A solitary stage

race & the arts first in a series of occasional articles

Few black musicians can be seen performing in the nation's orchestras

December 07, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - In the empty concert hall of the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts - its sea of turquoise seats set against sand-colored walls practically shouts "Florida" - four musicians rehearse Mozart's elegant E-flat major Quartet for piano and strings.

Cellist Troy Stuart furrows his brow, saying, "Something's not right." Violinist Tai Murray agrees and asks the pianist to come in "more joyfully." She kicks up her fur boot-covered feet in a little dance to demonstrate the mood she's after.

Nothing unusual about classical musicians trying to deepen an interpretation, note by note. But there is something unusual in this case.

They're all African-American - members of the Ritz Chamber Players.

For Stuart, 39, of Baltimore, the affiliation with the Ritz is deeply satisfying. "I've learned from everyone I've played with, people of all races," he says. "But I can't lie. There's something special about making music with other African-Americans, persons whose experiences are a lot like mine. Just looking at each other gives us confidence."

Although the classical music arena enjoys a reputation for being a color-blind meritocracy, few blacks perform in the nation's orchestras. Just 1.9 percent of the nation's orchestra musicians were African American during the 2006-2007 season; the most recent report available from the League of American Orchestras; the figure was 1.3 percent in 1994-1995. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has one African-American full-time player among 92.

The lack of diversity is increasingly a sore point as barriers come down in other areas, from corporations to Hollywood to the White House. And as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and other music institutions push to attract broader audiences in a difficult economy, the need to improve diversity has become more critical.

Peabody Preparatory alumnus Aaron Dworkin, who founded the Sphinx Organization in Detroit in 1996 "to increase the participation of blacks and Latinos as professional musicians," traces the emergence of black chamber ensembles such as the Ritz Chamber Players to the scant minority representation in orchestras.

Orchestras, he says, "are seen as un-welcoming. Players think, 'If I can follow another route, why not? Because even if I'm successful at getting into an orchestra, I'll probably be the only minority player there for the rest of my life.' "

The Ritz, which this evening makes its first appearance in the high-profile Shriver Hall Concert Series at the Johns Hopkins University, is among a handful of chamber groups on the national scene showcasing musicians of color. Others include the Imani Winds, founded in 1997; the nearly two-decade-old Marian Anderson String Quartet; and Young Eight, a string octet formed six years ago.

The rise of such ensembles could dispel what Stuart describes as "the myth that African-American classical musicians don't exist." Classical music doesn't attract a huge percentage of the public, regardless of race, but the perception lingers that few blacks are drawn to the genre, either as performers or audiences. Asian-Americans, on the other hand, have a greater presence in the field.

The Ritz has a roster of 15 highly accomplished players, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra's longtime, stellar harpist, Ann Hobson-Pilot.

"I know we're a shock to some people," says Terrance Patterson, the Florida-born clarinetist who founded the Ritz in 2002. "It is a matter of changing perception. It will take time, but we're patient."

'Time for some role models'

Today, it is hard to find counterparts to the kind of mainstream celebrity status achieved decades ago by such eminent African-American artists as contralto Marian Anderson, soprano Leontyne Price and pianist Andre Watts. Fresh examples of that widespread acclaim could inspire more young black musicians to enter the classical field. "It's time for some role models out there," Stuart says.

In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the toughest challenge Stuart faced wasn't in the pieces he studied, but in a large mirror on the practice room wall - the reflection of an African-American staring back at him.

"I had to cover it for the first half-year," Stuart says. "I wasn't gaining any confidence from seeing myself. If I had had a Yo-Yo Ma to look up to, I know I wouldn't have had any problem looking into that mirror. I still remember the first time I saw an African-American on a classical album cover, I almost fainted."

Stuart recalls an incident during his student years that left its mark. After he played in a recital at a Baltimore synagogue, a woman approached him and asked, "Where are you from?"

"Baltimore," Stuart said.

"No, where are you from?"

"Park Heights."

"But where are you from?," she persisted. "Your last name is Stuart."

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