Black History Month

Black History Month: The First and the Future

Each week throughout the month of February, WDAV’s First and The Future blog series highlights two Black composers or musicians who have shaped the course of classical music: one who shattered a historical barrier, and one whose extraordinary achievements in the same field continue today. Check back here every Thursday at noon for the next pair of classical artists!






Conductors:
Eva Jessye and Jeri Lynne Johnson



Eva Jessye
Eva Jessye
Eva Jessye

Revered as the first Black woman to achieve international recognition as a choral conductor, Eva Jessye began her career as a music teacher in 1914 after earning two Bachelor’s degrees from Western University and Langston University. Twelve years later, Jessye founded the Dixie Jubilee Singers, a multi-genre ensemble that would later become the famed Eva Jessye Choir. 

She and the choir soon relocated to New York, where they found remarkable success: throughout the 1920s and 30s, they made regular appearances in the Capitol Theatre stage show, performed on the radio extensively (including a regular spot on the Major Bowes Family Radio Hour), and recorded on Brunswick, Columbia, and Cameo records. In 1935, the choir was selected to perform in the original production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Jessye herself was chosen as the production’s choral director. The Eva Jessye Choir’s popularity climbed for decades, and in 1963, the ensemble was chosen to be the official choral group of the March on Washington. 

Along with her choral conducting career, Jessye published several beloved compositions and spiritual arrangements, which remain widely performed today. Her home state of Kansas declared October 1 “Eva Jessye Day” in 1978, and in 1982, Governor John Carlin named her the “Kansas Ambassador for the Arts.”

Visit Eva Jessye’s Black Past biography to read more about her accomplishments and legacy.

Video: Eva Jessye Choir – Clara, Clara (The Requiem) – Porgy and Bess (1940)

Source: Eva Jessye (1895 – 1992), Black Past



Jeri Lynne Johnson
Jeri Lynne Johnson
Jeri Lynne Johnson
by Knight Foundation, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Jeri Lynne Johnson is an acclaimed conductor and orchestra founder based in Philadelphia, PA. Like Eva Jessye, Johnson’s achievements include a historical first: she was awarded the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2005, becoming the first African-American woman to win an international conducting prize. Johnson’s career has included engagements with the world’s leading orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Germany’s Weimar Staatskapelle, world-premiere performances with MacArthur Genius Grant Winners, and a collaborative appearance at Carnegie Hall with Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and The Roots.  

In 2008, Johnson founded Philadelphia’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, which features “top musicians in the country from diverse cultures and ethnicities as a model for the 21st-century orchestra.” Now a beloved staple of the city’s cultural landscape, Black Pearl has the distinction of being the only organization in the United States to win three Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grants. 

Today, Johnson serves as the Artistic Director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and the current cover conductor of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. Among her numerous accolades, she was named one of today’s leading young women conductors on the NBC Today Show and has been honored as a 2010 Philly 360 Creative Ambassador, a 2010 British American Project Fellow, and a 2011 Philadelphia Business Journal Woman of Distinction.

Read more about Jeri’s work and achievements here



Video: “How to Bring Classical Music to the Next Generation,”
Jeri Lynne Johnson (TED Archive)

Source: Jeri Lynne Johnson Official Website, “About.”






HARPISTS

Ann Hobson Pilot 

First Black member of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the BSO’s first Black principal player

VIDEO: The Last Pluck: BSO Harpist’s Final Performance

There’s a reason harpist Ann Hobson Pilot is so often described as “legendary:” at 79, she remains one of history’s most esteemed harpists after over 55 years as a top soloist, recording artist, and educator. Born into a musical family in 1943, Pilot took up piano as her first instrument, following in the footsteps of her concert pianist mother. When she switched to the harp at age 14, the racist backlash from others at her predominantly white school was swift. In one incident she described to Sarasota Magazine, “[A friend’s mother] pointed to a portrait on the wall of a white woman, with long blond hair, playing the harp, and she said, ‘See, she is what a harpist is supposed to look like.’ I was shocked that she said that to me. What did she want me to do, quit?”

Pilot persisted, and at just 18, her skill began to garner public attention as she performed alongside artists like Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis at a Philadelphia nightclub. Following her subsequent studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music, she won a position as a master harpist with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1966 and joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as assistant principal harp in 1969, becoming both orchestras’ first Black member. Pilot also made history when she earned the principal harp position in 1980, which made her the BSO’s first Black principal player. During her time in Boston, she served on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University for decades, toured the globe as a soloist, and recorded numerous albums

Though Pilot officially retired in 2009 after 40 years with the BSO, she immediately returned to open the BSO and Carnegie Hall seasons with the premiere of “On Willows and Birches,” a concerto written for her by John Williams. Pilot’s solo career continued to flourish after her retirement: “Everybody says to me, ‘Do you miss it?,’ and I can’t really say that I do, because I am still playing,” she told PBS. “I will continue as long as I can.” She released her latest album, “A Dream,” in 2020 and has made many high-profile returns to the stage, including a performance at the opening of the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

A frequent award recipient, Pilot has been honored twice with the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Distinguished Alumni Award and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Boston Musicians Association and the Talent Development League of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She has been granted honorary doctorates from Tufts University and Bridgewater State College and became the only harpist recipient of the League of American Orchestras’ Golden Baton award, its highest honor, in 2017. 

To learn more about Ann Hobson Pilot, visit her official website and watch her 2020 TEDx Talk or the 2011 PBS documentary “A Harpist’s Legacy.” 

VIDEOA Black Harpist’s Story | Ann Hobson Pilot | TEDxBeaconStreet



Angelica Hairston

Harpist, educator, and activist; founder of Challenge the Stats and Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble

VIDEO: Wave of Sound ft. Angelica Hairston

In 2007, teenage harpist Angelica Hairston found a mentor in a living legend: Ann Hobson Pilot. “It was so gratifying to look into the eyes of a professional orchestral harpist from one of the top symphonies in the country who looked like me,” she said of their first meeting in an interview with Lyon & Healy. “She taught me to understand that it is possible to pursue a classical music career that reaches major stages and secondly, that I was not alone.” 

Growing up surrounded by music of all genres, Hairston gained a new perspective on the art form’s power while listening to gospel music at her grandmother’s church. “I learned that the world wasn’t looking for artists who only played the right notes,” she explained. “What the world needed were more artists who told a deeper and more meaningful story.” She began her musical study as a violinist at 4 years old and transitioned to the harp at 12. Hairston performed on From the Top for the first time at age 18, later winning the From the Top Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a scholarship that aided her studies at Toronto’s Royal Academy of Music. 

While completing her graduate degree at Northeastern University as a 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellow, Hairston founded Challenge the Stats, a growing initiative dedicated to empowering BIPOC classical artists and challenging racial inequality and systemic oppression in classical music. She currently provides free harp instruction to over 90 students as the Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble

Hairston is an alum of the Sphinx Organization’s SphinxLEAD, a 2019 winner of a Georgia Governor’s Award for the Arts & Humanities, and a recipient of the 2020 Atlanta Magazine’s Women Making a Mark Award. Now 30, Hairston remains dedicated to activism in the Atlanta area and beyond as a musician, educator, speaker, and consultant. “Everything we do is right at the intersection of classical music and justice,” she told Atlanta Magazine in 2021. “Facing a pandemic – but especially as a Black woman facing this racial reckoning and all the violence that’s been happening toward Black communities – has been really challenging, but I feel grateful that the work I do has a direct impact on what’s happening in the world around us.”

