Throughout the last century, classical music, symphony orchestras and racial inclusion have had fits and starts. This issue begins in childhood, at home and in school, and extends to the cultural arbiters of musical taste, tradition and the status quo - the music gatekeepers. It is truly a widespread and systemic matter.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, faces a diversity challenge, as outlined in a recent Inquirer article, but this challenge applies equally to many classical music organizations, conservatories and programs in the region and to the thousands of others throughout the United States.

However, the perception that blacks simply aren't involved in classical music defies a record spanning centuries and continents. There has been a continuous vibrancy of spirit, creativity and participation, which is mostly unknown, yet deserving attention.

A symphonic work by William Dawson, a local first by a black composer, was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934. In the 1970s, Columbia Records issued a nine-LP Black Composers Series highlighting 15 black composers from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Black performers included Natalie Hinderas (piano), Sanford Allen (violin) and Paul Freeman (conductor). Further, black musicians and composers have received Grammys and Pulitzer Prizes: Wynton Marsalis (trumpet, composer), Imani Winds (wind quintet), John McLaughlin Williams (conductor) and George Walker (composer).

Collectively, these individuals and many others demonstrate the black aesthetic in Western concert music.

But who knows this?

Our music curriculums and history textbooks seem to overlook them. Add in the well-documented cutbacks or elimination of music education, and there's a vast disconnect between perception and reality.

Awareness and knowledge also extend to performance marketing and the limited presence of commercial recordings. It applies to broadcast and print media, including but going well beyond The Inquirer.

Performance previews and reviews lack consistency, where appropriate attention often isn't drawn to music events beyond Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Anderson and Black History Month celebrations. I call this the fractionalization syndrome; the 2/365th and the 1/12th problem. Special kudos to organizations that have balanced their presentations!

Throughout the last two performance seasons, more than 30 black classical music performing artists and works of black composers have graced our region's stages, including the Ritz Chamber Players; Anthony McGill (clarinet); Imani Winds (wind quintet); Maria Corley (piano); Tai Murray (violin); Stewart Goodyear (piano); Nokothula Ngwenyama (viola) and Adolphus Hailstork (composer) - among others.

But the cultural arbiters - the gatekeepers of the status quo and tradition - can present hurdles.

In a 1970s review, a New York newspaper proclaimed the music of black composers just performed by the New York Philharmonic to be "extremely conservative, even old-fashioned." These words short-circuited interest in and performances of other black composers.

So print and broadcast media can have a disproportionate effect either by ignoring what is going on - ensuring invisibility - or making the statements that become the "informed" words of other gatekeepers and cultural arbiters.

Also included among these arbiters are arts organization staff and board members, donors and foundation executives, civic leaders, concert subscribers, recording companies, music directors, music publishers and musicians.

In homage to Jackie Robinson, here is a closing metaphor: Two teams are well into the game. The "major(ity)" team, winning 100-0, finally says, out of the "goodness" of its heart, with only minutes to go or in the final inning: "Gee, we should change the rules, have new umpires, recruit differently, or do something to make this game more competitive." This is often the case with questions of race and race inequities, where true diversity and genuine inclusion seem a far-off dream.

This has specifically been the long-term fate for blacks in classical music, who must defy extra odds - where rules, with intended or unintended outcomes, are mostly stacked against them in favor of a tradition-based status quo or avoidance of the less familiar. For them, with rare exception, it is almost always the final moments of the game - the bottom of the ninth.

Hope for the future? This is our collective challenge.

Richard Greene (drgreene11@verizon.net)
is a college educator and amateur violist.