‘We never had a relationship with the African-American community’

Looking back on 18 successful years as executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, Brent Assink tells SF Classical Voice of one notable omission. He confesses that:

‘We don’t have the resources or the energy, or whatever it is, to slot ourselves into a logical relationship with the African-American community, a relationship built on the kind of cultural tradition we have in other communities. If you don’t have that connection, the effort feels forced; it feels artificial, and then, I think, you’re worse off than if you didn’t do anything at all.’




Full interview here.


share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • A relevant point, from a NY Times article: “One of seven [SF] residents was black in 1970. Today, it is nearly one of 20, with most of the city’s 46,000 blacks living in public housing.” A lot of the Bay Area’s African American population has been gradually – and then abruptly – pushed out, first to Oakland, now to ever-farther-away suburbs. The SF Symphony had been doing a holiday program for many years with Peabo Bryson and some other black artists and it had been popular in the black community, but its popularity waned and waned and a couple of years ago they just called it off.

    It’s a very different situation in most other major cities in the country, with very large and often underserved black populations. Symphonies there have a different sort of responsibility. The impression I get of the SF Symphony is that they have genuinely tried but there is not a lot of there there.

  • He’s exactly right. Why would they have a deep relationship with blacks, since classical/art music really isn’t part of their cultural tradition? Better to admit that than fake it, like some politician pretending to be in tune with black culture to attract votes.

    • “Why would they have a deep relationship with blacks, since classical/art music really isn’t part of their cultural tradition?” In order to attract new publics, because classical musical otherwise doesn’t exist anymore in 30 years.

      • Perhaps, but classical music was “introduced” to African-Americans long time ago which resulted in many outstanding classical musicians (mostly singers, but a few instrumentalists too). However, they remain rare exceptions because what we call “African-American culture” has not embraced classical music at all, so far.

        • Has anyone looked at the music sales? The radio ratings?

          In real numbers, classical musicians and fans are rare among all demos.

    • What’s even better than “admit”ting it or “fake”ing it?

      Doing sincere outreach.

      Here is an analogy. Let’s say you’re a pastor or deacon in a church. Let’s say that the entire congregation is white. Let’s stipulate that the members of the church would welcome nonwhite members if they were to join.

      If the church does no outreach, if it remains passive, then it will probably remain all- or mostly-white.

      If the church were to do active outreach, if it offered a message and programs that appeal to nonwhite communities as well as white communities, then maybe nonwhite members would join. The odds would certainly be improved. And everyone’s lives could be enriched if done well.

      So it is with African-American and other nonwhite communities and classical music.

      Do outreach to the communities. Offer music education programs for the children. Advertise in the communities. Offer concerts in the communities. Offer concerts with programs that appeal to the community in addition to the classics. Hire employees from the community (staff as well as musicians).

      See what happens! The results could be inspiring.

      • Thank you William Sanford. I am a measured person and quite articulate but these comments have infuriated me so I appreacite your thoughtful charitable sincere and well thought out answer to a problem it would seem some of the others in this thread aren’t interested in doing that and are using the excuse of classical music ‘not being a part of a specific (ethnicities) cultural tradition as a reason not to try. I’m Hispanic and here that same excuse often and that’s all it is…an excuse. If you care about your art then you want to share it with EVERYONE, not just the ones you think will get it or you are comfortable talking to in supplemental programming like talk backs or on the phone when it comes to ticket sales or in the lobby during a show.

    • Um…well y’know, jazz and R&B aren’t exactly part of whites’ cultural tradition, but they seem to have caught on just fine. So have sushi and guacamole. Nobody has to have a certain skin color to recognize a good thing.

    • My only comment: Music is the greatest resource for reaching out to people and making those kind of connections. You have the greatest resource at your fingertips. Use it.

      America is the product of cultural diffusion and has been engaging in intercultural relationships for countless generations. Use what you have to try and make the connection. But by choosing not to try at all, you lean into your own self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Yes, I’m sure the lack of resources or whatever are the main reason for no connection. And to think of all the vibrant cultural contributions that SF missed out on…wait, you can just cross the bridge to Oaktown and enjoy the many benefits of diversity!

