The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle Against Systemic Racism in Classical Music

Lacquita Mitchell

By Mark MacNamara/San Francisco Classical Voice

I am not the right person to recount the struggles of Black musicians to play in the country’s great orchestras. So I am reminded. “How could you be?” comes the scold, from both Black people and white: “in your whiteness, are you

Lee Pringle

not another example of the systemic racist? Sure, you’re no feckless yokel, long-time-listener-first-time-caller, pulling your Southern Cross down country roads in an F-150, yelling out MAGA dittos during the ‘Rush’ hour … ”

But how different is the “good journalist” with blue bumper stickers, kind eyes, and sanctimony? Isn’t he or she more dangerous in a way, more insidious, deaf to their own bias under the stern brow of fairness, but all the while blithely coopting and profiting from the personal stories of Black artists for his own ends, his own pursuit of self-respect — but rarely in recognition of what’s required for institutional change in the classical music world, which is drastic action, relentless reform (adopting a spirit and a policy of genuine engagement, for example, not “outreach,” which is merely a grant writer’s measure of community involvement), and most importantly, recognizing racism, finally, not as some ethnic flu but as another virus that no matter what you do will never quite go away.

Such is the notion of systemic bias in journalism. And true enough, although I would argue that the stories and the history — the history, as soprano Laquita Mitchell kept repeating to me a few weeks ago — are more important than the storyteller. Everybody does what they can. I am neither sociologist, pundit, nor diversity trainer — commentary is best left to the likes of Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, which has become required reading in many quarters of the classical music world lately. I am merely the afternoon courier bringing old news to those who don’t know the travesties or have forgotten. This may also be news for some younger Black musicians looking for solace in the common experience of so many. But really the news here is for a white audience, some of whom, even after all this time, still feel a little uneasy listening to Black musicians play Beethoven and Wagner. Or any number of Black composers, for that matter. An audience that despite its progressive conceits and the best of intentions often — not always, but often — doesn’t see itself as part of a system, much less a racist system.

And what is this racist system? It’s what Lee Pringle, founder and artistic director of the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, which features an all-Black orchestra — it’s what he calls “the last water fountain.” It’s that nearly impenetrable network of mostly white donors, directors, presenters, producers, administrators, board members, academics, flacks, critics, union representatives, other musicians, and teachers — and their teachers and their teachers before them — each with classically-trained sensibilities and prejudices, back and back, down through the hallways of expectation and promise, and always optimism, a network tied to the privilege of possibility, beginning with the grooming rituals and those mostly white and Asian middle-class parents who follow the cultural habits of their parents and so consign their children to music training at an early age. In the system, support is assumed, and when the question arises, the answer is predetermined: “Oh honey, $1,800 seems like an awful lot of money for an oboe, but I guess, if you really want this, we can always find the money somewhere.”

And so begins the march; the route is fixed. White people and some ethnic groups follow a progression of youth orchestras and schools of the arts and then are often paired with principal musicians in local professional orchestras. Meanwhile, young Black musicians inevitably draw attention to their raw talent but can’t afford the coaching and mentoring to help develop technical expertise and to help direct the way through the audition maze. Having little or no experience in a youth orchestra, they arrive in college music departments with, as one musician put it, “a lot of heart and personality but may not catch every note.”

The effect of this closed system is that it’s pervasive, ingrained, and needlessly exclusive, a monoculture that white audiences often don’t know much about or, frankly, seem to care much about. What’s ignored is that of the 1,200 orchestras in this country, including some 2,300 musicians, less than about 2 percent of the members are Black. Why? And why doesn’t that percentage seem to change?

And why is it that only a few really talented Black conductors get opportunities, and only on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or during Black History Month, or maybe on the Fourth of July, but then they don’t progress to subscription concerts? And how many Black managers and board members work at the 10–15 top American orchestras? And how has this arrangement remained so unchallenged? And what happens to all the Black musicians, conductors, and composers who, despite their talent, and sometimes because of it, never get picked up by the networks of high-profile, nonprofit classical organizations? What happens to them?

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Anyango Yarbo-Davenport is a 36-year-old violinist who grew up in Munich, the daughter of an international concert singer from Shaker Heights, Ohio, and a noted Austrian violinist and conductor. Yarbo-Davenport’s father

Anyango Yarbo-Davenport

died when she was 10, leaving a legacy of aspiration and respect for discipline and expertise. And nowhere is Anyango, whose name means “sun goddess” (a combination of “born in mid-morning” and “goddess”) in Swahili, who was sent to the Mozarteum University Salzburg and now these years later is an international soloist attracting increasing recognition. She’s been a principal violinist with the Colour of Music Festival Orchestra for several years and in 2017 made her debut as the soloist and conductor of the Colour of Music Festival Virtuosi, a chamber orchestra of women of African descent. Under her direction, the Virtuosi are presented on the concert rosters of institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, the University of Richmond, HBCU Allen University, and W.O. Smith Music School in Nashville. She is also an assistant professor of violin and coordinator of violin and chamber music at the Pontifical Javeriana University, in Bogotá, Colombia.

