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Professional orchestras are featuring works by Black composers while paying homage to their oft-forgotten history

Jazz artist and composer Terence Blanchard never thought his work would be performed on the Metropolitan Opera Stage.
Adapted from Charles M. Blow’s memoir of the same name, Blanchard’s opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” tells of a Black boy growing up in rural Louisiana, where he faces poverty and sexual abuse, who goes on to become a successful writer. The opera is filled with moments of turbulence and lyricism, scenes of striking dissonance and sentimental harmony.
Rooted in his Black American heritage and infused with gospel, R&B, blues and jazz, Blanchard’s opera just became the first by a Black composer to be performed at the Met.
“I realized, talking to some singers, that most of them grew up in the church, singing gospel, some of them blues singers, some of them jazz singers, and when they got to the operatic world, that world said, you can’t use any of that,” Blanchard told CNN. “For them to have the ability to bring that part of their musical life and identification to this genre has been a watershed moment.”

Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmon's adaptation of "Fire Shut Up In My Bones" at the Metropolitan Opera House became the first opera composed by a Black composer to be staged by the company in its entire history.

Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmon’s adaptation of “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera House became the first opera composed by a Black composer to be staged by the company in its entire history. Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images
“We have to make sure that we continue in that tradition, relating to our communities, relating to our cultures from which we come from,” he said. “To bring that to the stage at the Met I think is a very liberating thing.”
While Blanchard may be the first Black composer to have his work showcased in such a manner, he does not believe he’s the first qualified. After listening to “Highway 1, USA,” an opera by Black composer William Grant Still, he was blown away, trying to find faults but coming up short.
“Who could hear this and say that this didn’t deserve to be on that stage?” he said. “It’s a heartbreaking notion to think that these composers are extremely qualified but constantly denied the right to do something that they honestly love.”
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.

A necessary and long overdue change

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.
“The hope is that over time, people will start to connect to their true desires to hear those voices, their real curiosity around the art of non-White men, and that will keep pushing things in the direction where we see a more representative and more diverse community in classical music,” she told CNN.
This acceleration, according to Coleman, will provide more opportunities to younger Black musicians to get into performing and composing, provided organizations commit to progress and not just to following a trend.

Valerie Coleman

Valerie Coleman Credit: Matthew Murphy/VColemanMusic
“Organizations really have to think about how they cultivate the young minds that are within their scope of influence in a way that allows them to continue to grow and not become exploited,” said Coleman, whose piece “Umoja” was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2019. “We have to really just discern that difference in what is tokenism and what is actual meaningful programming that allows the community to expand what they embrace as classical music.”
While Montgomery remains optimistic about the industry’s future, she finds some diversity initiatives across the country misguided or reactionary. She sees the murder of George Floyd as the impetus for curatorial changes nationwide, which she considers “a hard thing to justify.”
“It’s fair that now we’ll get to hear more music by Black composers, but it’s not fair that it was in response to something so gruesome, so terrible,” Montgomery said.
Karen Slack, a soprano who debuted the role of Billie at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” also believes that orchestras nationwide have been rushed to bring in Black performers.

Karen Slack

Karen Slack Credit: From Kia Caldwell/MKI Artists
Many Black composers could not find performance opportunities pre-pandemic — except, Slack joked, during Black History Month. “The whole industry imploded,” Slack said, as a result of the pandemic and protests following Floyd’s death.
The cultural reckoning with racism has led — in some cases — to new opportunities for rising composers. She believes some of her recent achievements, such as becoming artistic adviser at the Portland Opera, would not have come before.
But as more audiences are becoming exposed to the works of Black composers, many are discovering they are just as powerful as those of White composers, according to Slack.
“It’s not just sticking a Black History program or Latinx Month program or Asian programming and then that’s the only time you get to hear those voices,” Slack said. “It should be a part of the canon. That means that you need to either blow up the canon, shake it up, and create a new canon.”

