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Mixed Company is written by Saint Paul Sunday staff, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the show and the classical music they love. We welcome your online comments.

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November 2, 2005

Talent and Awkward Questions

Maybe the situation is vastly different in other American cities, but last week I went to an orchestral concert here in my Midwestern town and counted the number of people of color in the large auditorium—finding two, both onstage. Classical music has enough critical issues (aging audiences and galloping technology changes, for starters) and I don't think race is necessarily one of them. But it does seem to me to be a kind of elephant in the living room. America is roughly twelve percent black, but you'd never know that in the concert hall. African American classical performers like pianist Andre Watts and soprano Kathleen Battle are superstars in their field—but where in general is the black audience? Famous performers aside for a minute, does this music really not touch people of color? Why? Why not? OK, it doesn't touch the vast majority of white Americans either, but still, why are concert halls so white? Is it offensive or inaccurate to speak of "people of color" and this music when there is such a galaxy of diversity within "their" communities? How do we even talk about this?

I don't know. But the questions loom in my mind when Anthony McGill pulls out his clarinet. If I were blind I would tell you first and foremost that Mr. McGill can play. You'll hear it in the opening bar when he spins silver out of Debussy's grey-cloud harmonies. It only gets better in the Poulenc Sonata, which starts off clever and snappy but then turns heartbreakingly sad in the second movement. A single word came over and over to me as I listened to Anthony: elegance.

But I'm not blind. Here in the studio was a slight, handsome African American man, now first chair at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra—the administrators of which probably wrote “he's the one” on their audition sheets as soon as he started playing. We didn't get into it in our St. Paul Sunday session, but I wondered: with playing this exceptional, are questions of race and classical music simply moot? Anthony McGill (like Watts, Battle, and others) makes me think they are and that I'm silly to spend a second wondering about them. But then I search all those white faces around me in the auditorium, and wonder again...

-Brian Newhouse, Guest Host
Senior Host and Producer, Minnesota Orchestra broadcast concerts

Posted by Brian Newhouse at November 2, 2005 3:32 PM



Brian posits the obvious for anyone who attends concerts regularly (in any US city) and poses a question that should be considered by all classical music fans: "How do we talk about this?" And second: is this, in fact, a problem and, if so, what can we do about it?. He's done a great service by raising the issue.

As someone who attends roughly 40 concerts a year (almost all in NYC) and who has been a NY Phiharmonic subscriber for five seasons, I can confirm that the number of black attendees--I grew up in the sixties and still find the racial discriptives "black" and "white" most useful-- can usually be counted on one hand, maybe two. And Avery Fisher Hall has about 2,000 seats! At the jazz concerts I attend, the mix is about 30% black, 70% white. And plays (both on Broadway and off) are about 10%/90%.

How many members of the NY Philharmonic are black? I count one, a viola player. There are no black women in the Philharmonic, where the violins are dominated by women, many foreign born.

How about black conductors? Are you kidding?! When I was an undergrad at SUNY Buffalo in the early '80s, the assistant conductor to Michael Tilson Thomas at the Buffalo Philharmonic was a young black man in this 30s (I now can't recall his name). He conducted the group with great assurance and--even at that age I could see it--fine technique. After my graduation I was stricken to read that he drowned in a boating accident in the mid '80s. Bobby McFerrin aside, are there any black conductors today?

Why are there so few blacks involved in classical music, particularly as listeners? The answer is liklely to be extremely complex, born by our history of racism and discrimination, class differences, and the mutual cultural isolation of whites and blacks. An adequate discussion of this could take up an entire academic conference. Musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Midori, and Maxim Vengerov are doing their parts to spread music to young students today--many from poor communities. Are we, listeners all, doing our part to address this?

One point of Brian's I take issue with: there is a galaxy of diversity within "our" (i.e, the US) commnunity, not "their communities". This is a condition that involves the entire US populace, not just one segement of it.

John Niesyn

By John Niesyn at November 4, 2005 7:39 PM


It's not just classical music. I notice the absence of blacks at the blue grass festivals that we attend.

The Hochstein Music School in Rochester does a great service by encouraging the attendance of school groups(usually from inner city schools) at their Noontime at Hochstein concerts.