To learn more about Angelica Hairston, visit the Challenge the Stats website or watch the short documentary Wave of Sound



Sources and Further Reading

Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot on Overcoming Racism in Classical Music (Sarasota Magazine)

Tribute to accomplished harpist, classical trailblazer (Boston.com)

Ann Hobson Pilot Official Website

Honoring Boston Symphony’s pioneering harp legend Ann Hobson Pilot (League of American Orchestras)

Harpist pilots a ground-breaking career (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)

In Honor of Black History Month: The Experiences That Shape Us (Lyon & Healy)

Angelica Hairston uses her harp and music as instruments for social change (ARTSATL)

Challenge the Stats Official Website (Challenge the Stats)

Angelica Hairston Biography (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra)

Four Gifted Young Musicians Aim To Effect Change Through Community-Focused Projects (NPR)

Women Making a Mark: Angelica Hairston (Atlanta Magazine)






CLASSICAL GUITARISTS

Justin Holland

One of the earliest American guitar virtuosos; considered the United States’ first Black classical guitarist and Cleveland’s first Black professional musician

Justin Holland
By William J. Simmons(Life time: unknown) - Original publication: Men of MarkImmediate

Classical guitarist and civil rights activist Justin Holland is remembered as one of the United States’ most important early classical music figures. Born in Virginia in 1819, Holland moved to Boston at 14 after the death of his parents and Nat Turner’s Insurrection, and there he discovered a knack for the guitar. He would go on to study with guitar masters at Oberlin College followed by two years in Mexico, where he honed his Spanish language skills to better understand classical guitar pedagogy “at its source.” 

Holland returned to Ohio in 1845 and settled in Cleveland, quickly establishing himself as a well respected, no-nonsense guitar instructor; in his own words, he maintained “the most cautious and circumspect demeanor, considering the relation a mere business one that gave me no claims upon my pupils’ attention or hospitality beyond what any ordinary business matter would give.” In addition to his musical pursuits, Holland was known to work with Frederick Douglass as a member of the Underground Railroad and campaigned tirelessly for abolition and civil rights throughout his life. 

Now considered Cleveland’s first Black professional musician, his reputation as a composer, performer, and teacher blossomed into fame. Holland played the guitar, piano, and flute professionally, and his many published works achieved national popularity (though he is credited with 35 original compositions and 300 arrangements, roughly ⅔ of those have been lost). His instructional texts, including his Comprehensive Method for the Guitar (1874), were some of the earliest of their kind in the United States and remain hugely influential in classical guitar instruction today.  

For more information about Justin Holland, find a full bio and media sources on his life in the links below. 

Video: Ernie Jackson plays Rochester Schottische by W. H. Ruliston, arranged by Justin Holland



Raphaël Feuillâtre

Video: Rameau’s “Le Rappel Des Oiseaux” played by Raphaël Feuillâtre

Hailed as a “tremendously versatile and sensitive player,” French classical guitarist Raphaël Feuillâtre was already well known in European circles when he entered the U.S. classical guitar scene with a splash: in 2018, he took first prize at the Guitar Foundation of America International Concert Artist Competition, the most important American competition of its kind. Born in 1996, Feuillâtre explains his childhood attraction to the guitar in an interview with Classical Guitar Magazine:

“I’ve no exact memories of why I chose the guitar, but it was this instrument or nothing! … First, I had an electric guitar toy and then a classical one. I would play it all the time, so my parents understood that it was not just some childish desire, but something I really wanted and probably needed.”

Feuillâtre started guitar lessons at the Cholet Conservatory at age nine, soon moving up to the Conservatory of Nantes and the Paris National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Classical Guitar with highest honors. Now just 26 years old, his achievements – though remarkable – have only just begun. In addition to his landmark GFA competition win, he is the recipient of several major awards, including first prize at both the International Guitar Competition José Tomás and the Concours & Festival de Guitare. WQXR named his album “Guitar Recital: Raphaël Feuillâtre” one of the best classical recordings of 2019, praising his “virtuoso technique and elegant phrasing.”

Feuillâtre planned to stop competing as of July 2019, choosing to focus instead on his burgeoning career as a concert artist and instructor. His full bio can be found here



Sources and Further Reading

The Legacy of Guitar Virtuoso Justin Holland Lives On (The Met)

Remembering Justin Holland, guitarist and crusader (Boston Globe)

HOLLAND, JUSTIN (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History)

Justin Holland (WUOL)

Justin Holland (Wikipedia)

Raphaël Feuillâtre Puts His Stamp on the Classical Guitar World (Classical Guitar Magazine)

RAPHAËL FEUILLATRE (Suarez)

The Best Classical Recordings of 2019 (WQXR)






VOCALISTS

Caterina Jarboro

Caterina Jarboro

Born Katherine Lee Yarborough in 1898, Caterina Jarboro was an American opera singer known for being the first Black female opera singer to perform with a major U.S. company. A North Carolina native, she was one of three children born to parents John and Annie Yarborough in Wilmington. After her parents passed away, Jarboro moved to Brooklyn, NY at thirteen to live under the care of her aunt. 

In New York, the young soprano’s abilities flourished and she began performing in popular  musical theater productions by 1921. Some of these productions included the Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle musical Shuffle Along and James P. Johnson’s Runnin’ Wild. As Jarboro’s skill set grew, she began to dream of studying in Europe and eventually moved to France in 1926, where she found work as a church soloist. In 1930, she made her debut at Milan’s Puccini Theater in Verdi’s Aida.

Jarboro returned to the United States in 1932. Soon after her return, Alfredo Salmaggi of the Chicago Civic Opera invited her to perform the titular role in Aida at the New York Hippodrome. This performance made history as Caterina Jarboro became the first Black female opera singer to perform in a leading role with an all-white American company. Jarboro’s performance was a success, earning praise from the New York Times and even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Jarboro’s fame gained her an invitation of membership from the New York Metropolitan Opera Association. However, when the organization discovered Jarboro was not Italian but of African-American and Indigenous descent, they declined her membership. Jarboro was invited once again later in her career, but the vocalist refused.

Caterina Jarboro performed in the United States until the mid 1930s, including special charity concerts at the historic Thalian Hall in Wilmington. She then reprised her American roles in Europe with major success and maintained a thriving career until her retirement in 1955. In the coming decades, she was honored in her hometown with a ceremony at Thalian Hall in 1975, the restoration of her childhood home in 1982, and a posthumous star on the Wilmington Walk of Fame. Caterina Jarboro passed away in Manhattan in 1986 at the age of eighty-eight.



Video: Caterina Jarboro Memorial Recital to feature tenor Lawrence Brownlee


Sources and Further Reading

CATERINA JARBORO (1903-1986) (BlackPast)

7 diva-worthy moments from the life of a Wilmington opera legend (Star News Online)

Caterina Jarboro’s role in history (Star News Online)

CATERINA JARBORO: FIRST FEMALE BLACK OPERA SINGER (Black Then)



J’Nai Bridges

J’Nai Bridges/ by Dario Acosta

“Soon-to-be-superstar” J’Nai Bridges has quickly become one of the leading voices in opera, not only in talent but also in advocacy. During the pandemic, the two-time GRAMMY award-winning vocalist led an internationally-acclaimed panel on racial inequality and disparity featuring renowned Black voices in classical music with the Los Angeles Opera and became a spokesperson for the Converse shoe brand’s Breaking Down Barriers collection. In 2022, she was named one of the Kennedy Center’s NEXT50 cultural leaders

Bridges was raised in Washington, where she grew up listening to Motown music and singing in her church. Though she began to pursue her musical interests in middle school, Bridges was a star basketball player with dreams of going professional until her senior year of high school. A scheduling conflict between choir practice and an away game led Bridges’ coach to bench her as a punishment, even though she had arrived in time for warm-ups. Seventeen-year-old Bridges then made the decision to focus solely on music. She went on to attend the Manhattan School of Music, then pursued graduate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. 

Bridges has stated that her inspirations are Denyce Graves, Shirley Verrett, Kathleen Battle, and Jessye Norman. Her “rich, dark, exciting sound” has catapulted her into stardom, leading to regular performances with major American opera companies and orchestras including the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the National Symphony Orchestra. She earned GRAMMY awards for her performance in Metropolitan Opera production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten and a recording of Richard Danielpour’s oratorio The Passion of Yeshua with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Bridges’ performance in Adolphus Hailstork’s A Knee on the Neck, which was created as a tribute to George Floyd, was featured in a PBS episode of American Masters hosted by Audra McDonald in 2023. 