  • Why do the orchestras need to do all of this outreach? When my parents introduced me to great concert music and western classical music, etc., they just did it because their parents and teachers did and so on. People either embrace and value this stuff of they don’t. Enough with the identity politics. It has no place among great music making.

    • Well, because, for many decades, orchestras were exclusionary, as was large swaths of America.

      We need to do outreach to show that we are now open to all, to get the message out that all are welcome. Or at least I hope we are. Of course, it also helps if we can also make ourselves relevant to others, in ways small and large.

      I am reminded of a Chris Rock quote: “…[M]y kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

      Do we want to be the nice white people? Or not?

      I choose nice. Certain others in this thread appear to want to make a different choice.

  • The racism in the comments above are quite simply shocking. Although, perhaps in the age of Trump, one must learn not to be so surprised that people feel so comfortable expressing themselves like this.

    These commentators, like all bigots, are quite simply ignorant. Ignorant of the great many Afro-American artists who have enriched classical music in the recording age, and ignorant of the fact that without Afro-Americans, there would be no authentic tradition of American classical music (with the exception of Ives), and ignorant of the huge impact that Afro-American and African music has had on Europeans like Dvorak, Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, Weill, Stravinsky, Ligeti amongst others.

    • This “impact” you are talking about indicates that classical music has indeed embraced African-American contributions for over a century, but it says nothing about reciprocity of such connections. As I mentioned before, there are numerous individual achievements, but there is no real inclusion by the mass “culture”. To be fair, one must point out also that American culture in general does not have classical music anywhere near its top priority.

      • One can see evidence of the position that classical music used to have in the cultural zeitgeist, from NY Mayor LaGuardia helping to establish the People’s Opera (New York City Opera), to the prominence of classical music in Warner Brothers cartoons and movie soundtracks. It is a relatively recent development that classical music has fallen out of prominence in American culture.

        • Maybe this is because I am just not old enough yet, but for me the span of half of a century or more of decline does not exactly qualify as “relatively recent”, unless of course it is being looked at in the context of the entire history of human civilization. After all, we are talking about a full quarter of USA’s existence. As far as I can tell, classical music was not particularly prominent in the country’s culture during its first century either, if compared to Europe from where most of Americans and/or their ancestors came to the “new world”.

      • Reciprocation? The ignorance showcased here is astounding. Read a book (about bebop, for starters).

        • Perhaps, but first please read my comment about it from April 8 just a few inches below here – it is much shorter than a book.

  • Simon, then why did Assink feel the disconnect from the community? Did he imagine it?

    And we aren’t racist. And I didn’t vote for Trump. We’re simply exhausted from hearing that we should feel guilty about something which is simply a truism. The greater African-American community has not embraced Western Classical Music (even while that term doesn’t suffice but you follow the point).

    • Again, to speak of a lack of reciprocity amongst Afro-Americans reveals a real ignorance of our culture. Just as jazz had a major impact in the European tradition, so too artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Miles Davies all engaged with that tradition in their own music and listening tastes too. To essentialise about a whole group of people based solely on their skin-colour/ethnic origins is textbook racism.

      I agree with Frankie, that going to concerts in London, where I live, is a bizarre experience, as if one has stepped into a monocultural England from 60 years ago. This is not something that any of us should feel guilty about – enough with liberal guilt – but it is something that we need to be aware of, and to try and fix. But we’re not going to get anywhere by telling anyone who is Black: ‘Ah, well, your community has just never engaged with/understood classical music.’ If someone said that to me my response would be either to thump them, to walk away in disgust, or have it once again reinforced for me that classical music is only for White people.

      • But that is exactly the point: even though a few jazz greats and their art certainly benefited from knowing and understanding classical music (which would have been impossible if they were not “introduced” to it), the culture as a whole never became really and truly interested in that important source of their creativity. Unless of course we say that there is no such thing as a separate “African-American culture” anymore, in which case we should just accept the reality that classical music has been on the decline in the totality of American culture for several decades now.

