Afro-American conductor: ‘It’s like you’re fighting for your life’

Afro-American conductor: ‘It’s like you’re fighting for your life’


norman lebrecht

August 04, 2017

Roderick Cox, associate conductor with the Minnesota Orchestra, is the only African-American baton on staff at a major US orchestra. Now why is that?


  • batonbob says:

    I believe Joseph Young just departed after three seasons with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He appears to be African-American…

  • Cubs Fan says:

    So What? There are many African Americans, Latinos, women, Asians and other non-male-whites leading and assisting with orchestras other than the big 5. I’d bet the US does better in this regard than any other country by quite a margin. With experience and skills some will rise to the big 5. What the US needs to get over is the attitude that having a European pedigree is required to make one great.

  • Steve P says:

    Uh…he’s one of very few African Americans who auditioned and the only one who won a spot. Sound about right?
    Oh, wait, I get it – you mean it is an example of institutional racism! Because that is always the explanation with you wacko libs. For what’s it’s worth, the three best music educators I’ve ever seen are African American.

    • John says:

      “wacko libs”?

      • Cyril Blair says:

        Too much Fox News and the phrase “wacko libs” gets stuck to your tongue. Steve P probably can’t form a sentence now without it.

        • Steve P says:

          Breitbart is pretty good, too, especially if you enjoy wacko libs being exposed for the wackos they are. Left off a lib in that last sentence.
          CNN, Huffpo, and SlippedDisc are far more interesting – one gets the impression John, Cyril, NL, and the rest of the wacko lib crowd are scouring the earth to find the next outrage. Keep at it, fellas (or whatever gender you identify with today).

        • Steve P says:

          Breitbart is pretty good, too, especially if you enjoy libs being exposed for the wackos they are.
          CNN, Huffpo, and SlippedDisc are far more interesting – one gets the impression John, Cyril, NL, and the rest of the wacko lib crowd are scouring the earth to find the next outrage. Keep at it, fellas (or whatever gender you identify with today).

    • conservgrad says:

      I love how these articles always enrage the crazy trolls to come out and comment. They just can’t hold it in.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      ”In our time, controversy seems to me, on really fundamental matters, to be futile. It can only usefully be practiced where there is common understanding. It requires common assumptions (…). The acrimony which accompanies much debate is a symptom of differences so large that there is nothing to argue about. (…) In a society like ours, worm-eaten with Liberalism, the only thing possible for a person with strong convictions is to state a point of view and leave it at that.”

      – T. S. Eliot, 1934.

      • May says:

        You’ve taken Eliot’s words out of context. Liberalism and its ramifications meant something completely different to Eliot. Furthermore it is not clear what you meant to express by quoting Eliot.

    • Patrick says:

      The odd thing, Steve P, is that your first point was a reasonable theory. Then you blew it with the “wacko lib” thing. That shut the door on the idea of having a reasonable conversation on the topic. Drop the name-calling. You’ll gain the respect of a wider audience — perhaps even a few liberals.


    That’s a good question.

  • Myrtar says:

    How many female conductors in Saudi Arabia? How many gay conductors in Qatar? How many Native American conductors in the UK?

  • May says:

    Dear Norman, could you please ban Steve the Dog from this forum once and for all? Normally I enjoyed reading through the comments, as one often gleans information that one wouldn’t otherwise find. Having to sort through his drivel and the debris created in its wake is simply exasperating.

    • E.F. Mutton says:

      So you prefer insipid, sanitized comments sections that will not offend your sensibilities? Plenty of those elsewhere.

    • Steve P says:

      NL, could you ban May once and for all? Sifting thru his/her whining about my comments is really vexing.

  • Graeme Withers says:

    If only Calvin Simmons didn’t die …


      Calvin Simmons was a wonderful talent, but he was not the Great Black Hope; no single person could be, for today there are a plethora of gifted and capable black conductors active and able who are lacking only opportunity. Kirk Smith, Marlon Daniel, Joseph Jones, Renee Baker, Kevin Scott, Joseph Joubert, Damon Gupton, and Leslie Dunner to name but a few; there are quite a few more.

      Orchestras will have to escape their comfort zones of friends and managers if they truly want to foster and engage a generation of great minority musicians.

      • Graeme Withers says:

        In fifty years of concert-going on four continents this is one of the standout concerts of my life:

        Simmons/Norman Mozart Symphony No 41 Jupiter
        Haydn Ah Berenice
        R. Strauss Capriccio : Closing scene
        Apr 1981 Oakland Paramount Theatre

        I’m not saying he was the Great Black Hope, I’m simply saying that his achieved ability, had it continued to appear in concerts, might have acted as a spur to other managements to chance their arm on engaging others such as those you mention. One of them might have a similar degree of talent, and impress managements likewise.