Lee Pringle calls Yarbo-Davenport’s talent the “elephant in the room” that nobody wants to talk about: “She’s won several competitions but the darlings of the world that these big orchestras go after are not biracial black women like Anyango, they’re white males, Asian women, and a ton of European whites who get all the invites to play concertos. The truth is, she can play them all against the wall.”

Davenport knows adversity, including those auditions when racism is often in play but not all the judges in the decision-making room are on board with it and so things get leaked out. “Like the time I get into the finals of a [full-time orchestra] position and then the screen is removed and it’s like, “Oh, no, no, we don’t want candidate number two.” Suddenly, they don’t want candidate number two, even though candidate number two won and that was me.”

“It’s excruciatingly frustrating because naturally you always do your best and then 50 percent more, and you know you played well. You know you are deserving of it because you have developed over decades the ability to judge yourself correctly and the other applicants too. I will be the first to congratulate somebody else if they did a better job, but it’s excruciating when the screen gets removed and [one of the judges] is maybe some Francophile that is a foreigner themselves and he doesn’t understand how a Black girl can play with a bigger and better sound than a big white guy.”

In addition to her music career, Davenport has become an activist in a growing movement of Black musicians led by, among others, Lee Pringle. She tells this anecdote about a friend from music school, a violinist from North Carolina: “A jolly giant, and a wonderful musician, such delicate, careful, tasteful playing. Really among the best but he could never get hired because he’s overweight and doesn’t fit in with the tiny little Japanese and Korean girls in the white orchestra section of first violins — even though he could play just as well, if not better. It’s just tragic because he put himself through school serving as a night watchman and got more work doing that than he did ever as a violinist. He was the most beautiful player but economically disenfranchised by the system. Finally, he couldn’t afford the medical care he should have had and died last year of a heart attack. He was in his 30s.

“I know three Black musicians, all colleagues, who contracted the coronavirus and died. I know two white faculty members at white universities who are not one tad better than my other Black colleagues at their craft, but they survive because they have top-of-the-line health insurance. This systemic inequality cost lives, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. And all while the idea is, ‘Oh, you can’t blame this person or that person. That’s just how the system works. It’s too big.’ In the end, everyone is guilty and guiltless at the same time.”

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Ask Black musicians about stories of racism and they may mention Christopher Caggiano, for 16-years an associate professor of music, theater at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Critics portray the incidents as classic examples of systemic racism in academe and point to Caggiano’s habitual insults and public humiliation of Black students, which included “doing a mocking ‘jig-dance’ next to the screen while a blackface video played.” Caggiano resigned in early June 2020.

Shortly afterward, Cathy Young, the conservatory’s executive director, wrote a letter in a Facebook post, with an elaborate apology and a detailed agenda. At the top of the list, “Boston Conservatory will mandate diversity, anti-racism, and anti-bias training for all students, faculty, and staff to promote awareness, understanding, and empathy within our community.” At the end of the list, Young added, “Still, with systemic racism so deeply embedded in our institutions, even the most earnest, honest, and well-intentioned efforts to tackle it head-on can reveal our blind spots. I recognize the profound shortcomings of the Conservatory, and I am committed to addressing these shortcomings and making change happen.”

Another story you may hear about is Koko Onwuzuruigbo’s audition before Metropolitan Opera Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The story was told in an interview with pianist Nina Kennedy on her Noshing With Nina interview show on cable TV. Nézet-Séguin asked the American lyric coloratura soprano to sing none of the classical pieces other competitors were asked to sing, but rather Bess, from Porgy and Bess. What’s disheartening is less the clueless request than the frequency with which Black performers are still typecast and tokenized.

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It’s part of a culture of estrangement — when the symphony director explains rejection by saying, “the problem is we don’t know how to market you.” When you’re associated, as a Black person, with a certain type of music and therefore that must be all you can sing. When you’re the only Black person in a famous choir and everybody gets makeup but you. When, at an embassy cocktail party, in front of a prominent Black musician, an Austrian diplomat

Robert Davis

tells a joke with the N-word. When a security guard blocks the backstage entrance, asking the Black musician, “Can I help you?” When you “never, ever, ever” see people behind the scenes who are Black. When the donor says, “you people have jazz and rock ’n’ roll. Why can’t you leave the classical to us?”

When you decide to alter your name to improve the chances of getting an audition. Robert L. Davis is the principal clarinet of the Cleveland Opera Theater and The Cleveland Opera Orchestra. From time to time he’s taken steps to hide his race. “My middle name is Lemar; I’ve taken that off of my resume. I just put Robert L. Davis instead. That sounds more neutral. I’ve also changed other things that relate to color. I played a concert for the National Association of Negro Musicians and took that off as well.”

Sometimes, the racism is unbelievably blatant. This is the dark heart of the system. Brandon Keith Brown is a Black conductor in Berlin, a Peabody Conservatory career grant winner, and some would say an agent provocateur in the world of classical music. On a Saturday night not long ago, he went to the Chicago Lyric Opera to hear Renée Fleming. As he reported in a piece for LEVEL, a Medium publication, “As I first took my seat, a plump, heavily jeweled White woman scrunched up her body as if I had coronavirus. ‘Go sit somewhere else!’ she said. That’s not a paraphrase; that’s exactly what she said. I ignored her and looked straight ahead. She must be joking, I thought. But then, she said it again: ‘Can’t you just go sit somewhere else?’ When I told her not to say another word, she piped down, but the damage was done.” Brown left at intermission. “The concert hall,” he wrote, “is a magical place, able to deliver spiritual sustenance through music. Yet, rather than doing that for everyone, classical concerts continue to exist as a sonic refuge of Whiteness.”