J’Nai Bridges will wrap up her 2023-2024 season with performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Hamburg Opera.



Video: J’Nai Bridges: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert


Sources and Further Reading

J’Nai Bridges: Biography (J’nai Bridges Website)

American Masters: In The Making (PBS)

A Met Opera Star Was Born, ‘Then Everything Stopped’ (New York Times)

LIFT EVERY VOICE PANEL (LA Opera)



Black History Month 2023: The First and the Future

Each week throughout the month of February, WDAV’s First and The Future blog series highlights two Black composers or musicians who have shaped the course of classical music: one who shattered a historical barrier, and one whose extraordinary achievements in the same field continue today. Check back here every Tuesday for the next pair of classical artists!

Pictured: Elayne Jones, timpanist. Photo has been digitally modified and elements have been added. Uploaded by user Barbara.steinberg at commons.wikimedia.org. Own work. CC BY-SA 4.0




FLUTISTS

Harold Jones

Co-founder of the Symphony of the New World, the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States

VIDEO: Harold Jones Plays William Foster McDaniel: Flute Concerto (Movement II)

Like many young musicians, Harold Jones got his start as a violin student at ten years old, but it wouldn’t take long to discover his true passion. Upon hearing a fellow student play the piccolo, Jones was drawn to the flute at age fifteen and honed his craft at Chicago’s famed DuSable High School. Jones began to play professionally at the Chicago Civic Orchestra before moving to New York City in 1955. 

In New York, Jones earned a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music, where he won the “Outstanding Woodwind Player” award at his graduation. He embarked on a multi-decade career as a soloist and recitalist, making his New York recital debut at Town Hall in 1966 and regularly performing with numerous top orchestras across the country. 

In the 1960s, Jones began to meet with a group of fellow Black classical musicians who were frustrated with the lack of representation and opportunity for artists of color in their field. This assembly of artists – including harpist Elayne Jones, composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and many more – formed a plan to address the inequities they experienced: “Everyone jumped to the idea,” Jones remembered. “‘Yes. Let’s do this. We’re going to do it – have an integrated orchestra.’” The Symphony of the New World was born, and with its inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall in 1965, it became the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States. Though the orchestra eventually folded in 1978 due to financial difficulties, its impact on the classical music landscape was enduring.  “It built hope where there was very little,” Jones said in an interview with Allegro magazine. “It showed that, as black people, we had paid our dues and we could do it as well as anyone else… the inspiration that this could be done [remains] in all of us.”

An avid educator, Jones impacted the lives of countless students while teaching at the Westchester Conservatory of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Manhattanville College, and Brooklyn College. He served as the President of the New York Flute Club from 1976 to 1979. Jones recorded the Vivaldi flute concerti for the Library of Recorded Masterpieces in addition to four studio albums, “From Bach to Bazzini”, “Afternoon Fantasies”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, and “This Little Light of Mine.”

In 1993, Jones founded the Antara Ensemble, an active string chamber orchestra formed “to bring quality classical music at affordable prices to the culturally diverse neighborhoods of New York.” Jones continued to program, conduct, and perform with the ensemble in the final years of his life. 

After his passing in 2015, the New York Flute Club published a monthly newsletter filled with heartwarming tributes to Jones written by his students, colleagues, and loved ones. His legacy of kindness, humor, and genuine caring lives on through those he taught: “I can often feel his presence, hearing his voice and laughter, when I’m trying to teach my students the same way he taught me,” former student Meryl D. Newler wrote, “‘Keep it simple and it all makes sense.’

To learn more about Harold Jones, read the New York Flute Club’s tribute to his life here



Allison Loggins-Hull

Flutist and composer; half of the critically acclaimed duo Flutronix

VIDEO: Hammers by Allison Loggins-Hull

Hailed as a “powerhouse” by the Washington Post, distinguished flutist, composer, and producer Allison Loggins-Hull’s work cannot be defined by a single genre. Part of a creative family, Loggins-Hull grew up enveloped in music and visual arts. “Music was omnipresent in my house,” she recalled in an interview with Mother Maker magazine. “My dad had a very extensive and eclectic record collection and was an amateur musician in a lot of ways.” She began playing the flute at age ten, later pursuing an undergraduate degree at SUNY Purchase and a Masters in Composition at New York University. 

While finishing her undergraduate studies, Loggins-Hull began to explore composition and uploaded a few of her works to MySpace, where fellow flutist Nathalie Joachim discovered them. As fate would have it, the two musicians had quite a bit in common: not only did they live just a few blocks away from one another, they had both been experimenting with electronics in composition, and both knew they wouldn’t follow the “traditional path” to orchestral and solo work. They hit it off immediately, and in 2007, they formed the now-celebrated duo Flutronix

In demand as a performing artist and composer, Loggins-Hull has performed at many major festivals and venues worldwide, including The Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and more. Loggins-Hull is the Cleveland Orchestra’s current Daniel R. Lewis Composer Fellow and is in the midst of a packed 2022-2023 season, including eight world premieres of her work and an East Coast tour with Flutronix and Third Coast Percussion. As an educator, she has served on the faculty of the Juilliard School’s Music Advancement Program and The John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University.

In 2020, Loggins-Hull was commissioned to compose a work for the Library of Congress’s Boccaccio Project, an initiative that premiered musical reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic online. Performed by Flutronix, Loggins-Hull’s piece “Have and Hold” responded to feelings of isolation during the pandemic and news of police killings earlier in the year. “I was really craving just the feeling of having companionship and being near people and just physical contact,” she told NPR. “Whenever these shootings happen, I still have that desire to hold people that I love, even to hold people that I don’t know who share this common experience we all share as black people in this country.” 

Loggins-Hull’s other myriad accomplishments include playing as co-principal flutist on the soundtrack to The Lion King (2019), co-producing Joachim’s GRAMMY-nominated album Fanm d’Ayiti (2020), and scoring the 2019 documentary Bring Them Back. She launched the project Diametrically Composed, “a collection of newly commissioned works featuring flute, voice and piano exploring the duality of being a mother and an artist,” in 2021. 

To learn more about Allison Loggins-Hull, visit her official website here

VIDEO: “Run-On” – performed by Flutronix, live at The Brooklyn Museum



Sources and Further Reading

How the Symphony of the New World made history (Allegro)

Leading New York Flute Player Has Died (Slipped Disc)

The New York Flute Club Newsletter: A Tribute to Harold Jones

The New York Flute Club: Harold Jones (NYFC president 1976-1979)

A Conversation with Harold Jones (The Symphony of the New World)

Allison Loggins-Hull Official Website

A New Library Of Congress Project Commissions Music Of The Coronavirus Pandemic (NPR)

Allison Loggins Hull: the flutist, composer reflects on her new work (WYPR)

5 Questions to Allison Loggins-Hull (composer, flutist) (I Care If You Listen)

Allison Loggins-Hull (Mother Maker)

Flutronix Official Website




HARPISTS

Ann Hobson Pilot 

First Black member of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the BSO’s first Black principal player

VIDEO: The Last Pluck: BSO Harpist’s Final Performance

There’s a reason harpist Ann Hobson Pilot is so often described as “legendary:” at 79, she remains one of history’s most esteemed harpists after over 55 years as a top soloist, recording artist, and educator. Born into a musical family in 1943, Pilot took up piano as her first instrument, following in the footsteps of her concert pianist mother. When she switched to the harp at age 14, the racist backlash from others at her predominantly white school was swift. In one incident she described to Sarasota Magazine, “[A friend’s mother] pointed to a portrait on the wall of a white woman, with long blond hair, playing the harp, and she said, ‘See, she is what a harpist is supposed to look like.’ I was shocked that she said that to me. What did she want me to do, quit?”