      • William Safford says:

        I used to be conducted by Kirk Smith some years ago. His conducting was clear and concise without being monotonous. I also liked him personally. I hope he’s doing well wherever he is now.

  • Bruce says:

    Actually a lot of people who care about this kind of thing have put a lot of thought into it and are making efforts to do something about it, to the derision &/or fake outrage of many (e.g. the women’s conducting program in Dallas). In the meantime I don’t think it does any harm to continue noticing the continuing imbalances, other than to continue giving reactionaries a platform to complain about liberals.

    The only thing I would warn NL and others like him about is that, after awhile, it can look as if they think no effort is being made because progress is necessarily slow, and it takes a long time for any changes to become apparent.

  • Why should black people enjoy the statistical equal presence in the classical scene as the white? Black people have their own highly original and distinct culture. It’s much cooler than classical music. In fact, most of them don’t give a shirt to classical music, because it has nothing to do with their root. Could you name any major opera and paintings where the black guy is the hero? They are always the bad and ugly ones, the slaves, the monsters etc.

    Here is an example:

    If you do respect black people, then respect their own culture, don’t call it sub-culture, regard it as high culture with equal rights of classical music. Send your children to get trained as a rapper, street dancer, x-gamer. Let them become activists who fight for the equal quota of white and black in the now black-dominant fields.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The point is, that traditions of high culture are not the property of some group, ethnic or otherwise. Especially classical music is supposed to be universal in character (as is shown by its popularity in China). Rap and HipHop however, are – by intention and character – firmly rooted in ethnicity and therefore not universal. If an individual black conductor, in this instance, would be seen first and foremost as representing his ethnicity, this is taking-away his individuality and pushing him back into the amorphous nature of the group, and if you think about it, it is racist because he is black in the first place and only an individual after that. So, let individuals unfold their talents wherever they bring them and their achievements be appreciated as such and not because of some ethnic background – we have seen similar problems with Jews.

      • Your claim is not true. It’s only a logical conclusion of your Ethnozentrismus.

        No, classical music is not universal. It is not beyond race and ethnicity. It is a culture of western white men. It has completely different instruments and tonal systems from other “ethnic music”. Your so-called classical music is called “western music” in Japan. I think it must also apply to many culture areas outside of Europe.

        The fact that western music can enjoy such a high regard and popularity all over the world, especially in the far east, is the direct consequence of brutal conquest, invasion and colonization of our European ancestors over there 100+ years ago. Since then, western culture has been regarded as fortschrittlich and superior. But what made, and makes, the western countries really superior than the rest of the world, is not classical music or painting or literature, but science and technology. It is science and technology that enable the white race to produce the most powerful weapons and to conquer the world. It is naive and ignorant to believe other people love our classical music just because our music is awesome and universal.

        Countries like Indian and China have a very long and highly sophisticated cultural heritage, which has been largely destroyed by the western weapons, more in the metaphysical then physical sense. People over there began to devalue their own cultural heritage and started the process of modernization, which in fact was westernization. Vietnam abolished Chinese characters from their written language and adapted Latin alphabet instead. Japanese people, and even the Chinese, also considered to completely get rid of Kanji. But to be honest, Chinese characters are far more sophisticated than Latin alphabet. It is just not compatible with our “modern age” anymore, which is in its essence a western white race dominated system.

        Look at the pictures of those East Asian cities from nowadays and 100 years ago, you won’t find much in common. Now they are all wearing western styled clothes and building western styled architecture, although they have their own style of clothes and architecture for over thousand years. The change was abrupt, grausam and inhumane. Of course this was praised in the western world as a heroic deed which brought Fortschritt to these “under-developed” cultures. What else would you expect? Geschichte wird von den Siegern geschrieben.

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          Classical Music is a cultural product of Western white men AND WOMEN.

          • You can be political correct as you want, but you cannot deny the fact that there are no major women composers in the core repertoire of classical music.

            Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Schubert didn’t even have a wife! Mahler had a very bad wife who indirectly lead to his early death.

          • Pianofortissimo says:

            Dear Annaleck Kram-Hemmerbauer,
            Classical Music is not a product of “dead white men” (as many “PC” people just love to say) – it is a cultural expression of Western men and women. Historically, before the age of recorded music most of the Classical Music was performed by men and women together, privately in their homes or in social meetings, not only in the public sphere in concert houses, opera houses and, very important, in the Church (today the public sphere dominates).

          • Ana says:

            OK, you are right. I was wrong.

