Growing up in Munich, Germany, violinist Anyango Yarbo-Davenport stood out from the crowd. The daughter of an African-American soprano and Austrian conductor, Yarbo-Davenport has become a force to be reckoned with in the classical music world. She is an in-demand soloist and chamber music player who moved from New York City to Bogota, Colombia, two years ago to join the faculty of Juan N. Corpas University.
As a young black woman, she has often encountered people who assume she is a jazz musician, she said. Or, who think she should be one.
And in the classical music realm, “it’s kind of difficult to just blend in, to not hear the comments,” she said. “So, you have to be extremely good.”
The assumptions and biases she contends with on a regular basis has pushed her to work harder, something that is both a blessing and a curse. It has motivated her to hone her skills and compete effectively, but it also has highlighted a troubling double standard in the business, one that demands that black artists prove themselves worthy.
Now, Yarbo-Davenport is preparing to travel to Charleston to assume the position of concertmaster in the Colour of Music Festival orchestra. She also will perform a solo recital during the five-day festival, which runs Oct. 19-23.
As concertmaster, she is responsible not just for performing in the visible spot near the conductor, but for deciding on all string bowings, leading sectional rehearsals and more.
Yarbo-Davenport said she’s excited about visiting Charleston for the first time and eager to work with conductors Marlon Daniel, Roderick L. Cox and David E. Morrow. “They’re bringing in experienced conductors,” she said.
She said the festival concept is appealing and important.
“It has integrity,” she said. “It’s a celebration of the diversity you can find in classical music. It’s not asking for ethnic recognition: ‘Oh, look, they can play.’ ”
Rather, she said, the festival is a way to highlight the fact that black musicians make important contributions and classical music institutions should do more to embrace diversity.
Festival organizer Lee Pringle goes further. He has said the event also showcases black composers, contemporary and of yore, who tend to be neglected or ignored by mainstream orchestras and chamber groups.
Less than 3 percent of classical musicians are African Americans. The numbers of Latino musicians are no better. The Colour of Music Festival, along with other groups such as the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, are trying to change that by drawing attention to cultural and racial disparities and by promoting minority talent.
Both Sphinx and the Colour of Music take it for granted that blacks and Latinos are perfectly capable of playing works by Beethoven or Bach or Tchaikovsky or Sibelius.
What they recognize, according to Pringle, Yarbo-Davenport and others, is that black people have fewer opportunities to shine in the classical music world. They have, on balance, less access to expensive instruments and private lessons, fewer advocates and mentors, and the burden of social and cultural expectations.
“One day, hopefully, major orchestras will all have programs to support minority players,” Yarbo-Davenport said. “Music is certainly color-blind.”
The festival is “turning a curve,” according to Pringle. He hopes the next stretch of road is smooth and straight, though raising money is always a challenge, he said. He works with an annual budget of $350,000, of which 75 percent comes from donors outside of South Carolina.
Colour of Music is much more than a festival. Pringle has formed a core ensemble, The Colour of Music Virtuosi, which perform occasionally throughout the year, and he has forged a fee-for-service contract agreement with Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, which is the start-up organization’s home away from home.
The Sphinx Organization, founded in 1997, is well-established and focused on education, artistic and leadership development and performance. It seeks to identify and support emerging artists and encourage others to pursue administrative careers in the arts.
The Colour of Music Festival, instead, mostly presents established artists in performance, Pringle said. Though this year, the festival will feature the young Kanneh-Mason Trio, three siblings from a family of seven brothers and sisters, all of whom play classical music. The family was featured last year on the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent.” The trio performs 6 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Avery Research Center.
Other recitalists include pianists Clayton Stephenson, Sakura Myers, Isata Kanneh-Mason and Lawrence Quinnett; organists Alvin R. Blount, Nathaniel Gumbs, Roy Belfield Jr. and Rasaan Hakien Bourke; bass KB Solomon, countertenor Patrick Dailey, soprano Brandie Sutton, guitarist Thomas Flippin, soprano Magali Leger and violinist Romuald Grimbert-Barre.
The festival includes “An Evening at Versailles Gala Benefit,” a black-tie event at 9 p.m. Oct. 22 in the Gaillard Center Grand Ballroom, featuring music from the Colour of Music Festival Quartet.
Four Masterworks concerts are on tap in the Gaillard Center performance hall: Le Chevalier de St-Georges’ chamber opera “The Anonymous Lover” (soloists are soprano Magali Leger, tenor Everett Suttle and baritone Washington Isaac Holmes); a concert featuring Max Bruch’s violin concerto played by Grimbert-Barre along with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major; a gala performance featuring Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major played by Clayton Stephenson; and a program that includes Faure’s Requiem in D Minor (soloists are soprano Kimwana Doner and Holmes) as well as music by Mahler and Brahms.
The organ series will be held this year at Mt. Zion AME Church, a historic black congregation by the College of Charleston campus whose services regularly include classical music.
“Mt. Zion always has been that church that really provided a broad range of musical genres (for) black worship,” said its pastor, the Rev. Kylon Middleton.
Most other historically black churches present contemporary music and rely heavily on untrained musicians.
“At Mt. Zion, we can go from spirituals through very high Bach and Beethoven. We are the only black church ... that has the organ range we have.”
The church is at the start of a capital campaign to raise money for preservation of its building and an upgrade of its organ, he said. Organ improvement alone will cost about $150,000. The Colour of Music organ series is meant, in part, to draw attention to this campaign.
It also is meant to highlight the significance of the historic church, ensconced on the Charleston peninsula since the 19th century, its congregation determined to stay despite the forces of gentrification.
“We are not leaving,” Middleton said. “We are going to preserve our church and we are going to fight for the next generation,” a generation that deserves good music.
Tacy Edwards, executive director of North Charleston Pops!, said she appreciates the Colour of Music Festival and its effort to feature black artists. She wants her orchestra to reflect the demographics of the community, she said. So she has hired some of the musicians featured in the Colour of Music Festival, some of whom she knew from other orchestras, she said.
She also wants the group to include role models for students in North Charleston who don’t typically see many people of color among classical musicians.
“I think it’s paying off,” Edwards said. “When I go to the kids and show them photos of musicians, their eyes light up. They think, ‘It’s a possibility for me.’ ”
The challenge to have more diversity in classical music ensembles is significant. The pool of talent includes too few minority players, Edwards said.
“I think it’s because of a lack of exposure to it when they’re younger,” she said.
It also has something to do with cultural differences, musical tastes and exposure. So in North Charleston, she is trying to expose more kids to the orchestra concert experience. And she’s getting help from city officials who provide a bus that transports about 20 young people to every concert.
“A byproduct of what Lee (Pringle) is doing is networking black musicians with black musicians, and the overall effect could be that more black children to go into music,” Edwards said.
Pringle said he is thrilled that the festival showcases black talent and introduces audiences to lesser-known composers, but he acknowledges that the effort is a kind of artificial conceit meant to point out musical injustice. Shouldn’t established orchestras and music groups make a bigger effort to be more inclusive, to cultivate talent, to invest in future generations of musicians with an eye toward diversity?
“Hopefully, one day there won’t be a need for the Colour of Music,” he said.
Reach Adam Parker at 843-937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.