Pilot persisted, and at just 18, her skill began to garner public attention as she performed alongside artists like Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis at a Philadelphia nightclub. Following her subsequent studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music, she won a position as a master harpist with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1966 and joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as assistant principal harp in 1969, becoming both orchestras’ first Black member. Pilot also made history when she earned the principal harp position in 1980, which made her the BSO’s first Black principal player. During her time in Boston, she served on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University for decades, toured the globe as a soloist, and recorded numerous albums

Though Pilot officially retired in 2009 after 40 years with the BSO, she immediately returned to open the BSO and Carnegie Hall seasons with the premiere of “On Willows and Birches,” a concerto written for her by John Williams. Pilot’s solo career continued to flourish after her retirement: “Everybody says to me, ‘Do you miss it?,’ and I can’t really say that I do, because I am still playing,” she told PBS. “I will continue as long as I can.” She released her latest album, “A Dream,” in 2020 and has made many high-profile returns to the stage, including a performance at the opening of the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

A frequent award recipient, Pilot has been honored twice with the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Distinguished Alumni Award and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Boston Musicians Association and the Talent Development League of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She has been granted honorary doctorates from Tufts University and Bridgewater State College and became the only harpist recipient of the League of American Orchestras’ Golden Baton award, its highest honor, in 2017. 

To learn more about Ann Hobson Pilot, visit her official website and watch her 2020 TEDx Talk or the 2011 PBS documentary “A Harpist’s Legacy.” 

VIDEOA Black Harpist’s Story | Ann Hobson Pilot | TEDxBeaconStreet



Angelica Hairston

Harpist, educator, and activist; founder of Challenge the Stats and Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble

VIDEO: Wave of Sound ft. Angelica Hairston

In 2007, teenage harpist Angelica Hairston found a mentor in a living legend: Ann Hobson Pilot. “It was so gratifying to look into the eyes of a professional orchestral harpist from one of the top symphonies in the country who looked like me,” she said of their first meeting in an interview with Lyon & Healy. “She taught me to understand that it is possible to pursue a classical music career that reaches major stages and secondly, that I was not alone.” 

Growing up surrounded by music of all genres, Hairston gained a new perspective on the art form’s power while listening to gospel music at her grandmother’s church. “I learned that the world wasn’t looking for artists who only played the right notes,” she explained. “What the world needed were more artists who told a deeper and more meaningful story.” She began her musical study as a violinist at 4 years old and transitioned to the harp at 12. Hairston performed on From the Top for the first time at age 18, later winning the From the Top Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a scholarship that aided her studies at Toronto’s Royal Academy of Music. 

While completing her graduate degree at Northeastern University as a 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellow, Hairston founded Challenge the Stats, a growing initiative dedicated to empowering BIPOC classical artists and challenging racial inequality and systemic oppression in classical music. She currently provides free harp instruction to over 90 students as the Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble

Hairston is an alum of the Sphinx Organization’s SphinxLEAD, a 2019 winner of a Georgia Governor’s Award for the Arts & Humanities, and a recipient of the 2020 Atlanta Magazine’s Women Making a Mark Award. Now 30, Hairston remains dedicated to activism in the Atlanta area and beyond as a musician, educator, speaker, and consultant. “Everything we do is right at the intersection of classical music and justice,” she told Atlanta Magazine in 2021. “Facing a pandemic – but especially as a Black woman facing this racial reckoning and all the violence that’s been happening toward Black communities – has been really challenging, but I feel grateful that the work I do has a direct impact on what’s happening in the world around us.”

To learn more about Angelica Hairston, visit the Challenge the Stats website or watch the short documentary Wave of Sound



Sources and Further Reading

Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot on Overcoming Racism in Classical Music (Sarasota Magazine)

Tribute to accomplished harpist, classical trailblazer (Boston.com)

Ann Hobson Pilot Official Website

Honoring Boston Symphony’s pioneering harp legend Ann Hobson Pilot (League of American Orchestras)

Harpist pilots a ground-breaking career (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)

In Honor of Black History Month: The Experiences That Shape Us (Lyon & Healy)

Angelica Hairston uses her harp and music as instruments for social change (ARTSATL)

Challenge the Stats Official Website (Challenge the Stats)

Angelica Hairston Biography (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra)

Four Gifted Young Musicians Aim To Effect Change Through Community-Focused Projects (NPR)

Women Making a Mark: Angelica Hairston (Atlanta Magazine)




OPERA SINGERS

Todd Duncan

First Black singer to perform as part of a major American opera company with an otherwise white cast

Pictured: Portrait of Todd Duncan
Todd Duncan
Photo by Vandamm, New York – cropped, Public Domain.

Among many other “firsts,” baritone, educator, and activist Todd Duncan originated the role of Porgy in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1935. Unimpressed by the 100 baritones who had previously auditioned for the role, Gershwin received a tip from the current New York Times music critic: he should reach out to Duncan

Just a few bars of an aria later, Gershwin offered the role to him personally – but Duncan, who described his typical fare as “Schubert and Schumann and Brahms,” wasn’t sold yet. “When [Gershwin] started [playing] the opening music… I looked at my wife and said quietly, ‘This stinks,’” he recalled. “By the time twenty minutes or a half hour had passed I just thought I was in heaven. These beautiful melodies in this new idiom – it was something I had never heard.” With that, history was made, and Porgy became Duncan’s signature role. 

Born to a music teacher in Danville, Kentucky, Duncan’s early interest in the art form led him to pursue a career as a singer and professor after receiving a B.A. from Butler University and an M.A. from Columbia University’s Teachers College. In 1931, Duncan accepted a teaching position at Howard University, where he eventually became head of the public school music and professional voice departments. Success as a performer followed soon after: in 1934, Duncan starred in an Aeolian Opera production of Cavalleria Rusticana with an all-Black cast, and audiences instantly took notice of his “elegant phrasing” and “dramatic persuasiveness.”

In 1945, Duncan made his New York City Opera debut as Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. This achievement made him not only the first Black singer to perform with the company, but also the first to perform as part of any major American opera company with an otherwise white cast. He would go on to sing several roles with the NYCO, including Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen and the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Duncan returned to Broadway to star in the musicals Cabin in the Sky (1940) and Lost in the Stars (1949) and appeared in two films: Syncopation (1942) and Unchained (1955). Before it became one of the most recognizable songs of the 20th century,  the song “Unchained Melody” was written for the latter film – and Duncan was the first singer to ever record it. 

During his 25-year career as a recitalist, Duncan sang 2,000 recitals in 56 countries, once confessing that he adored the “thrill of holding an audience even on your faintest note.” He spent his later years as a revered voice professor in Washington and at the Curtis Institute of Music. Among other awards and honors, Duncan was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Howard University, a George Peabody Medal, Tony and New York Drama Critics Awards, and the President of Haiti’s Medal of Honor and Merit. 

To learn more about Todd Duncan, read his American National Biography entry here. An illuminating 1980’s TV interview with Duncan is available to watch here

VIDEO: Todd Duncan – Unchained Melody (Original in Color 1955)


Limmie Pulliam

Powerhouse tenor who recently made debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, first Black singer to perform the role of Radamès (Verdi’s Aida) at the Met

VIDEO: Nessun Dorma – Limmie Pulliam

If you’re not sure whether a skill fits on your resume, sometimes it pays to include it anyway – and tenor Limmie Pulliam is the proof! After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, Pulliam faced size discrimination at every turn and struggled to build an opera career. “I’d always made myself a promise that if it ever stopped being fun, I would move on to do something else,” he explained in a recent NPR interview. “I kept that promise to myself, and I moved on.” 