    • “The greater African-American community has not embraced Western Classical Music”. The flaw with the statement, besides the fact that the masses in general have not embraced classical music, is that it is all about exposure. Schools are slashing their music programs. If your school does not have a good, or any, music program then you probably won’t grow into a classical loving adult. Look up the Sphinx competition. There are many great black and Latino musicians out there. The numbers problem comes from the lack of access and exposure in childhood, which is the problem with his position. If he wants to build audiences, start the outreach when they are young. The next problem is that Oakland symphony has found a way to reach diverse audiences. That’s only 10 miles away. With the huge endowment SF has, he might want to try a little harder.

      • If “there are many Black and Latino musicians out there”, then where is “the numbers problem”? It is certainly true that “the masses in general have not embraced classical music”. Therefore the outreach if any should be directed toward everyone equally.

        • “Therefore the outreach if any should be directed toward everyone equally. ” Yes, the outreach should be directed toward everyone, EQUALLY. Assink admits he does not have the will to do that. You don’t reach diverse audiences with a single approach or message directed at the default race/culture. You do it the way McDonald’s does. They no everyone’s money spends the same and want to reach each community equally (more money). So what do they do? They will have variations of their, “just loving it” campaign directed to different markets. They will create one with a cool black guy, another with a hipster white guy, another spoken in Spanish…that is how you razz each community equally.

          • Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) there is a difference between classical music and hamburgers.

        • “Therefore the outreach if any should be directed toward everyone equally. ” Yes, the outreach should be directed toward everyone, EQUALLY. Assink admits he does not have the will to do that. You don’t reach diverse audiences with a single approach or message directed at the default race/culture. You do it the way McDonald’s does. They no everyone’s money spends the same and want to reach each community equally (more money). So what do they do? They will have variations of their, “just loving it” campaign directed to different markets. They will create one with a cool black guy, another with a hipster white guy, another spoken in Spanish…that is how you reach each community equally.

    • It’s about accessibility. I am an African-American, classically trained flutist and composer. I am privileged in that my parents had access and so did I. Exposure to the fine arts is a privilege. Which is why outreach is essential. This man says, “We don’t have the resources or the energy, or whatever it is…” I call that BS. They don’t have the WILL.

      And neither do many of you. Which is shameful. It actually isn’t rocket science and it isn’t complicated. If we were talking about outreach to monkeys or giraffes, I could understand, but we’re talking about human beings, (yes, black people are humans, who enjoy the arts and nice things, just like you! Shocking, right? *sarcasm)

      I’m incredibility irritated by this man and this comment thread. For those of you that have been so offensive, you are perfectly happy with the status quo and lack vision. You are non-contributors to the advancement of humanity and the arts. I am involved with and have witnessed the work of so many talented, visionary artists/organizations who are making improvements when it comes to diversity and the results are beautiful. They are impactful. They are critical. AND, they contribute to the evolution of the art.

      Do some research. And stop referring to us as “the blacks.” I mean, for chrissake.

      So much blatant ignorance and racism these days. Exhausting.

      • Please read a comment by Rodney Marsalis below here: he clearly knows what he is talking about and makes a couple of truly important points.

  • Assink’s comments are certainly relevant for the UK. We need to try a lot harder to engage with our Afro-Carribbean and Asian communities who now make up a significant and enriching part of metropolitan life. Going to a classical concert is a shockingly white experience. Gospel choirs are almost exclusively Afro-Carribbean, but our big auditioned classical choirs are almost entirely white. Orchestras have the occasional Asian player but hardly ever a black musician. We are missing out on so much that they can offer!

  • “you’re worse off than if you didn’t do anything at all”

    What a cop out!

    Remind me the next time the SFS fundraising department calls for a donation “Sorry, I don’t want to insult you with my forced and artificial contribution of $100, you’re worse off than if I didn’t contribute anything at all.”

    To all classical music administrators, which part of “The classical music audience is old, white, and dying” don’t you understand?

    • Nice.

      I’m an introvert. I hate socializing with people I don’t know at parties and events; it feels forced and artificial. That’s a problem I can’t blame on anyone else. If I don’t want to spend my weekends alone for the rest of my life, I’ll make a good faith effort. There are no excuses.

