jersey, and whose piece “The People Could Fly” is on the Oct. 26 program, said the festival is an extension of some research he’d done several years ago.
He wrote an article called “A Musical Dawn” that discussed the musical legacy of black Charlestonians since the early part of the 20th century. In it he described figures who had been active classical music practitioners and boosters.
William Lawrence, a famed accompanist, had attended Avery Normal School and taught voice lessons to Weston’s father.
Edward Thorton Jenkins, the son of the Rev. Daniel Jenkins, founder of the Jenkins Orphanage Band, studied classical music at the Royal Academy in London.
Others in town hosted salons and provided other forms of support to black classical musicians.
The festival, Weston said, “taps into the unique history in Charleston.”
“One of the stories I learned in doing research for that paper I heard when I spoke with the widow of the last director of the Avery School,” he said. “She was taking piano lessons and violin lessons. One day the mailman came to the door and heard the piano. ‘Why are you wasting money teaching that kid classical music?’ (he asked).” The mother’s response came firm and quick: “ ‘We were told that classical music is connected to the concept of freedom.’ ”
Classical music evolved over centuries in many cultural centers across the globe, always embracing a variety of musical influences, many non-Western. Even the standard instruments you see in the orchestra are often the result of hybridization and outside influence.
“This is not music that belongs to any one community,” Weston said. “Anyone who wants to study it should have right to do so.”
Nevertheless, image is a big issue, he said. It fixes and reinforces expectations and assumptions.
“There are not many visual images of black classical performers, and especially black classical composers,” Weston said. “There is a tradition, but it’s obscured. It’s easy for people to consciously or subconsciously think, ‘Well, that’s not what they do.’ People respond to what they see, not what they don’t see. So I think this festival is important, especially for Charleston, because the city has a unique musical history that helps retell this story. There were black classical musicians in Charleston who were more famous than white classical musicians in Charleston.”
Daniel joined the effort as featured conductor a few months ago.
He has experience with this repertoire; he is the principal conductor of the Festival of African and African-American Music.
He is also music director of the Ensemble du Monde and principal guest conductor of the Sofia Sinfonietta in Bulgaria.
He said he jumped at the opportunity to get involved in the Charleston festival.
“There have been black composers since the days of Mozart and Beethoven,” he said. “That’s not new, but bringing them to the light is a whole other story.”
Nevertheless, blacks always have been a small minority in classical music circles. The reasons are historical, economic and cultural. Even once blacks began to gain in economic and social standing after slavery and Jim Crow, entry into the classical music world remained elusive. Expectations had been set, both from within the black community and from without, Pringle, Daniel and Weston said.
Blacks were conditioned to believe that their music was Gospel or jazz or, shamefully, that their brains were not made to fully comprehend the intricacies of classical music, to play all the notes written on the page, Daniel said.
“Growing up in Chicago, I heard from my grandmother, my aunt and others: ‘Blacks can’t dance (ballet), blacks can’t play classical music because their intellect doesn’t allow them to play what’s on the page,’ ” Daniel said.
But Daniel is not only interested in highlighting black musicians just for the sake of it. His priority is to present compelling performances and programs with variety.
“We want to make sure composers of color, both new and old, are represented, but you want things that work together with them. What kind of trip are you going to lead audiences on?”
So he selects music that is excellent, and happens to be written by black people. And he wants to reveal how certain musical traditions have rubbed off on others.
Composer William Grant Still, whose work “Poem” will be performed on the Oct. 25 concert, used the “I Got Rhythm” theme before it was used by Gershwin in “Girl Crazy.”
“I’m always thinking about things like that,” Daniel said. “I want people to always learn something when they come to one of my concerts, but I don’t want to ‘teach them a lesson.’ ”
The Oct. 25 concert also will feature Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses” and a piece by George Walker, who will attend the performance.
Daniel said this will be the first time he’s worked with an orchestra populated entirely by blacks, and he hopes it will inspire young musicians and encourage other orchestras to become more diverse.
“It’s the greatest assembly of black musicians I’ve ever worked with,” he said.
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George Walker (left), a composer whose work will be featured in one of the programs, sits with Marlon Daniel.×
Marlon Daniel conducts the Tatarstan Symphony Orchestra in a recent performance.×
CSO Spiritual Ensemble singers are participating in the Colour of Music. They will perform the Mozart Requiem.×
The CSO Spiritual Ensemble performs under the direction of David Richardson.×
Conductor David Richardson led the CSO Spiritual Ensemble in a program during the 2012-13 season.×