Pulliam’s departure from the opera world lasted over a decade. He worked in security for years, even starting his own firm, before taking a leave of absence to serve as a field organizer during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. At one event, a local beauty pageant winner who was scheduled to sing the national anthem suddenly bailed. “My boss looks at me and says, I remember on your resume that you used to sing opera. Why don’t you sing it?,” he recalled. “And he didn’t leave me much choice.” 

What Pulliam heard surprised him:

“[My voice] had gained a certain warmth. It had matured. And it had taken on a much more burnished, darker quality to it that I felt really kind of set me apart from anyone that I was hearing in the industry currently.”

(NPR)

Once the campaign was over, Pulliam threw himself into vocal study. He nurtured his new sound privately, even revisiting videotaped lessons from Oberlin, then began studying with a pedagogue in Memphis. Three years later, a friend came across a video Pulliam had posted on YouTube. She passed it on to her husband, the music director of a small opera company in Seattle, and Pulliam booked his first role back in the game. 

Pulliam proved himself a force to be reckoned with after winning the National Opera Association’s Vocal Competition in 2012. He performed in young artist programs with Cleveland Opera, Opera Delaware, and Opera Memphis and maintained a busy calendar of engagements, building up to a series of high-profile debuts in recent years. Critics lauded his “healthy, focused, ringing tenor” at his 2021 L.A. Opera debut, where he starred as Manrico in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. In December 2022, Pulliam broke a historical precedent with his Metropolitan Opera debut by becoming the company’s first Black artist to portray Radamès in Verdi’s Aida. Most recently, he made his Carnegie Hall debut singing the title role in R. Nathaniel Dett’s “The Ordering of Moses.”

At 47, Pulliam is a rapidly rising star – and aside from his otherworldly voice, his persistence says it all. “My mantra has become, you know, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” he explained to NPR. “You never know when that phone call may come, whether it’s a performance or offer you a particular role or any other type of job opportunity. But do the work to be prepared when that call comes.”

To learn more about Limmie Pulliam, visit his official website here



Sources and Further Reading

Todd Duncan, 95; Sang Porgy and Helped Desegregate Opera (New York Times)

Duncan, Todd (American National Biography)

He Quit Singing Because of Body Shaming. Now He’s Making a Comeback. (New York Times)

Opera singer Tenor Limmie Pulliam reflects on his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 47 (NPR)

Limmie Pulliam Official Website




TIMPANISTS

Elayne Jones

First Black principal in a major American orchestra; first Black person to play in an opera orchestra

Elayne Jones, timpanist
CC BY-SA 4.0

With a curious spirit and an ear for music, an adolescent Elayne Jones often attended New York Philharmonic concerts by herself. One day in 1958, she would become the first Black musician to perform with the orchestra – just one of many historical firsts that spanned her career. Raised by a mother who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, Jones studied piano and sang in a choir growing up, but it wasn’t until high school that she was introduced to percussion (and not by choice). Though she gravitated toward the violin, a teacher pushed her into percussion due to a racist stereotype. Jones excelled, and in 1945, she began her studies at the Juilliard School with a scholarship provided by Duke Ellington. 

In the same year of her graduation, Jones became the first Black person to play in an opera orchestra as her eleven-year career with the New York City Opera began. She later co-founded the Symphony of the New World, the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States, in the 1960s. During this time, she met with a group of fellow musicians determined to solve a glaring problem: orchestras weren’t hiring women and people of color. Jones and her peers developed the concept of the “blind” audition, now a virtually universal practice in symphony orchestras.

Jones was said to have become the first Black principal musician in a major American orchestra upon winning a blind audition at the San Francisco Symphony in 1972. “I wouldn’t have gotten the job if the screen wasn’t in play,” she later said, “I’m the recipient of a thing that I worked on.” She was immediately popular with audiences and critics: one reporter wrote that her playing was “so rounded and suave [he] just about fell out of [his] seat.” However, when Jones was up for tenure nearly two years later, she was denied – a result that came with no explanation and conflicted with the advice of music director Seiji Ozawa. All six of her white colleagues hired in the same year were granted tenure.

As outrage spread with the news of Jones’ rejection, audience members picketed and started petitions. Peers from around the globe began to flood her with calls. But despite the mounting scandal and a high-profile discrimination lawsuit, Jones was denied tenure once again in 1975. 

Though her ties with the San Francisco Symphony were fractured, Jones remained a beloved – and tenured – member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra for 23 years until her retirement in 1998.

Elayne Jones passed away at the age of 94 on December 17, 2022. In an interview with the Percussive Arts Society, Jones expressed how she would like to be remembered:

“As a musical percussionist… because some people don’t think of us as musicians! But I loved every minute of it. I was lucky; music came easy for me, and I would like everybody to feel and love the music the same way that I feel and love it.”

More information about Jones’ life and legacy can be found in her autobiography, Little Lady with a Big Drum (2021), and in obituaries from the New York Times and San Francisco Classical Voice. Watch Jones’ Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame induction video here



Jauvon Gilliam

First African-American principal in National Symphony Orchestra history

Video: Your NSO Principal Timpanist | NSO@Home: Jauvon Gilliam

Given a choice between sports and music as a child, timpanist Jauvon Gilliam immersed himself in both – but luckily for today’s audiences at the Kennedy Center, music eventually won out. Like Elayne Jones, Jauvon Gilliam got an early start on the piano, winning his first national competition at 11 and later entering Butler University on a full scholarship for piano performance. A few years later, Gilliam graduated from Butler with a degree in arts administration and a new passion: the timpani. 

Gilliam was hired fresh out of graduate school as principal timpanist at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. “I knew nothing about Canada,” he revealed in an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press. “After I won the audition, I went to Earls on Main and pulled out a map to see where Winnipeg was.” After seven highly successful years with the WSO, Gilliam bested roughly 60 candidates to win the National Symphony Orchestra’s principal timpanist position in 2009, a unanimous selection that made him the first African-American principal in the orchestra’s history. 

Now the Director of Percussion Studies at the University of Maryland and a coach for the National Youth Orchestra in addition to his duties at the NSO, Gilliam makes a point to invest in his students as his teachers invested in him. “I try to give [my students] as much information, as much help as I can,” he told the American Federation of Musicians in 2020. “If you have a kid who’s willing to put the work in, the sky’s the limit.” 

A founding board member of the Alliance of Black Orchestral Percussionists, Gilliam has been a dedicated advocate for diversity in classical music throughout his career. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, he co-founded We Over Me Productions, described in his Kennedy Center bio as “a production company created to use the arts to tell a story that will keep the conversation of systemic racism, social inequities and injustices at the forefront of people’s consciousness in an effort to create lasting change through tangible actions.” In 2021, Gilliam opened The Shed DMV, a multifunctional rehearsal space for artists of all levels and backgrounds, which now serves thousands of local students through community outreach efforts.

To read more about Jauvon Gilliam, check out his Kennedy Center bio here



Sources and Further Reading

In Memoriam: Timpanist Elayne Jones, 94 (San Francisco Classical Voice)

Elayne Jones, Pioneering Percussionist, Is Dead at 94 (New York Times)

Symphony of the New World (WIkipedia)

Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame: Elayne Jones (Percussive Arts Society)

Butler Stories: Jauvon Gilliam ’01 (Butler University)

Jauvon Gilliam (The Kennedy Center)

City timpanist drums up gig in Washington (Winnipeg Free Press)

Timpanist Jauvon Gilliam Drives the Rhythm (American Federation of Musicians)

The Shed DMV Website



Black History Month: The First and the Future

Each week throughout the month of February, WDAV’s First and The Future blog series highlights two Black composers or musicians who have shaped the course of classical music: one who shattered a historical barrier, and one whose extraordinary achievements in the same field continue today. Check back here every Monday for the next pair of classical artists!