        • John Borstlap says:

          A very racist comment, I assume unintended, but still…

          Yes, it is the conventional, leftwing chest-beating postcolonial moralism. But there is no link between Western classical music and colonial atrocities in the East. And the reason that so many things of the West are taken-over everywhere, is because many of these things – not all of them – are universal, and most of the time also related to the best of non-Western cultures, so they can be adapted easily. There is a difference between culture (the arts, literature, philosophy, religion) and political development; in the West, ideas of a just society have developed based upon human rights, freedom, the rule of law and equality before the law, etc. etc. all Enlightenment values, which are not a European cultural product but universal human values and as such, superior to local cultural values (in the West as well as in the East). Also in Europe there has been friction, and there still is, between universal humanistic values and localisms as can be seen in the current rise of populism, nationalism and hostility towards immigrants (obviously, Western society is not ‘finished’ as yet). Everywhere on the globe where conditions improve, people embrace these humanistic values, because indeed most of the time they ARE superior to local values, and everywhere the same friction developes as well (as demonstrated by terrorism).

          To think that the popularity of classical music in the Far East is part of violent, imperialist domination is, really, I’m sorry to say, [redacted]. It is the people themselves who think Western classical music (with the exception of sonic art) is awesome and universal, and they are right, I’m also sorry to have to conclude. It is regrettable if this results in indifference towards local classical music traditions, because the one does not bite the other, but to think that Indian and Chinese traditional culture is destroyed by Western weapons in a metaphysical sense (?what could that be?) in confusing many different things, I won’t go into that, but where Eastern people begin to devalue their own cultural traditions one cannot claim that this is caused by Western culture as such, or Western classical music. It is those peoples’ own responsibility to cultivate their traditions.

          I fully agree that the imitation of Western modernism (architecture, hairdo, clothes, materialism, pop Americana) is awful, but that is something very different from Western classical, i.e. premodern, music. The difference between Western classical music and modernity is the same here as it is there. But other things like liberal democracy, rule of law, human rights, free speech, social responsibility, accessibility to education and medicine, are a different matter and definitely NOT immoral prescripts laid on foreign lands with weapons by the Evil Westerners.

          And by way of conclusion: it is not true that there is no cultural standard outside existing cultures, where levels of development can be assessed. There are things in the Western arts which are superior to comparable efforts in the East or South and the other way around; and when the Vietnamese adopt the latin alphabet, this will greatly enhance the chances of their educational system and economy in the country’s relationship with the world. And Chinese characters are not more sophisticated than the latin alphabet, because in latin alphabet things can be said that are at least as sophisticated as in Chinese (I assume). It is not the alphabets but what is said that counts, and Chinese characters are very poetic but also quite cumbersome, as they always have been. (It may be helpful to remember that Latin poetry – so, an extensive body of highly developed culture in Roman times – was written in an alphabet that consisted of only ‘capitals’, so much more simple than what we have here on SD, but the poetry is extremely sophisticated and intricate and subtle.)

          The Kramhammerbauercomment is therefore interesting because it reflects a common postwar selfdestructive idea that Western culture is infected with evil, has caused the holocaust, has inflicted war and devastation everywhere on the globe etc. etc. – so: away with it, throw Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Proust, and all those terrible white suprematist suppressing men in the dustbin of history and begin again with Stunde Null… to create the morally pure, serene, and superior Klangwelt of Xenakis, Boulez, and – of course – John Cage. To object to such nonsensical suicidal ideas is, let it be understood, NOT Ethnozentrismus, as the observation that the earth circles around the sun is NOT a weird, imperialist idea of Westerners inflicted upon ignorant tribes with force of weapons.

          We could also think: what a miracle that in those underdeveloped times, there have been people like Bach, Shakespeare etc. who could transcend their time and place and create metaphors and symbols of universal humanism which are still capable of invoking epiphanies of awareness in local Chinese, Japanese, and 3 inhabitants of the Fuji Islands.

          • You stick so much to your own thinking pattern and logic that you always tend to mis- and overinterpret others’ points. No matter how eloquent your arguments may sound, they can’t convince if you are arguing under the false premises. My views are conventional because they speak out of the soul of the folks and just follow basic common sense. No deep shit. They are always authentic and back to the earth on Stammtischniveau. You just can’t confuse a bodenständigen AfD-Wähler with a left-wing, self-proclaimed moralist.