  • Totally agree that this argument of “better to do nothing than to ‘fake’ it” is a 100% cop out. “We don’t have the resources or the energy” = HUGE cop out and simply not true. Try “we’re ignorant (read: fearful) and don’t know *how* to engage and are unwilling to do sincere outreach and force ourselves into unknown territory for the sake of expanding our audience.” Lastly it’s disgraceful he’s not more familiar with the relevant repertoire by African American composers….smh. Oh an @Nigel identity politics have a LOT to do with great music making – WHEN we have the leaders of major American orchestras embarassing themselves by admitting these limiting viewpoints out loud.

  • This is dangerous, idiotic, and a racist statement worthy of our current administration in the US. What a damned fool.

    I guess we’re only good enough to throw on stages. Or sweep them.

    This is why SF is no longer a leader in Arts Innovation in the States.


  • If we want more diversity in our audiences, the solution starts with accessible, affordable music education, especially with private lessons and youth orchestras. Once a population is priced out of studying an art form, why would they care to come support it if they have no relationship to it or any of the performers and can’t see themselves represented in it?
    The problem is a systemic issue, and indeed more complex than I can address.
    What are we as classical music artists, performers, educators, and enthusiasts doing to create lasting, meaningful relationships with the young people we wish to see in our audiences?

    • Absolutely right, Anna. In London in the 70′ and 80’s every kid at Primary school learned a musical instrument and played in a school band – many of them still playing now and even going to the occasional classical concert (I know – my kids and their friends are among them). Then Margaret Thatcher abolished the Inner London Education Authority (along with the GLC). Now your parents have to be able to afford private music lessons (and generally private education too) if you are going to play a musical instrument.

  • As an African-American former League of American Orchestras Management Fellow and Director of Artistic Administration, I’m struggling with the sentiment Mr. Assink expresses. There was no perceived logic driving me, a girl in pigtails from a poor community, to work vigorously in pursuit of violin education. Yet, as a result of a single exposure (a community concert I attended at age 9) and years of practice guided by excellent teachers and mentors, I was granted entry into a realm of serious music making and arts administration- all of which have provided joy and fulfillment. While I don’t think this represents his entire argument, I challenge any hint of a notion that cultural congruency is a prerequisite for meaningful and successful engagement with those new to the orchestral world. The seeding of this notion, gone unchallenged, could undermine the great work underway by many orchestras (spanning a full spectrum of resources) to create robust engagement within all communities. I support honest examination about how we can best reach all communities new to our art form. But we must be very careful with the language we use as we build our efforts around this important work.

  • One big problem is that the Classical music establishment at large does not recognize black artist. We forget or are not even told about the achievements of African American conductors in the history of music. Have you heard about Rudolph Dunbar who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1945 or Henry Lewis who made television programs and conducted great orchestras in the 19070s or Dean Dixon who had a major career in Europe in the mid 20th century because he was unable to conduct big orchestras in America? By the way Jorma Panula, “the maestro of maestros”, studied with Dean Dixon. I guess that makes him the grand maestro of maestros?

  • In short, those who believe that any community is incapable of appreciating art does not belong in management of any arts organization.

    Darrin C. Milling
    Bass Trombone Principal,
    São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra

  • I am a classical musician, trained at The Curtis Institute of Music. I have won Principal Trumpet and other positions, emerging from behind the screen multiple times against hundreds of competitors, in the United States and Europe. I currently tour the world with an eleven piece classical brass ensemble playing in many of the world’s premier performing arts centers. I have had several conversations with colleagues in the symphony orchestra world where merely suggesting searching for more diverse upper management caused a MAJOR uproar. I have been in this field for thirty years now. Thirty years of seeing many different outreach programs. The programs don’t work. If the mission was to increase diversity onstage, in the audience, and in the administration, then the mission failed – miserably. This has nothing to do with an affinity for classical music by any one community. Classical music has been in the African American community for hundreds of years. This has everything to do with patrons who are terrified at the prospect of sitting next to someone who is different from themselves. The very term “outreach” implies that one party has something that the other party is lacking. Besides the fact that it is not working in its current form, calling it “outreach” is incredibly patronizing. Music is about expression and connection. An ability to connect to other human beings via sound is part of the human condition. The current shameful state of arts in our society is a result of our not being able to fully let go of our segregated past and it is an awful business practice that hurts everyone, shutting out many who would be loyal patrons, and reducing the ability of our orchestras to expand their seasons or even exist at all.