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Lee Pringle tells this story about a trumpet player. “He lives in New York City and went to either the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard. I remember him telling me how many auditions he’d gone through and how he just could not believe that at this point in his career he had not landed a position as one of the trumpets, not the principal trumpet, but just one of the trumpets in an orchestra. I could see the frustration in his body language. It all comes down to the seven people on the panel who quantify the person playing. Naturally, the panels reflect these biases. And then, by the time you get through the blind audition and you are now a candidate, then you have to get over the hurdle of all the artistic people in the orchestra signing off on you.”

This brings to mind Matthew Chen, a cellist who came out of Juilliard and had been expected to join the San Diego Symphony. He attracted attention after Instagram posts he wrote were republished on the account orchestraisracist. In one post, Chen writes, ‘he only got the Kovner [Fellowship, from The Juilliard School] because he’s fucking black” … followed by another post, “Juilliard only awards Black people, so it looks good for the institution / In reality, these niggas are mediocre players.”

Asked to confirm basic details in the story, including when the comments were made, and when the San Diego Symphony found out about them, as well as the results of an investigation within the organization, and whether the incident might be used to advance a policy against racism, a publicity person for the San Diego Symphony responded that Chen was no longer “joining” the Symphony and there would be no further comment. Chen offered an apology on Instagram, but the whole matter, both the offense and the reaction, suggests how the system deals with unflattering revelations, in contrast to Cathy Young’s forthright response to more serious charges.

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Nina Kennedy’s 2019 memoir Practicing for Love (released in paperback earlier this year) is the story of a very talented concert pianist making her career. Her memories of racism and sexism include moments at some of the country’s great conservatories, including the Curtis Institute of Music, where at one point Kennedy was the only Black female piano student. This was in 1977–1978. Among her teachers was Eleanor Sokoloff, an iconic figure who taught at the Institute from 1936 to 2020 and was famous for her obsession with scales, arpeggios, and Pischna exercises. Kennedy says that Sokoloff kept her at technical exercises instead of allowing her to explore repertoire that later came upon her exam.

Kennedy wrote recently in an email, “Looking back I realized that this [focus] was designed to keep me from being able to audition for scholarships, competitions, or other teachers. I’m amazed at my ability to keep up my work on repertoire in spite of the fact that she wouldn’t listen to it. And, when I did play the Chopin F Minor Ballade for her at the end of the year, she said, “I could kick you in the stomach!’” … Because Sokoloff apparently had no idea of Kennedy’s talent and when she realized, it was too late.

“Sokoloff saw to it that I was kicked out of Curtis. It was such a disappointment, and I had no recourse. Marian Anderson even called the then-president John de Lancie to find out what was going on, but the Sokoloffs were even more in charge than he was, since they were connected to the Curtis-Bok family. It was a horrible experience. But I kept my eyes on the prize and kept building my repertoire for the concert career that I imagined for myself. It’s interesting to be writing about her now because I heard that she just died within the past few weeks. She was over 100! Some of my white female colleagues went on Facebook about how wonderful she was and how sad they were at her passing. I just kept my mouth shut. If she was nice to them, great! I certainly never saw that side of her.”

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Soprano Laquita Mitchell made her debut as Bess in the San Francisco Opera production of Porgy and Bess in 2009. Earlier this year, 2020, she sang in Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road, an oratorio based on the writings of William Still (1821–1902, a direct ancestor of composer William Grant Still) about the Underground Railroad. She offered these anecdotes capturing the nuances of systemic racism.

“I remember the first time singing at the Washington National Opera, and sitting down with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and my ex-husband, who was a military person, saying, ‘Oh, my God. I can’t believe it, that’s, like, my ultimate boss sitting across from me.’ Black people in general and black musicians, in particular, are rarely in the room when these kind of events are happening, I don’t think that our business has done all that they can to bring and welcome other people into the room. That’s what it’s about. It’s about being brought into the room.

“I sang with the New York Philharmonic a few years ago; we were celebrating African Americans who have paved the way for us. Dr. George Shirley was there. Betty Allen was there, the great mezzo-soprano who has since passed on. I knew her because she taught at the Manhattan School of Music. Marian Anderson was there, along with a few people being honored. I said to the artistic administrator, ‘It’s really a shame that Adele Addison isn’t here and that she isn’t being honored.’ The administrator said, ‘Who’s Adele Addison?’ I said, ‘Well, Adele Addison is the recording voice for so many of Leonard Bernstein’s recordings, she’s also famous for her baroque performances. She must be in her mid-90s now.’ … ‘Well, we don’t know who she is,’ said the administrator and I kept thinking, how do we truly change systemic racism within classical music if we don’t know history?”

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