By Clifford Milner at November 6, 2005 1:13 PM


Wonderful program, beautifully played. Anthony is already (at his young age) one of this country's great clarinetists. Great also to have Natalie in your studio again. She's terrific.

I'd like to add one more comment to Brian's thoughts on race in classical music: anyone who spends any amount of time with jazz fans knows that talk about "white guys" and "black guys" in jazz (there are still very few women jazz musicians) is a given. It's a bit unsettling when you're first introduced to this, but it becomes remarkably refreshing once you realize there's no bigotry behind the talk. Pointing out the obvious stems, I'm sure, from the fact the jazz is a black American creation and whites have been--historically, as joiners on--a minority in the art form.

We're trying to become a colorblind society, and this has its merits. But until there is real parity (say, in a hundred years) calling attention to an obvious fact is not a bad thing.

John Niesyn

By John Niesyn at November 6, 2005 10:04 PM


I am a violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony of white skin color. I am thrilled to see artists of the caliber of Anthony McGill, and his brother Demarre, a superb flutist who is playing with us as acting principal flute this season, achieve such a high degree of success in the classical music world. I have often asked myself of the relevancy of our art form to the black community at large, but I now believe that given the opportunities, encouragement, and particularly the economic resources needed to pursue a career in classical music, there is no reason that doors won't open to people of color to participate in classical music. The economic and educational strongholds that have been in existence for so long are what are holding people back, and there still remains plenty of work to be done to change that. But this is why it is so hearwarming to see people like the McGill brothers succeed in our wonderful profession, which sorely needs to expand our connection to the entire community of potential listeners of all colors and cultures.
As far as the answer to Brian's question, what do we do about it, I think this forum is a good start. Perhaps each city could invest in programs like the Music Merit program in Chicago, which aided the study of Anthony and Demarre. How about classical music day at some inner city schools, with students listening to classical music and writing essays about their
impressions? String programs are what are usually lacking, because of the investment of financial resources for instruments and instruction. How can we make funding available for this children in inner city schools?

By Linda Fischer at November 7, 2005 11:17 AM


You've all made excellent points and I'm glad Brian asked this tough question. I agree that part of the reason classical music does not seem to appeal to a broad population is that classical music (or music period) isn't taught anymore in many schools. But I wonder if part of the problem--and I do think it's a problem--is the music that is performed at concerts. True, orchestras and ensembles are getting better about programming a wide variety of music by diverse composers, but often "diversity" means the first composer on the program is German and the second is Austrian. Classical music is dominated by white, European men, most of whom are dead. I know that men and women all over the world are composing music for orchestra or chamber ensemble, but how often does it make it to the stage? Anybody have ideas to answer Linda's question or know of a way to make the concert-going experience a little less 19th century European?

By Suzanne Schaffer at November 7, 2005 2:02 PM


The biggest problem is the one Suzanne raised: music isn't taught in schools (enough or at all), so we're killing the next generation of live music attendees. For these kids classical music will remain foreign territory, and many will never know the joy of hearing it. It's sad and it's horrible, and unless we change the curricula to include music education the future is grim.

I think the problem of the small black audience will persist for an even longer period. Most whites see classical music as high-brow and expensive to attend; the black population sees is as high-brow, expensive, and--more importantly--a white art form. I don't care if you're palying Handel or Phillip Glass. Blacks also has a higher proportion of the poor who can't afford to attend even if they we inclined.

On the contrary look at jazz right now: one person--Wynton Marsalis--has done more to popularize the art form than anyone since Duke Ellington--including Miles Davis. He's handsome, articulate, passionate about the music, AND he's a great composer and musician. There's no one in the classical world doing this. Look at what Pavorati did for opera. Well, who's waiting in wings for us?

Also, Classical music has the unfortunate historical taint of being for whites only. Ever go to a live baseball game? What's the percentage of blacks there? I can tell you it's low. And it's because of its history of racism. Go to an NBA basketball game and viola!, there's a much higher percentage of blacks, largely because basketball managed to escape the racism taint.

John Niesyn

By John Niesyn at November 7, 2005 11:54 PM


This music program is one to cherish. I'm glad to be able to access it on the Internet, since my Public Radio Station no longer carries it.

There is no way that I can thank you enough.

Gloria Sussman
11022 Saffold Way,
Reston, VA 20190

By Gloria Sussman at November 14, 2005 4:09 PM