            It is nowadays all too easy and trendy to brandmarken someone’s opinion as racist or sexist or populist or whatever it’s called, simply because it doesn’t fit into your own “guidelines”. In fact, all I advocate and stand for is just to pay respect to the diversity of different folks and groups of people. They should stay true to themselves, find their own way of development and keep away from all those dubious, ephemeral “international” trends. The Westerners should leave these people alone. Stop the expansionism and insatiable greed for power, resources and money. But instead, we first destroyed others’ culture, then castrated our own. It’s karma. We all see now the reverse colonization is fully under way.

            I didn’t say the popularity of classical music in the Far East is PART OF the violent, imperialist domination of the Western. I just say its success is an unintended consequence thereof. No, I don’t think classical music itself either ideologically supported or physically helped the military conquest. However, it would never obtain today’s widespread popularity and acceptance at the other end of the world without those barbaric “preludes” in the past, and the ubiquitous commercialism in the present. Do you think Western orchestras will tour so frequently and diligently in the Far East if there is no huge amount of money to make? Only big money makes such endeavors possible, and the perspective of a whole new gigantic market is just too tempting. Let’s face this truth and stop the delusion of our cultural and spiritual superiority.

            But don’t take me wrong. I do believe and also personally know that there are, and will always be, authentic and highly knowledgeable music lovers from outside of Europe, as well as devoted, sincere ambassadors of classical music from the West, who have been quietly and consistently making substantial contributions to cultural exchanges without pursuing the quest of fame and fortune. Nevertheless, these groups of people will unfortunately always remain a niche and an exception. The euphoria you mentioned in the Far East is a short-lived trend, just as the Chinoiserie in the 18th century. At that time we were the silly copycat, now it’s their turn. Anyway, it is naive to believe that Western classical music will be the eternal worldwide role model of Art music.

            Furthermore, you tend to equal what you think as good and desirable to what is universal and everyone else in the world should accept and follow. It’s also obvious that you have a linear view of history, which is in part under the strong influence of progressivism and technological optimism. These things, together with democratic and humanistic values and ideals, are actually pretty new in the long history of mankind. You can have your own freedom of belief, but you cannot claim their universality and absolute superiority solely according to your own wish. As Jürgen Klopp put it so nicely, “life is not a wish concert”. In fact, these things aren’t even the mainstream both in time and space. Just think of the Islam countries, Russia, China and India. These four large groups of people have totally different Weltanschauung as yours, both at this very moment and in their long history. If you are happy with your own ultimate belief and truth, that’s fine. But why would you try to convince everybody else in the world? Just leave those people alone. Indeed, they have their own problems and difficulties, but who hasn’t? Don’t you believe they are smart and capable enough to take care of them with their own hands? Stop being a Besserwisser and World Police. In the long run it will do you no good. We already see our karma coming and will be suffering greatly from its severe consequences. The remaining question is just for how long and at which final price.

            Earth circles around the sun is a physical phenomenon. It can be answered and proved as either true or false. More importantly, it is independent of us human-being. But art follows totally different principles and is in its essence deeply related to human nature. That’s why we have such a diversified bandwidth of art made by different groups of people and ethnicity. And don’t forget that even the earth has NOT always been circling around the sun and will NOT always stay so. Watch more Big Bang Theory if you don’t agree. So stop claiming your own Weltanschauung as universal and immortal. It is just not.

            I am no fan of postcolonial moralism and apologism. Not at all. They are nothing but fake and hypocritical. My advice: just let every fox take care of his own tail. Leave those people alone! They are just fine without your Bach, Beethoven and Bruckner, will be even happier if they know nothing about your Regietheater, Sonic Art and total serialism. But believe me, these pest will be the next big thing there. We will see.

            On the other hand, give ourselves a chance to freely enjoy our own music, so that we don’t have to have bad conscience if we play Wagner, Pfitzner and Franz Schmidt on a certain November day.

            Stop the Besserwisserei. Don’t do evil to others in the name of good. That’s all!

    • William Safford says:

      I think of the issue a bit differently than what you presented.

      Black people should have equal opportunity of access to the classical music scene (as you put it). It should be up to any individual to decide for him- or herself how, or if, to participate therein, not someone else.

      Statistics can be a tool to determine whether or not this is the case, but it is not in and of itself dispositive.

      As for a black hero, or at least a positive role, in opera, the first one that comes to mind is King Balthazar in “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

  • John Borstlap says:

    What I like most in this video is a young black conducting WAGNER, of all composers (prelude from Lohengrin).

  • Don Ciccio says:

    Thomas Wilkins is the principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Michael Morgan and William Eddins used to conduct major US Orchestras – both of them – but it seems to me that their career stalled. There is also the Trinidad-born Kwame Ryan who also conducts major U.S. orchestras.

    Yes, there could be more.


    There MUST be more.