The rise of Florence Price

One name appearing on programs nationwide is the aforementioned Florence Price — a composer and organist who was the first Black woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Price gained national acclaim for her Symphony in E minor, first performed by the CSO in 1933. Price composed four symphonies, four concertos, and dozens of choral and orchestral works that pull from spirituals and music of the African American church.
But following her death in 1953, her works were rarely heard. While some of her pieces were lost, others were overshadowed by newer compositions. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that albums were made of her work, and in 2009, a substantial collection of her compositions were unearthed in an abandoned home in Illinois. Many of her manuscripts and letters were not publicly available until 2015. Once the firm G. Schirmer acquired exclusive worldwide rights to her complete catalog in 2018, her pieces were printed and distributed more than ever.
Price has “equal place on the stage of the Philadelphia Orchestra as the symphonies of Beethoven or Brahms,” Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, told CNN. After helping lead a major recording project of her first and third symphonies, Tarnopolsky wondered why audiences had not heard this music for decades.
Douglas Shadle, chair of the ethnomusicology department at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, said Price took the musical soundscapes of her everyday life and transformed those into an orchestral soundscape. Shadle, who is currently co-writing a biography of Price, told CNN that the music has compelling human interest and is relatively easy for people to pick up on, even if they’re not experienced classical music listeners.
“What you hear is not a fully abstract world that you might get in a Brahms symphony,” said Shadle, who has written program notes for orchestras performing Price’s music. “[Audiences] can hear that and say, ‘oh, that sounds like something in my world, but I hear it in this beautiful concert hall played by 100 people working together.'”

Orchestras are leading efforts toward inclusion

As orchestras nationwide commit to greater inclusion in their repertoire, they’re thinking carefully about programming, context and providing more opportunities to younger artists.
In addition to featuring 23 works by women and people of color in its current season — its “most diverse to date” — the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will continue its Talent Development Program, which provides 25 young Black and Latinx musicians with musical training each school year, Executive Director Jennifer Barlament said.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, performs in the grand concert hall of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, in January 2017.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, performs in the grand concert hall of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, in January 2017. Credit: Markus Scholz/dpa/AP
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association has made greater efforts to pair works by the likes of Beethoven with those of Black composers. Jeff Alexander, president of the association, acknowledged that some have asked “What took you so long?” when it comes to putting more Black composers into programs, while noting the orchestra remains committed to diversifying its repertoire in a balanced fashion.
“We plan to sustain this again as long as we go at it the right way and make sure that the programs make sense and are something that our audiences are eager to hear and happy to hear,” Alexander said. “We just have to be careful not to go to the other extreme and only program contemporary music or diverse music, which I think nobody wants or nobody is doing.”
The Philadelphia Orchestra launched “Our City, Your Orchestra,” a series of free online concerts performed by small ensembles at Black-owned businesses and cultural locations.
Meanwhile, Valerie Coleman’s “Seven O’Clock Shout” has become the orchestra’s anthem this season. Coleman — who first noticed many “doors that were not meant for me to go into” while in college — uses her platform to take the listener through Black history while expressing the varied philosophies of Black composers through her own music and activism.

Valerie Coleman stands with the Philadelphia Orchestra after the world premiere of "Umoja"

Valerie Coleman stands with the Philadelphia Orchestra after the world premiere of “Umoja” Credit: Jessica Griffin
“Being a Black composer does not necessarily automatically mean that you write about Black history,” she told CNN. “As a Black composer, I like to write about Black history because I feel that it is good to take that responsibility of being the person that hands down the history and traditions, but as a creator, all Black composers want the freedom to write what they’re going to write.”
Shadle considered this season an “artistic rebirth” and an extension of diversification from previous seasons. But Shadle also remarked how orchestras nationwide are mostly playing the same few Black composers such as Price or Still. This phenomenon, he said, is caused in part by the accessibility of their music.
There are many Black composers whose music still sits in archives that orchestras simply cannot access — Coleman stressed there’s still a need to bring those lost compositions to light. But she also noted that recent efforts to give young Black composers better platforms are “incredible.”
“We’re starting to see composer programs, young artists programs where 14-year-olds are able to get their works read or get that experience of learning how to write for a symphony orchestra or learning how to compose and how the music is played by top orchestras,” Coleman said.
And to Blanchard, the future is bright for young Black composers and musicians — as long as orchestras provide supportive spaces for new voices entering the ring.
“You’re not going to wake up one day and become an opera composer, it’s a process of learning over time,” Blanchard said. “If we continue down this path, the future is just very fruitful for having different voices tell stories that can be very compelling and interesting for all of us to experience, and not just relegate ourselves to the classics.”

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