Some US orchestras are doing more for Black composers

Some US orchestras are doing more for Black composers


norman lebrecht

October 17, 2021

From a CNN report:

…. Over the past year, many major orchestras and opera houses have tried to amend this, performing works by Black composers or of significant meaning to Black audiences. The Philadelphia Orchestra just released recordings of two Florence Price symphonies and will feature compositions by Wynton Marsalis, Anthony Davis and Valerie Coleman. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra curated concerts featuring composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery, Elijah Daniel Smith and Adolphus Hailstork. And the Atlanta Symphony will play music from “Black Panther” and bassist Xavier Foley.

Valerie Coleman, a Grammy-nominated flautist and founder of Imani Winds, told CNN that orchestras have been talking about issues concerning diversity and representation for years, but the racial reckoning of last summer accelerated these efforts. Beyond trying to right wrongs in classical music history, she also noted how orchestras are expanding their sustainability as well as their revenues at the box office.

“I’m really particularly glad that the orchestras out there in the world now are really looking at new voices and discovering more because they recognize that their programming has to move along, recognizing the BIPOC composers of yesteryear now and also in the future,” she said.


When Jessie Montgomery was named composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she knew immediately that she would showcase diverse and rarely heard composers. Montgomery, only the second Black female composer to have her music performed by the orchestra, has brought in local composers to reconnect with the Chicago community and give audiences a taste of rising artists who reflect on their heritage through music.

The Juilliard School graduate is including the wind quintet piece “Seen” by Haitian American flautist-composer Nathalie Joachim and the world premiere of “Scions of an Atlas” by Elijah Daniel Smith in the first concert of CSO’s MusicNOW series. Although Montgomery has long been a voice for change in classical music, she sees the recent push to add more Black composers into repertoire as a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement.


Read on here.


  • J Barcelo says:

    Anything to break up the continued replaying of the European classics is welcome, whatever the reason. Bring on the Ulysses Kay, William Dawson and William Grant Still works. But also some of the wonderful music from South of the Border. Revueltas, Chavez, Villa Lobos…so much beautiful and worthwhile music that could help turn the younger generation onto classical music and awaken listeners who’ve heard the Beethoven 9th and Tchaikovsky 5th enough times already! (But I’m still waiting to hear a Bax symphony performed live.)

    • Bone says:

      Me and you both on Bax!

      • Sol L Siegel says:

        Even the Elgar and Vaughan Williams symphonies are all but unknown in the US. Bax would require a seismic shock.

    • BRUCEB says:

      I am reminded of the comment a friend’s old Russian violin teacher had about English music. (To be delivered with a strong accent)

      “English music, bah! All wanking, no climax!”

    • reparations are served says:

      Blacks are rightfully taking over numerous spots held by Jews.

    • Alexander Platt says:

      Bax 1 is a towering masterpiece—as are many works from the other composers you’ve mentioned.

    • Karl says:

      Bax YES! Also some oppressed Russian and Nordic composers like Glazunov, Taneyev, Kalinnikov, Stenhammar, Berwald, and Svendsen.

    • Kenny says:

      And at 62, I’ve never heard Tchaikovsky 5 live (granted, I do do my best to avoid it). Nor Grieg piano concerto, though “it’s so overplayed.” And I’ve been to many hundreds of concerts.

      • BRUCEB says:


        The first time I ever heard Tchaikovsky #5 was a live concert — I think I was 12. I’d heard of Tchaikovsky of course, but didn’t realize this was a “warhorse.” I found it captivating, and fell in love immediately with the “big theme” of the slow movement, with had no idea it was overdone. I’ve played it many times since then, and have never been able to maintain my “jaded professional” façade.

        Oh well. I know there are people who avoid Tchaikovsky. I’m not one of them, but I can understand. I doubt I would ever spend money to hear a Mahler symphony. (Maybe if I had a friend in the orchestra or something.)

  • Lothario Hunter says:

    The coruscating Maestro Muti was so jolly to conduct Price. We’ve all been galvanized by his blitheness.

    He’s taking a fancy to record all her work.

    • Aleph says:

      Muti programmed early on in his tenure a lot of third tier Italian composers (his teachers from his conservatory days, etc) in what one could call “eyeroll concerts” as in “there he goes again, Muti and his Italian elevator music”.

      It was the price to pay to hear his Verdi.

      Today, that is impossible.

      The music director in a major urban American city will not be allowed to promote minor Italians that even Italians don’t listen to, when there are so many better American, or Chicagoan, or Black, or female composers unheard.

      I think CSO management finally got the balls to put its foot down and say, no, let’s celebrate our own.

  • Peter says:

    They are doing “more”, but should they do anything at all, given that the quality of most of these work is on such a level that we all understand the only reason they’re being played is the skin color of the originator? (Probably some expections.) Just asking.

    • Althea Talbot-Howard says:

      That is a terrible comment.

      Are you familiar with Valerie Coleman’s work? She has received a number of orchestral commissions in recent years, but here is an example of an excellent piece of chamber music she composed for her former group, Imani Winds:
      She is also playing the flute in it.

