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BLACK CONDUCTORS PICK UP THE BATON

More orchestras are hiring Black music directors, but they still make up only 2.4 percent of institutions’ leaders.

When Jeri Lynne Johnson made it to the finals of an orchestra tryout in California and didn’t get the job, she didn’t think much of it.

“It happens. It’s like dating — you kind of work or you don’t,” says Johnson of the chemistry that gets tested when a conductor stands before an orchestra for the first time.

But when Philadelphia-based Johnson asked the head of the selection committee what she could have done differently, “He said, ‘We just didn’t know how to market you. You don’t look like what our audience expects a maestro to look like.’”

Johnson’s experience of being treated like an outsider was hardly unusual. Very few orchestras, opera, or ballet companies have engaged Black conductors on a regular basis.

Fewer still have music directors who are Black. Only 2.4% of U.S. orchestras reported having a Black music director in a 2016 survey of 170 member orchestras, by the League of American Orchestras.

“There has been no major change in my field. Orchestra companies feel if they had a Black orchestra leader last year, they don’t need one this year,” pioneering Black conductor Everett Lee told the Afro-American Newspaper in 1972.

Fifty years later, Philadelphia mirrors the national scene. But recently, the careers of a few Black conductors have begun to flourish. A fresh wave of young podium artists, combined with a classical music industry struggling for social relevance in the post-Black Lives Matter era, has Philadelphia emerging as a source of talent and cultivation.

This season, no fewer than four Black conductors are featured in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s main subscription series — an unusual if not unprecedented number for the group. Philadelphia Ballet launched a conductor apprenticeship program in 2021 to develop talent. Its first laureate, Na’Zir McFadden, 22, takes up the baton this fall as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s new assistant conductor, and he has landed professional management — major career milestones.

Still, industry leaders are hesitant to say Black conductors are finally having a moment.

“It’s getting to be a moment,” says Jessica Lustig of the New York classical music public relations and career consulting firm 21C Media Group. She cites a list of young Black conductors whose careers are picking up steam — among them Jonathon Heyward, the 30-year-old recently named to be the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s next music director, making the ensemble the largest orchestra yet with a Black conductor at the helm.

Despite that achievement, even the Baltimore Symphony’s outgoing music director, Marin Alsop, is hesitant to declare that podiums in the U.S. have opened up to conductors of color and women — finally and permanently.

“I feel like the change is, I don’t want to say it’s here, but change is possible now. And we have to change it from a possibility to an intentional reality,” says Alsop, 66.

Representation and repertoire

If Black conductors are getting more work and a higher level of visibility, it doesn’t necessarily stem from a newfound conscience in the industry. Classical groups are looking to replenish audiences, which is forcing them to craft programs — with movie scores and genre-bending acts like the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent Brahms-Radiohead concert — that are more relevant to younger generations and listeners who aren’t orchestra hall regulars.

Having more diverse representation on the podium is a new effort. Alsop points out: “This was a choice 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, but people chose not to make that choice.”

“I think thanks to the Black Lives movement, we’re now seeing our repertoire finally open up. We played a swath of music, very narrow, from Haydn to Stravinsky, if that, and never really left that pathway.”

Now that orchestras are playing more works by composers of color, they are “turning people on to a sound world of different cultural experiences,” and that “enhances their experience of a Beethoven symphony,” she says.

In Philadelphia, musical organizations have increasingly folded Black artists and perspectives into their work on stage and behind the scenes. Black composers have been commissioned to write orchestral and chamber music pieces; Black faculty have been engaged at the elite Curtis Institute of Music; and in some cases, Black artists and musicians of color have been named to prominent spots — like tenor Lawrence Brownlee, artistic adviser at Opera Philadelphia. All this is having an impact on the art that gets produced on stage.

But Black conductors’ ascension to the podium — traditionally the bastion of artistic power and influence within an orchestra or opera company, the personification of the orchestra whose baton-wielding image you see on buses and billboards — has been elusive.

