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Colorado Symphony Blog

A Conversation about Black Musicians and Composers

June 16, 2020

A Conversation about Black Musicians and Composers

Pain. Remorse. Guilt. Anger. Grief.

All of these emotions and more are being felt keenly by people nationwide following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This death, the latest in a string of many, has brought important societal questions to the forefront of the public conciousness. These questions have been asked before and have, in some cases, brought forth incremental change over the years. But as people of all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds continue to march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in cities across the country, something about this moment feels different.

Our June 12-14, 2020, Virtual Music Hour featured a candid conversation between Principal Violist Basil Vendryes and Music Director Brett Mitchell, covering a wide array of topics including what it’s like being a Black musician or composer in our society, the significance of Duke Ellington’s Three Black Kings and Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait,  and what orchestras can do to promote diversity in the concert hall.

Vendryes, who has been a member of some of the most presigious orchestras in the country including the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, has been Principal Violist of the Colorado Symphony since 1993. In nearly three decades with the orchestra, he’s seen gradual diversification to the repertoire, but the number of musicians of color has consistently remained low. Sadly, that’s been an ongoing problem for most orchestras across the world, something Vendryes addressed in his conversation with Mitchell.

“When I joined the San Francisco Symphony, I was the only black person in that orchestra for a long, long time. And when I joined the New York Philharmonic, it was myself and Jerry (Jerome) Ashby were the two guys. And now (the New York Philharmonic) doesn’t, I don’t believe, have anyone of color and San Francisco has one, ” said Vendryes. “How do we solve that problem? I don’t think it’s by changing the way that we do things, in terms of the (blind audition) process, because that’s not fair to everyone. I do think that what does need to happen is there needs to be more education and skill building for people of color.”

But it’s not just musicians of color who’ve long been underrepresented among orchestras. Composers of color have also struggled to see their music performed with any regularity. The Colorado Symphony has been intentional in its programming of more diverse music and composers in recent years, and that process will continue moving forward. But it takes an open mind on the part of musicians and patrons alike to bring this music into the public conciousness consistently.

“’What does ‘I don’t like this’ mean other than ‘I don’t understand this’?”

Gustav Mahler

“Trust us, trust the Colorado Symphony, that anything we present to our audiences is going to be good. It isn’t because they’re Black or female. It’s because they’re worth hearing,” said Vendryes. “And I think audience members need to come in with an open mind, seizing an opportunity to hear something new.”

“We have consistently offered great music by great composers, both living and dead, of color, of various nationalities,” added Vendryes. “I think we’re moving in the right direction, we just have to do more of it. And to bring that full circle, you’ve got to trust us because I think we have good taste. We’re going to bring you into the hall, and we hope that you leave having heard and enjoyed something different. And if you don’t like it or don’t understand it, come back the next day,” he added. “There is meaning behind every work we put before you, regardless of who it is by.”

As our country continues to strive towards a more perfect union, music has the power to bring people together in a way that’s both powerful and unique. But with people, as with music, understanding is the first step on the journey towards harmony.

“There’s something about bridging that gap of what we understand and something that’s outside of our experience,” said Mitchell. “And I think that’s the joy of classical music, that’s the joy of art, and it also happens to be where all of us are right now as a society.”

While we cope with the continuing realities presented by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we remain dedicated to making the future of live symphonic music one where all people, musicians, and composers are heard and appreciated. We look forward to performing together in the concert hall as soon as we can. Unitl then, stay safe, stay healthy, and take care of one another. We stand together.