  • Tacky, trashy, and terroristic. This is the nature of a world still infested by color sickness. Until this idea of White Supremacy is properly retired the best we can do it “tacky”, like the author said – uncomfortable, forced, inauthentic. We love music and hate noise. Racism is noise, humanitarianism is music and it IS classical as in all the greatest books of wisdom – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

  • Brent Assink’s comments do not surprise me in the least. In fact, they are downright fashionable these days, exemplifying the basic attitude of the administration of most American orchestras. In spite of the fact that many musicians of color graduate from the finest conservatories all over the USA, virtually none of them gain jobs in symphony orchestras in spite of claims of “diversity” and “initiative” by symphonies.

    Mr. Assink is guilty of one thing; saying what most orchestras really feel about Blacks in their audiences or in their ranks as players. Musicians and concertgoers of color are NOT WANTED; end of story. There is a fear by Whites of the loss of dominance and control of the classical music experience. These orchestras are already suffering from declining audiences, and do not want to risk offending these audiences with the presence of Black people who were deemed unworthy of what is considered “THE FINEST” music of Western culture. The near lily White orchestral experience is the norm, with the exception of Asians and Hispanics of European descent and appearance.

    The very best thing that could happen to orchestras a this point would be to fold, one at a time. They no longer serve anything except their egos, and their built in racism disqualifies them from acting as exponents of the art they claim to serve. Ironically, with the election of Donald Trump and his proposed dissolution of arts funding, the end might a lot closer that we think. Maybe it’s just as well.

    • Unbelievable. What proof do you have for your comments about whites not wanting blacks in orchestras? The same would be true if said about Asians – oh, wait, no problem there – or women – wait, no problem there, either.
      So you have invented a reason for the lack of black musicians in professional orchestra ranks: white power. How shameful that you are continuing a racist lie just to shill your book.

    • Elaine Mack is absolutely correct in her reply. Please visit africlassical.blogspot.com and africlassical.com and nanm.org and become educated about Blacks and classical music.

      • The content of her comment is so ludicrous that it is downright laughable. Unfortunately though it is not that funny because this kind of attitude may be one of the main reasons that the entire “problem” exists at all.

    • You probably ignore a fact: that to be a part of an orchestra requires extraordinary musical skills. One can play very well an instrument, even at the classical level; but from there to be a part of an orchestra, no if you don’t have what it takes. What transpires here is that there ought to be also “affirmative action” policies within orchestras, so that, let’s be honest, like the rest of our culture to reduce classical music to a least common denominator. Not what good jazz musicians think, most of them Black. But if being an elitist regarding classical music is to be a racist, to my great chagrin then I am one; this is, if forced to choose, as racism is a great evil. But not a lesser evil is to try to stain the classical tradition, in the name of what? Cultural diversity, moral relativism, bad music?

  • Now for a timely and shameless personal plug. I have written a book titled “Black Classical Musicians in Philadelphia: Oral Histories Covering Four Generations”. Currently it is out of print, but due to be re-released in the next couple of months. It consists of personal interviews with Black musicians born, bred, educated, or having contributed tot he musical life of Philadelphia. In other words, the very people Mr. Assink doesn’t believe ever existed. I am currently working on another book “Make Them Hear You: Black Men of the Vocal Arts”. The title is self explanatory, to be released this year. Anyone who says that Blacks are not interested in Classical music is simply dead wrong.

  • Dr. Barbara Wright-Pryor, President, Chicago Music Association, Branch No. 1, NANM, Inc.(since 1919) says:

    Elaine Mack is absolutely correct. Those making comments should visit africlassical.com and africlassical.blogspot.com and nanm.org and cmbr.org in addition to purchasing Elaine Mack’s previous book and her upcoming one (to be released soon).and become educated about Blacks in Classical music. Blacks are not new in the field. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Florence B. Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933, the first time a work by a Black female composer was played by a major symphony orchestra. Mrs. Price’s symphony had won the Wanamaker Prize the previous year (1932).Maude Roberts George, president of Chicago Music Association, Branch No. 1, NANM, Inc. (of which I am the current president) underwrote the cost of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 1933 performance of Price’s Symphony.