Leaders at Philadelphia’s opera troupe, for instance, are “99.9 percent sure” that not a single production in the company’s entire nearly half-century history was led by a Black conductor.

How is that possible?

“Opera Philadelphia, like many opera companies, is late to the game in having an equitable and inclusive view of artists and identities realized through the art and craft of opera,” says Opera Philadelphia general director and president David B. Devan. “If we’re talking about 30 years ago, or even 20 years ago, it just wasn’t part of the practice. The practice was largely white, Western, European as a norm, and certainly Opera Philadelphia in its various ways was focused on that.”

More recently, the troupe has put out “many offers to Black conductors, and the calendars wouldn’t allow it,” said Devan, referring to guest conducting slots.

And as for a full-time Black music director in Philadelphia at the city’s major orchestra, opera, and ballet companies, none has ever been named.

“In my view, racism takes many forms, and the conscious or unconscious exclusion of a group of people from opportunity is racism, and that’s what’s been happening for a very long time in our society and the classical music world,” says Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. “And we and many others are trying to make urgent changes.”

American orchestras for a long time operated with a “second-class-citizenship mentality,” says Hollywood Bowl Orchestra principal conductor and Indiana University professor Thomas Wilkins, 66, noting that American orchestras have traditionally mimicked European orchestras in their artistic decisions. “And we thought as an industry if we didn’t stick with that route, people weren’t going to take us seriously, so we hired European conductors for the most part.”

These decisions create barriers for Black conductors who, as Wilkins says, have to go to Europe to build their resumes in order to get work with American companies — an extra hurdle their white counterparts don’t face.

‘It finally happened’

“I went out and started my own group because nobody would hire me,” said Johnson, 50, referring to Philadelphia’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, which she founded in 2008. Her career seemed on its way in 2000 when she was named assistant conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and then it stalled.

“Entrepreneurship is an important part of the business now, but for me [at that time], that was the only way I could conduct — to be entrepreneurial.”

Then, the George Floyd murder shook the arts world as it did society, and Johnson’s career began breaking through to the next level.

“Before George Floyd, I couldn’t get an agent, it was hard for me to get invited to guest conduct. Quite frankly, after the events in Minneapolis, I got a lot more attention, I got a lot more invitations from major organizations.”

Now she has landed dates with the National Symphony Orchestra, Ravinia Festival, Florida Grand Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Santa Fe Opera, among others.

For about three decades, Black conductors could count on invitations to work with orchestras small and large — in certain repertoire, at one time of year: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concerts around Black History Month. But dates leading works of Beethoven and Brahms haven’t come as readily.

Conductor Anthony Parnther, 40, says he’s seen an uptick in hiring Black conductors since George Floyd, but with a qualification.

“You’re bringing them into top-20-budget orchestras, but they’re doing these dinky little programs. You’re not trusting them with the same tier of program that you’re trusting others with, and that’s got to change,” said the Los Angeles-based conductor this summer before a rehearsal for a Philly Pops Star Wars concert at the Mann.

“The biggest program might be Tchaik Four” — Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 — “which an orchestra can play with its eyes closed. But you’re not seeing them being trusted with programming more complex than that yet.”

Says conductor William Eddins: “Every November, every October for years I would get a call from a couple orchestras, saying, “Hey, is Bill available for a Martin Luther King Jr. concert?’ And my reply would be no.”

That concert format — an annual nod to the Black community for many orchestras, and often the only one of the year — “isn’t resonating with me,” said Eddins, 57. “And if it’s not resonating with me, then maybe it’s not really resonating with the people who you think it’s resonating with.”

Eddins, based in Minneapolis, has recently become a frequent Philadelphia Orchestra guest conductor, and was struck by the fact that he had to wait 42 years before leading a dream piece, Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, with a great orchestra: the Philadelphia, this summer in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., “and tears started flowing” — his own, as he wrote on Facebook Aug 4.