PIANISTS

Hazel Harrison

The first fully American-trained musician to appear with a European orchestra; the first Black woman to perform as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic

Portrait of Hazel Harrison.
Hazel Harrison

Born in 1883, pianist Hazel Harrison’s proficiency at just 8 years old allowed her to earn extra money accompanying local parties and dances. While attending one such event, German pianist Victor Heinze noticed Harrison’s remarkable gifts and asked to take her on as a student. She would continue to study with Heinze throughout her early years, even commuting to Chicago regularly from LaPorte, Indiana to maintain her studies after he moved. Harrison developed a steady career as a private instructor and performer in her late teens, but it wasn’t until two years after her high school graduation that her big break arrived. 

In 1904, Harrison was invited to travel to Germany to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. The concert, at which she played Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, was both a critical success and the marker of two historical firsts: Harrison became the first entirely American-trained musician to perform with a European orchestra and the first Black woman to perform as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic. Her 1910 performance at Chicago’s Kimball Hall was an even greater success, inspiring one music critic to advocate for the local music community to sponsor Harrison’s return to Germany for continued training. 

Faced with the challenges of World War I and the Great Depression, opportunities to perform grew scarce for Harrison after her time in Europe, though she did continue to play concerts and recitals periodically. Harrison spent six years teaching at the Tuskegee Institute, once giving a student this advice

“You must always play your best… even if it’s in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there’ll always be a little man hidden behind the stove.”

Harrison later became chair of the piano faculty at Howard University, where she established the Olive J. Harrison Piano Scholarship Fund in honor of her mother. She passed away at the age of 86 in 1969. For more information on Hazel Harrison’s life and accomplishments, read a full bio here. 



Isata Kanneh-Mason

At 25 years old, Isata Kanneh-Mason is quickly gaining traction as one of today’s most extraordinary young pianists. Though neither of her parents are musicians, Kanneh-Mason was raised in a deeply musical family: she is the oldest of seven siblings, all of whom excel in classical music, and the family often comes together for collaborative videos and recordings. In 2015, Kanneh-Mason and six of her siblings made it to the semi-finals on Britain’s Got Talent, where Simon Cowell commented that the Kanneh-Masons were “probably the most talented family in the world.” 

Family accomplishments aside, Kanneh-Mason has more than earned distinction as a soloist in recent years. After receiving her Master of Arts in Performance degree in 2020 from London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she studied as an Elton John Scholar, her concert career has reached new heights with engagements across the globe. Kanneh-Mason’s accomplishments in just the past three years include being named one of the European Concert Hall Organization’s Rising Stars, making her Wigmore Hall solo recital debut, serving as Young Artist in Residence with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and making her debut as a television presenter at 2019 BBC Proms.

Gramophone magazine lauded Kanneh-Mason’s 2019 debut album, “Romance – the Piano Music of Clara Schumann,” as “one of the most charming and engaging debuts.” Her second album, “Summertime,” was released in July 2021. Last November, Kanneh-Mason and her brother Sheku spoke with NPR about the importance of representation in classical music: 

“We always feel so happy when there are more young people, and more Black people in our audiences… when they say they started playing because of seeing us, I think it’s just a wonderful thing. And it definitely keeps you wanting to do it, and it keeps you inspired.”

Kanneh-Mason’s recent accolades include the 2021 Leonard Bernstein Award, a 2020 Opus Klassik Best Young Artist award, and the 2021 Best Classical Artist award at the Global Awards (won jointly with her siblings). To read more about Isata Kanneh-Mason, visit her official website here. 

Video: Isata Kanneh-Mason – I Got Rhythm – Earl Wild (After George Gershwin)



Sources and Further Reading

Extraordinary pianist and gifted teacher Hazel Harrison (New York Amsterdam News)

Hazel Lucile Harrison (1883-1969) (Blackpast)

Hazel Harrison (WIkipedia)

Isata Kanneh-Mason (Official Website: Isata Kanneh-Mason)

Isata Kanneh-Mason (Official Website: The Kanneh-Masons)

For classical stars Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason, representation matters (NPR)






CLASSICAL GUITARISTS

Justin Holland

One of the earliest American guitar virtuosos; considered the United States’ first Black classical guitarist and Cleveland’s first Black professional musician

Justin Holland
By William J. Simmons(Life time: unknown) - Original publication: Men of MarkImmediate

Classical guitarist and civil rights activist Justin Holland is remembered as one of the United States’ most important early classical music figures. Born in Virginia in 1819, Holland moved to Boston at 14 after the death of his parents and Nat Turner’s Insurrection, and there he discovered a knack for the guitar. He would go on to study with guitar masters at Oberlin College followed by two years in Mexico, where he honed his Spanish language skills to better understand classical guitar pedagogy “at its source.” 

Holland returned to Ohio in 1845 and settled in Cleveland, quickly establishing himself as a well respected, no-nonsense guitar instructor; in his own words, he maintained “the most cautious and circumspect demeanor, considering the relation a mere business one that gave me no claims upon my pupils’ attention or hospitality beyond what any ordinary business matter would give.” In addition to his musical pursuits, Holland was known to work with Frederick Douglass as a member of the Underground Railroad and campaigned tirelessly for abolition and civil rights throughout his life. 

Now considered Cleveland’s first Black professional musician, his reputation as a composer, performer, and teacher blossomed into fame. Holland played the guitar, piano, and flute professionally, and his many published works achieved national popularity (though he is credited with 35 original compositions and 300 arrangements, roughly ⅔ of those have been lost). His instructional texts, including his Comprehensive Method for the Guitar (1874), were some of the earliest of their kind in the United States and remain hugely influential in classical guitar instruction today.  

For more information about Justin Holland, find a full bio and media sources on his life in the links below. 

Video: Ernie Jackson plays Rochester Schottische by W. H. Ruliston, arranged by Justin Holland



Raphaël Feuillâtre

Video: Rameau’s “Le Rappel Des Oiseaux” played by Raphaël Feuillâtre

Hailed as a “tremendously versatile and sensitive player,” French classical guitarist Raphaël Feuillâtre was already well known in European circles when he entered the U.S. classical guitar scene with a splash: in 2018, he took first prize at the Guitar Foundation of America International Concert Artist Competition, the most important American competition of its kind. Born in 1996, Feuillâtre explains his childhood attraction to the guitar in an interview with Classical Guitar Magazine:

“I’ve no exact memories of why I chose the guitar, but it was this instrument or nothing! … First, I had an electric guitar toy and then a classical one. I would play it all the time, so my parents understood that it was not just some childish desire, but something I really wanted and probably needed.”

Feuillâtre started guitar lessons at the Cholet Conservatory at age nine, soon moving up to the Conservatory of Nantes and the Paris National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Classical Guitar with highest honors. Now just 26 years old, his achievements – though remarkable – have only just begun. In addition to his landmark GFA competition win, he is the recipient of several major awards, including first prize at both the International Guitar Competition José Tomás and the Concours & Festival de Guitare. WQXR named his album “Guitar Recital: Raphaël Feuillâtre” one of the best classical recordings of 2019, praising his “virtuoso technique and elegant phrasing.”

Feuillâtre planned to stop competing as of July 2019, choosing to focus instead on his burgeoning career as a concert artist and instructor. His full bio can be found here



Sources and Further Reading

The Legacy of Guitar Virtuoso Justin Holland Lives On (The Met)

Remembering Justin Holland, guitarist and crusader (Boston Globe)

HOLLAND, JUSTIN (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History)

Justin Holland (WUOL)

Justin Holland (Wikipedia)

Raphaël Feuillâtre Puts His Stamp on the Classical Guitar World (Classical Guitar Magazine)

RAPHAËL FEUILLATRE (Suarez)

The Best Classical Recordings of 2019 (WQXR)






MUSICOLOGISTS 

Dr. Eileen Southern

First Black woman to hold a tenured full professorship at Harvard University; publisher of the first musicological journal on the study of Black music

VIDEO: Light the Way Home: Eileen Southern’s Story || Harvard Radcliffe institute

It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Dr. Eileen Southern’s work on the scholarship of Black music. Born in Minneapolis in 1920, Southern studied piano throughout her early years, making her debut at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall at the age of 18. During the 1940’s, Southern completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Chicago, embarked on a decades-long teaching career, and toured the United States as a concert pianist. 