  • I am classically trained. Stravinsky once said that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad; most popular music, particularly here in the United States, pertains to the second category. Or, put it plainly, most popular music in the United States has been and is garbage, black and white alike. We the classical music lovers do not need to accommodate lesser musical styles just out of political correctness; if others are not happy with classical music being superior to theirs, fine; the radio waves belong to them either way. Like in Buffalo, New York; the subway used to air classical music, until “minorities” complained, ah, how offensive to their sensitivities, ‘racist’ music; which, by the way, the only serious African-American musicians there are, jazz players, typically love, they really know that classical is excellence. But, alas, our consumerist society, all it sells is trash, even our bodies in the long run become trash; so that kind of people feed their souls with trash music. What results is also garbage, their relationships, sex, quality of life. Incidentally, Condolezza Rice is also classically trained, oh, but she is rich. Small wonder that we have a shameless white supremacist as a president; white supremacist garbage, to match what the entire society has become, black and white alike. I will keep listening to classical music no matter what.

  • First, this explains why the San Francisco Symphony has not programmed little, if any, serious works by black American composers, and by this I mean the music of William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, Adolphus Hailstork, Florence Price, George Walker, Jeffrey Mumford, Michael Abels, Gary Powell Nash, Jessie Montgomery, Courtney Bryan, Ed Bland, Jonathan Holland…the list is endless.

    Part of the problem is that Mr. Assink probably never bothered to do his homework in working with either Michael Tilson Thomas, or any number of guest conductors, in finding works that would have a cross-appeal to audiences regardless of race, creed or color. Yet we continue to be stereotyped by many as not being able to write serious contemporary concert music, and when a black composer is courted by a white orchestra, most of the time it is a composer from the jazz world who receives the commission to produce a large-scale work. While there have been some wonderful works produced by the likes of Oliver Nelson, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Wynton Marsalis, the press lays in wait to undercut their accomplishments, as if to say “well, if they produce this kind of work and it’s not up to the level of white contemporary concert composers, why should we allow black music to be played at all by our orchestras?” Of course, this is a generalization, but when one reads a review of such a work after its premiere, the review is coded in such a way where you would have to be dense to not get the idea that, to put it bluntly, we’re not wanted.

    Hence when a serious black composer, with no ties to the jazz world, writes a work and is on the same level as a John Adams, a Milton Babbitt or a John Corigliano, it is also derided by some as pretentious, but they won’t use that exact word, or any others that denigrate the very work they’re hearing. At times, they’ll even just mention it in one or two sentences and not even bother fawning over how marvelous and inventive the orchestration is, or how novel and engaging the melodic material is to the ear, or how the structure of the composition as a whole holds up.

    Elaine and Barbara are on the mark, because they have seen this happen.

    On the other hand, you have many in the black community who don’t know this chapter of our history because it has either been kept away from them or, simply put, they’re told that this music is only for upper-crust white elitist snobs who have no interest in indigenous music from other cultures. So unless you grew up in the black church, where you would hear Mozart alongside Mahalia, or if you find out that Alicia Keys can play Beethoven and Chopin as her warm-up before the girl sets the stage on fire with her own brand of R&B, any black person is held suspect by their peers as being out of touch with their roots. It’s like someone finding out about Urkel liking polka music, which to the brothas and sistas is alien to black culture.

    The lack, or removal, of arts education in our schools also plays a factor in this, and because of it, you don’t receive this information. Chances are that the teachers themselves don’t know, and if they do they can only name Scott Joplin, “Duke” Ellington and Wynton Marsalis as serious composers. Find a teacher that can tell the upcoming generations about the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Grant Still in addition to the above-referenced parties and you might have something going on. It can lead to wider avenues.

    Mr. Assink needs to do his homework…period.

  • >