“The obstacles are myriad. One has to be good enough to finagle yourself into the good graces of an orchestra of this caliber, that’s hard enough. But once there, most will laugh at the idea of letting you do a Brahms symphony. That’s Music Director territory, for one. Even if Maestro Highfalutin is amenable to someone else doing a Brahms symphony in front of their orchestra you’re in competition with Very Big Name Conductors and they will undoubtedly get first crack at it. The odds are almost never in your favor. But finally, finally, it happened.”

The bias toward Black conductors extends to opera repertoire.

“I cannot name off the top of my head — I am sure it exists — but I cannot name a Black conductor who has conducted anything in the past 10 years that hasn’t been an opera by a Black composer or Porgy and Bess,” says Derrell Acon, Opera Philadelphia’s vice president of people operations and inclusion and a cofounder of the Black Opera Alliance. “And that’s an issue. That’s not a Philadelphia issue, that’s an opera issue.”

The source of resistance is bias, says Acon.

“There’s a sense, whether folks are willing to admit it or not, that a white conductor is going to conduct those foundational canonical titles better than other folks.”

An ongoing challenge

Being music director doesn’t guarantee cultural change within an organization. Parnther has been fighting to diversify the list of players in the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra, where he has been music director since 2019.

“When I arrived at the San Bernardino Symphony I looked at the sub list [the roster of substitute players] and there were no Blacks on it,” he says. “There are no Blacks and no Latinos, and a lot of the San Bernardino general population is Black and Latino. I said this orchestra doesn’t look anything like the people who live here.”

He has asked for an addition to the musicians’ contract allowing the music director, in consultation with the personnel manager and orchestra committee, to appoint musicians.

Parnther notes everything he has brought to the post, and called diversification of the ensemble key to his staying.

“I think they recognize that the orchestra has never sounded like that, it’s never been that size, they’ve never had those kinds of crowds there, they’ve never had that kind of fund-raising, and I’m happy to take that energy elsewhere if we can’t make this happen.”

There’s a systemic loop at play here that echoes country-club dynamics: Music directors have influence over who plays in the ensemble, and players often provide feedback on guest conductors that influences which conductors gets engaged and invited back. If none of these people is Black or Latino, change remains elusive.

And the industry has been here before.

“We may see that the Baltimore Symphony just hired a Black conductor as music director and think this is a sign of progress,” says Weston Sprott, dean of the Juilliard School’s preparatory division, trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and one of the founders of the Black Orchestral Network. “But we can also look back many years ago to when Michael Morgan became music director in Oakland [in 1990], and people said, ‘We’re making progress,’ and it turned out to be an isolated music directorship. I’m hesitant to claim we’ve made significant progress until you see these things becoming commonplace.”

This time feels different, though. Classical music in some ways has no choice but to change. COVID has taken a bite out of audience attendance. Younger listeners — not to mention donors — want to associate themselves with institutions that confront and question forces and events beyond the cloistered walls of the concert hall and museum.

Says Tarnopolsky: “We’ve been working on this too long for us to once again just be holding up one or two examples as symbols of success. The DNA of our organizations has to change, and that’s what we’re doing. I’m not saying efforts before have been lip service. I am saying this generation now has to make the change. Lasting change.”

Many say change can best be achieved through casting the music education net wide for children early on, and giving them sustained mentorship and support through conservatory and beyond. McFadden holds himself up as someone who has received solid support from individuals and institutions in Philadelphia.

And yet, it’s only recently that he has felt fully bolstered as both a musician and a Black man.

“I really feel the support coming from the organizations — and not just being tokenized, but feeling like I belong. This is something I am constantly battling with: Do I belong? Am I really supposed to be here? Because I hadn’t seen the representation in years past. So I definitely agree that things are starting to change, maybe slowly.”

He repeats the last part for emphasis:

“I can say slowly.”