Four African-American conductors review the situation

Four African-American conductors review the situation


norman lebrecht

June 08, 2020

A live conversation among four American conductors across generational lines- sharing their unique stories navigating the elusive profession of orchestral conducting, and perspectives on classical music as a unifying art form for the future.

Roderick Cox, recent winner of the Solti award, has asked three colleagues of different generations to reflect on their careers. The participants in this converstions are:
Thomas Wilkins, Music Director of the Omaha Symphony and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra
Michael Morgan, Music Director of the Oakland Symphony
Jonathon Heyward, Chief Conductor Designate of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie



  • Emmanuelle Boisvert says:

    Worked for years under the baton of Thomas Wilkins, he’s a mensch!
    Good interview.

    • Larry says:

      “Mensch.” That’s French for really good guy, oui?

    • Thomas Dawkins says:

      He’s also the Family Concert conductor for the Boston Symphony and has gotten a lot of very positive reviews. I believe he was scheduled to do a concert of music by black composer which was canceled along with the rest of the season.

  • drummerman says:

    Thanks for posting this, NL. Not to nitpick but Maestros Wilkins and Morgan are of the same generation. Only one year separates them in age.

  • John says:

    This was fantastic – fascinating to see the generational differences.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    I have never once had an advantage, a scholarship or program I could enter based on my race/ethnicity/culture as other minorities did, no leg up, no help, and all my life there were programs to help black musicians. So don’t go around assuming others are privileged or innately advantaged.

    • Orchestra fan says:

      To use an American baseball analogy, being white amounts to being born on third base. I find it interesting that Caucasians who’ve disputed this have almost invariable been the worst offenders of white privilege.

    • anon says:

      I become more and more convinced that many people who refuse to recognize their unearned privilege of race, gender, and wealth do so because they can’t stand to admit how little they’ve accomplished even with those advantages.

      • Lateisha says:

        Do you know what is the perfect remedy to stopping delusional thoughts and wishful thinking? Science. It shines like heroic beams of light through the darkness. Dr. J. Philippe Rushton presents us with scientific facts that most want to sweep under the rug. White guilt, violence, looting, wishful thinking, etc. do not change the facts.

        If people are truly dedicated to bringing an end to blatant, in-your-face racism, then they should start looking at Asia with a fine-tooth comb. There are simply many shops and restaurants that will either treat non Asians badly or not allow them to enter (this phenomenon is prevalent in Korea and Japan). For a long time, the excuse was the language barrier. However, this is not the case since foreigners fluent in the local tongue are also denied entry even after communicating at a high level. They will resort to very insulting tactics, such as pretending not to understand when you speak in their language. Doing the same to an Asian in the US (pretending not to understand their English) would instantly result in Asian-American civil rights groups holding press conferences! Why does this double standard exist? Are we simply living in a world that has turned anti White? Let’s stop the insanity.

        Members of European orchestras that regularly tour Asia: Did you ever notice how everything is rigidly organized when you are in Japan? Remember those seemingly kind Japanese chaperones at the front of the bus who appear to be walking on egg shells all the time? This is because they need to prevent you from having any potentially uncomfortable experiences, which can easily happen if you have direct, independent exchanges with the natives. So everything, from dinners to excursions, are all organized simply to prevent you from finding out just how racist the natives can be. In the end, the only reason you are there is because some Japanese music management company as well as the halls are making money and they want to ensure that nothing goes wrong. They want you to keep believing that Japan is a wonderful place so that you keep coming back to put more money in their pockets.

  • Sharon M Jones says:

    I was in a music workshop with Wilkins (he was playing Tuba) back in 1973. We both played under Maestro Russell Stanger. I am so proud of him. We both are alumni of the willingness of the Norfolk Symphony reaching out to the local community. God bless him and all these young black conductors.

  • fflambeau says:

    Cox is a very poor interviewer and he talks too much.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      First: it was billed as a conversation, not an interview; second: his day job is being a conductor, not a talk show host.

  • CelloRules says:

    Great to hear these guys chat about their beginnings. So valuable. Let me say, Michael Morgan was the first conductor that ever got my full and immediate attention, when I was a cello student in the DC Youth Orchestra way back in the late ‘70s. I hadn’t known who he was, but he came to conduct a special concert the orchestra had planned at the Kennedy Center in DC. His beats were strong and serious and the music just flowed through him. I felt like I could hear the music for the first time just a few bars into whatever we were playing. I was shaken to the core in the most wonderful way and have never forgotten it.

    I’m just a few years shy of 60 now, and still enjoy an amazing career as a cellist. Micheal Morgan, Setsuo Tsukahara and Leonard Bernstein remain my most favorite of conductors that I’ve had the pleasure of performing under.

    All four of you gentleman very much matter to me, this little ol’ white lady. 😉

  • Talia says:

    Very important conversation, though I would like to hear talented black conductors who did not get any important job. these are the ones we should hear, more than the few ones who luckily succeeded.

  • Daniel A. says:

    Seriously not trying to be a grenade thrower here with my comment, but given the attention this blog has given to another African-American conductor, Keith Brown, in the past….I’m curious what, if any waves he is making in light of world-wide demonstrations on racial injustice, an issue he appears to champion.