Having received her Ph.D. at New York University, Southern became a music faculty member at Brooklyn College in the 1960’s. There, she was asked to develop a course incorporating Black Studies into the musicology field. Southern was infuriated when a colleague claimed there was “nothing to Black music” in a meeting about the course’s potential and sought out works that would prove his remarks were baseless. However, only three books on the subject had been published at the time, and none were widely available – so Southern got to work, scouring libraries and collections for original materials. The painstaking research she devoted to the effort was so comprehensive that it became the basis for her book The Music of Black Americans, still considered a landmark work in music studies today. 

Southern and her husband Joseph made history with the founding of The Black Perspective in Music, the first musicological journal on the study of Black music, in 1973. The journal’s mission was clearly defined in its first editorial

“[The Black Perspective in Music] seeks to improve the conditions for the performance, publication, and recording of an important area of American and African music that hitherto has not received its due share of attention.”

The following year, Southern joined the faculty of Harvard University, soon becoming the first Black woman to hold a tenured professorship at the institution. Southern’s time at Harvard was filled with remarkable successes in spite of racist and sexist treatment from fellow faculty members, including her instrumental role in the development of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department and service as its first chair. 
Among other accolades, Southern was the recipient of a 2001 National Humanities Medal for her work to “transform the study and understanding of American music” and a 2000 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for American Music. More information about Southern’s life, work, and influence can be found through Harvard’s Eileen Southern Initiative.



Dr. Samantha Ege

VIDEO: Fantasie Nègre No.4 in B Minor [original] by Florence Price performed by Samantha Ege

A “leading interpreter and scholar” of composer Florence Price (and 2019 Society for American Music Eileen Southern Fellowship recipient), Dr. Samantha Ege is making incredible strides as a champion of composers from underrepresented backgrounds. Ege, who began playing the piano at the age of three, was astonished to hear the music of Margaret Bonds and Florence Price for the first time during one of her undergraduate classes. “It had been inculcated in me to see classical music through a narrow lens that rendered the contributions of Black women entirely absent,” Ege explained in an op-ed for The Guardian. “My music education proceeded from there and left me looking into a world in which I felt I could never truly belong.” Galvanized by the discovery of influential Black women in classical music, Ege’s lifelong passion for lesser-known works took root. 

In 2009, a scenario straight out of a musicologist’s wildest dreams unfolded: though much of Florence Price’s work was believed to be lost, a trove of her written scores and papers was discovered in an abandoned house set to be renovated. For the past several years, Ege has combed through the archives, working to catalog and preserve the pages’ priceless content. Ege was particularly interested in Price’s Fantasie Nègre No 3 in F Minor, a presumed-unfinished work that “ended after two pages really abruptly.” 

Using Price’s other compositions as a blueprint, Ege’s hypotheses on “where the music could go” led her to uncover what she believed to be the work’s remaining pages, which had been sitting untouched for decades. As she played through the music that evening, Ege realized that the pieces fit perfectly into place. She described to BBC Music that it felt like “history was coming to life… I sort of had chills thinking about the fact that I am hearing this music for the first time in this century.” Ege recorded the complete work for the first time as part of her 2021 album “Fantasie Nègre – The Piano Music of Florence Price,” which includes numerous other finds from the archive. 
Currently the Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, Ege has received the American Musicological Society’s 2021 Noah Greenberg Award and will publish her first book, South Side Impresarios: Race Women in the Realm of Music, in 2024. Ege’s third studio album, “Black Renaissance Woman,” will be released later this year. To learn more about Dr. Samantha Ege’s achievements and current projects, visit her official website here.

VIDEO: Four Women pianist Samantha Ege on Florence Price


Sources and Further Reading

The Work of Pioneering Musicologist Eileen Southern (JSTOR Daily)

Eileen Jackson Southern Memorial Minute (The Harvard Gazette)

Eileen Southern and the Music of Black Americans

The Eileen Southern Initiative (Harvard University) 

Florence Price: Forgotten work by pioneering composer rediscovered (BBC)

‘Their music lit a fire in me’: hearing the voices of three neglected composers gave me my own (The Guardian)

Dr. Samantha Ege – Official Website






Everett Lee

Everett Lee (1948)
By Carl Van Vechten,
Library of Congress, Public Domain.

First Black Conductor on Broadway

After being introduced to the violin at the age of 8, conductor, violinist, and scholar Everett Lee’s musical gifts took flight quickly. He continued his studies in violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music, later touring the southern United States as a well-known concert violinist, and pursued conducting at The Juilliard School. 

Lee’s history-making Broadway career began when he was asked to move to New York City to join the orchestra for “Carmen Jones,” an update of Georges Bizet’s Carmen featuring an all-Black cast, in 1943. One night, Lee was asked to fill in at the podium when the show’s regular conductor was snowed in – and Leonard Bernstein happened to hear Lee’s work with the orchestra. Impressed, Bernstein invited Lee to serve as permanent music director for his musical “On the Town.” Lee agreed, becoming Broadway’s first Black conductor in 1945. 

In the coming years, Lee would continue to break barriers as one of the first Black conductors to lead both a major opera company and a white orchestra in the American South, but racism denied him many opportunities afforded to white conductors of his status. Oscar Hammerstein II notably refused to hire Lee as a conductor for his touring shows, giving the excuse that stops in the South would be difficult to book with Lee at the helm. In a 1970 interview with the Atlanta Constitution, Lee recalled being turned away from auditions at two major American orchestras: 

“I then made up my mind that if I can’t join you, then I will lead you. I did make good on that promise to myself. Those two orchestras that denied me even an audition, I have conducted… I just had to. I just had to show them that I was there.”

After Lee and his family expatriated to Germany in 1957, his star began to rise throughout Europe, where he became the chief conductor of Sweden’s Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in 1962. His lengthy and highly decorated career included directing tenures at Columbia University’s opera department, the Symphony of the New World, and Colombia’s Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra, and he made regular conducting appearances at Carnegie Hall through the 1980’s. 

Lee passed away earlier this year at the age of 105, leaving behind a remarkable legacy for generations of conductors to come. Archivists in Lee’s hometown of Wheeling, Ohio compiled the following video in honor of his life. 



VIDEO: Everett Lee Tribute


Ofentse Pitse

First Black South African Woman to Conduct and Own an All-Black Orchestra

Young conductor and architect Ofentse Pitse is the founder and leader of Anchored Sound, an all-Black orchestra based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Pitse fell in love with music growing up in the band and choral traditions of her church, but her access to formal music education was limited; in an interview with Forbes Africa, Pitse describes the elitist environment of her childhood school’s music department: 

“I remember one day just wanting to touch the piano in the music department… and being told, ‘no, you can’t touch the piano’. That made me feel so small. My argument will always be that you have to be what you want to see; you cannot fight a system if you are not willing to challenge it yourself.”

Though she went on to pursue a career in architecture, Pitse’s passion for music only grew stronger. Intrigued by standout soloists she had encountered at choir competitions in the area, Pitse gathered a handful of singers for a jam session at a local church on her 25th birthday – and immediately sensed that she had found something special. The jam sessions continued to grow week after week, and before long, an entire orchestra had materialized. 

Initially apprehensive to lead the orchestra, Pitse reached out to conductor Gerben Grooten for mentorship. Describing her “raw talent and raw passion” in an interview with South Africa’s Sunday Times, Grooten explained that Pitse “has had an upside-down journey… she truly is a pioneer, doing what has never been done before.” Three years later, Anchored Sound has evolved into a 45-piece orchestra and 30-member choir, and Pitse’s conducting gifts have blossomed with countless hours of practice and coaching. Proceeds from the orchestra’s concerts and engagements go toward educational opportunities for its members. 

