Black audiences and classical music

A cure for ailing orchestras: Consider the black audience

Johnson: Disproving a theory.
Johnson: Disproving a theory.

For some Americans, Barack Obama's election was the fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of equal racial opportunity. Others, less starry-eyed, knew there's still work to do. Nowhere is that point more obvious than in a typical symphony orchestra.

Like the Sunday morning church service, the Sunday afternoon concert is basically segregated by race, allegedly for similar reasons— black (and brown) people don't like classical music, and that's why we don't patronize it, never mind perform it. So goes the theory, which once believed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy even if it's fallacious.

I speak from experience. In Western Canada, where I grew up, people of African descent comprised such a tiny minority that we greeted each other with a smile or a nod as a show of solidarity and an acknowledgement that our shared melanin meant we were collectively swimming against the prevailing tide. My siblings and I were always the only black people in our class when we competed in local music festivals— it was just a given.

Nor can this situation be dismissed as a western Canadian phenomenon. Since my graduation from Juilliard in 1993, I'm told, that elite music school hasn't enrolled a single black female pianist.

Standing out in a crowd

All humans are aware, from an early age, of visual differences. When you're constantly identified as "them," you yearn to be part of "us"; and when you're black, the virulent history associated with racism stalks you, regardless of your financial bracket and education. I'm constantly aware that, as a black woman with unprocessed hair, I'm not what comes to mind when most people think of a classical pianist.

Whenever I attend a classical concert, I know I'll be in a very small minority. I accept this fact of life; but for others, that degree of conspicuousness may suffice to deter them from attending at all (even if most of the whites in the audience couldn't care less if we're there or not).

All the more reason, then, to salute Jeri Lynne Johnson, a Philadelphian who has challenged conventional wisdom.

Rejected as "'unmarketable'

Johnson, formerly the assistant conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, founded the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in 2008 after the selection committee of an American orchestra told her that it didn't matter that she was good enough to be one of three finalists out of a group of 300 applicants— as a young, black female conductor, the search committee said, she's unmarketable to their audience. Instead of accepting this assessment, Johnson decided to disprove that theory by uniting a diverse group of passionate musicians.

"I never thought of starting an orchestra as ambitious," she told me. "It was just something that needed to be done in order to prove my point."

So far, Johnson's goals are being met and more. Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra has played to large audiences and received enthusiastic reviews.

Top-flight musicians, a strong business plan and efficient administration have helped, of course. But the key factor appears to be Johnson's decision to market to audiences largely ignored by other orchestras: African- and Latin-American people.

Beyond the stereotypes

Despite the stereotypes, many people from these groups do enjoy classical music, have received training, and send their children for lessons. But they don't feel welcome in the concert hall when there's nary a brown or black person on the stage, never mind on the program. By catering to this group, Jeri's brainchild has struck a chord.

Johnson's orchestra is racially mixed, just like the city of Philadelphia. But for her, real cultural diversity must be built "into every facet of the organization— concert programming, education and outreach activities, board participation, musician selection. It must form the orchestra's very ethos."

Of course, the bottom line for any orchestra is not diversity but the quality of its sound. Judging from the response to its inaugural concert last September, Black Pearl has that base covered too. In an age when major symphony orchestras see their audiences slipping away, wouldn't it be nice to discover a replacement audience right beneath our noses?♦

To read responses, click here and here.

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