      Would you care to share your surname with us, BTW? Because if you lack the courage to go on the record, you should keep such thoughts to yourself.

      Come on, now!

      • Peter says:

        Now, I see that you write “this is a terrible comment” and tell me that I lack courage. Is this something you want to discuss?

        • True North says:

          I’m not sure there is more to discuss. The commenter above said it quite well.

        • Althea Talbot-Howard says:

          My post says “…IF you lack courage…”

          However, seeing that you persist in hiding from public recognition – under a post which casts aspersions on the artistic abilities of musicians of colour – one can only assume that you do, indeed, lack courage.

          Enjoy your day!

          • Peter says:

            Oh. I think you got if wrong. I don’t accuse black composers of lacking talent because of their skin color. I’m surprised that people are able to resonate like that! (It seems you do.) I just observe that many black musicians, being active for decades without much attention, now are promoted mainly because of their skin color, which makes me suspect that talent is not the most important thing here. Actually, I think most people are aware of this fact.

            What courage has to do with this, remains to be explained by you.

      • BRUCEB says:

        Lovely. Reminded me of some parts of Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music” and the Ligeti Bagatelles.

        Here’s a piece commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, 7 O’Clock Shout:

      • John Borstlap says:

        What a delightful piece that is….. It has something of English folk music, as fresh and innocent as a spring morning in the shires.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        That’s rather a threatening comment. “As a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement” is not a statement about musical judgment, but social justice. Something the Bolsheviks were very proud of.

    • BRUCEB says:


  • John Borstlap says:

    Ms Montgommery’s music does not need any racist instrumentalisation at all to deserve to be heard:


    • john Kelly says:

      I just was up in Detroit where they opened their concert with a work for strings (and string quartet) by Ms Montgomery. “Banner” was the name of the piece. I found it interesting and it sounded superb in Orchestra Hall. Bignamini conducted it from memory which was decidedly impressive.

  • drummerman says:

    I think it’s great that orchestras are discovering new repertoire for all kinds of reasons. (Agree with J. Barcelo.) But playing music by African American composers does not guarantee that African Americans will buy tickets.

    When I was in San Antonio, the Symphony played lots of music by Latin composers; it had no effect whatsoever on whether or not Latinos came to the concerts.

    A number of years ago, the Seattle Symphony, under Gerard Schwarz, had a “Pacific Rim Festival,” featuring Asian composers. I specifically asked Maestro Schwarz: “When you play music by Asian composers, do you have more Asians in the audience” and he emphatically said “No.”

    So, yes, let’s diversify our repertoire but let’s do it because it means we’re playing great music which may not have been heard before, not just because of the race or gender of the composers.

    • Herbie G says:

      Drummerman, I think you are spot-on. It seems to me that major orchestras are playing lots of black composers’ music as an exercise in (I hate to use this neologism as it is used by the BLM brigade but it fits the bill) virtue signalling, rather than to fulfil a demand by the black community to hear these works live in major concert halls, played by leading orchestras.

      Most concert halls must make a profit and that is dependent upon ticket sales. Consequently they are inclined to programme popular works, sometimes in tandem with lesser-known ones. Thus Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, followed by Bruch’s Second Violin Concerto, Reinecke’s Cello Concerto or Florence Price’s Piano Concerto and, in part 2, Beethoven’s 9th, would work fine. But an entire series of works by black composers would be unlikely to make a profit.

      If such concerts featuring solely the works of black composers attracted significant numbers of black concertgoers, eager to hear these works, then that would justify the exercise. I would be happy to be proved wrong but I suspect that the majority of the audiences for such concerts would be white. I think that even a series of recitals of the complete piano music of Scott Joplin, played by a pianist of the calibre of Isata Kanneh-Mason, would still attract a predominantly white audience (including me).

      Playing works by black composers solely for the sake of political correctness is a cynical act of tokenism. Doing so will not mitigate the brutality meted out by the police to the black (or to be more precise, non-white) communities in the USA, or the odious rantings of the Ku Klux Klan – just as putting on works by women composers in the UK will not prevent the sexual assaults, rapes and murders of women by deranged hooligans and occasionally members of the Metropolitan Police, or the fear that women have when walking alone after dark in certain cities, London included.

  • Münchner Symphoniker made healthy cases last week for Nabors’ Pulse (2017, orch. 2019) and the Dawson Negro Folk Symphony (1934). But both end weakly, alas, the Nabors fading in on itself with no anticipated logic and the Dawson let down by a lack of boldness and decision in its concluding third movement. In between came Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Tai Murray fluent and deeply expressive (even if she did literally kick off her shoes as she played).

  • Anon says:

    Drummerman is right. I don’t see more minorities at concerts where pieces by minority composers are played. Playing fourth-rate stuff is going to cost classical concerts audience, not increase it.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The greatest small minority is of good contemporary composers. But how can we find them? By trying-out unknown works. It may take some X nr of trials until a really good work is found. But will people hear it?

  • Obsession with ‘diversity’ is one of the causes of the morbid condition of the classical music industry. It will likely continue, increasing the likelihood of classical music (which used to be a lively and contemporary expression) to turn from its current status as a Museum — into a Morgue.