Despite the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pitse’s hopes for Anchored Sound and the future of distinctly African orchestral music haven’t dimmed: “I’m eagerly excited… to find out how the spirit of Africa can come alive within this new world of what an orchestra can be.”

VIDEO: Changing the tune


Sources and Further Reading

Everett Lee, First African-American to Conduct on Broadway, Has Died at 105 (The Violin Channel)

Everett Lee, the First Black Conductor on Broadway, Passes Away at 105 (Ebony Magazine)

Everett Lee (Wikipedia)

Ofentse Pitse, first black South African woman to own and conduct an all-Black orchestra (Face2Face Africa)

Young conductor Ofentse Pitse is taking up her own baton (Sunday Times South Africa)

VIDEO: Ofentse Pitse Newzroom Africa Interview

The Musician Who is Conducting Inspiration Even During Covid (Forbes Africa)

Ofentse Pitse (Wikipedia)

This Is My Story, This Is My Song

Pictured: Corey Barksdale‘s Budda Bar I, Acrylic on Canvas 48″ x 24″

by Dr. Carl Dupont

It is a great honor to tour the country with the American Spiritual Ensemble. The group’s mission, to preserve and celebrate the Negro Spiritual, fulfills a professional goal of mine as a teacher, performer, and researcher interested in promoting the intellectual legacy of black musicians.

However, and most significantly, performing with the group also fulfills a desire I have to communicate with my ancestors. In this country’s infancy Africans and their descendants were prohibited from acquiring literacy in an attempt to control their reality in service to a white supremacist agenda.

In response, these mothers, fathers, architects, farmers, dancers, healers, inventors, mechanics, and preachers became musical storytellers in order to create music that could tell of their experience during enslavement. Without the aid of pen or paper they implemented the Negro Spiritual as a musical tool to transmit their hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations into the present.

Whereas some people proudly show off their family’s tartan or crest, I can look to the Negro Spiritual as my connection to the past. I can hear the voices and feel spirits of the ancestors singing to me as I sing to them.

When I am performing with the American Spiritual Ensemble, I am on stage with a generation of talented opera singers that have sung in major opera houses and concert halls all over the world – and I can feel how proud we are making the ancestors – who endured the harshest of conditions – so we could thrive.

Honoring their sacrifice by keeping their music alive is a privilege and a duty. It reminds me to keep pressing towards a day for full equality and inclusion.

Dr. Carl Dupont is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. To learn more about the American Spiritual Ensemble, click here.

 

L.A. Theatre works observes 50th Anniversary of MLK Assassination with radio drama “The Mountaintop”

Pictured: Gilbert Glenn Brown and Karen Malina White from the radio drama, The Mountaintop. Photo by Matt Petit.

This year, we mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, only a few hours after his historic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The radio drama, The Mountaintop, imagines what may have occurred in King’s hotel room just before his tragic death.

We spoke with The Mountaintop’s Producing Director Susan Loewenberg to get her insight on this important work.

 

Q: What do you hope the audience takes away from this performance of The Mountaintop?

A: My hope is that our audiences come away from seeing The Mountaintop with a deeper understanding of the complex and beautiful soul of one of our greatest leaders who was taken from us at the age of 39. Who knows how he would have evolved? We can only speculate. But his message, his doubts, his frailties, his convictions, his commitment to a crucial cause deserve our undying admiration, respect and understanding.

Q: Why do you feel it’s important to highlight Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with this behind-the-scenes approach?

A: Good plays engage audiences both emotionally and intellectually. In order to accomplish emotional engagement, we need to be able see behind the façade. An audience wants more from a character than his/her public persona. When both the emotions and the intellect are engaged simultaneously you have “combustion,” and that is the mark of a good play.

Q: What’s unique about the “live-in-performance” radio drama experience? Why do you think radio is still an important medium today?

A: Live-in performance radio drama is our signature form for presenting our work. Interestingly, without elaborate sets and movement, you, the audience, are able to have a more intense experience focusing on terrific performances and indelible words. For the actors, it is a challenging feat to be able to communicate using only your voice. It requires intense concentration and an awareness that everything must be communicated vocally. I often say to actors, “It’s great to smile, but unless the smile is in your voice, no one listening will ever know that you are smiling.” Regarding the importance of radio today- yes, it is still important. But radio, like every media outlet, must adapt to the reality of digital technology. So radio now includes streaming and podcasting, all in the service of enabling the listener to avail themselves of the medium anywhere, anytime. 

The Davidson College Artist Series brings The Mountaintop to Charlotte-area audiences Friday, February 23, 2018. For more information about this performance, click here.

Romantic Pieces by Black Composers

Pictured: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

At WDAV, the month of February brings with it two great programming opportunities. Though we play a wide selection of classical music throughout the year, in February we get to highlight certain pieces as we celebrate both Black History Month and Valentine’s Day. It may seem that the calendar coincidence is all that connects these two holidays, but they actually overlap when it comes to classical music, too. Many incredibly romantic pieces have been composed by talented black musicians, and we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorites below. Enjoy!

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Romance in G for Violin and Orchestra

Coleridge-Taylor was a prolific composer whose works included several string quartets, symphonies, sonatas, and songs. Named after the famous poet, Coleridge-Taylor studied at the Royal College of Music in London and soon gained renown as the “African Mahler.” Here, one of his many romances is performed by the London Philharmonic with Nicholas Braithwaite conducting and Lorraine McAslan on violin.

 

 

Robert Nathaniel Dett: “Magnolias” from Magnolia Suite

Dett is a Canadian-born composer, musician, and professor who grew to fame in America for his use of African American folk and spiritual music as inspiration for Romantic Era-style classical music. His piano and choral pieces are so noteworthy that a choir in Canada dedicated to the works of black composers bears his name. Here, Denver Oldham performs the opening to Dett’s Magnolia Suite, which premiered around 1912.

 

 

H. Leslie Adams: “The Heart of a Woman”

Adams went from studying music at Oberlin College, California State University, and Ohio State to a successful career as an orchestral composer. His works, mostly notably piano etudes and choral pieces, have been performed by countless symphonies around the world. Here, Darryl Taylor performs his piece The Heart of a Woman, an arrangement of the poem by G.D. Johnson, with Robin Guy on piano.

 

 

Florence Price: “Song to a Dark Virgin”

Price is one of the most successful black female composers in the 20th century, as she was “the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer.” This piece, an arrangement of the Langston Hughes poem by the same name, is hauntingly beautiful, performed here by opera singer Marie Hadley Robinson

William Grant Still: A Music-Maker and a Groundbreaker

Pictured: William Grant Still in 1949; credit: Carl van Vechten on Wikipedia.

by Hannah Liberman

To the opera-goers who attended the NYC Opera on March 31, 1949, Troubled Island was simply another original work premiering at the renowned theatre. But the three-act opera, chronicling the assassination of a self-proclaimed emperor during the Haitian revolution of the late 18th century, was so much more than initially met the eye.

With music composed by William Grant Still and a libretto partially written by Langston Hughes, it was the first opera composed by an African American to be produced by a major opera house.

As unprecedented as it was, Troubled Island was met with mixed reviews. Critics questioned Still’s ability to transition from “the soufflé of operetta [to] the soup bone of opera,” and the show was never revived in full.

What’s more, the opening cast featured two white opera stars as the lead characters, while both had been written as black Haitians. But Troubled Island earned 22 curtain calls its opening night, and its legacy as a revolutionary work- both in content and context- continues to this day.

It not only beautifully brought new subject matter to the opera world, but opened up conversation about the lack of representation of marginalized groups in American opera.

Troubled Island may not be in some opera enthusiasts’ repertoires, but it has stood the test of time, with noteworthy productions happening as recently as 2013. Meanwhile, opera companies are starting to replace outdated practices so more prolific artists like Still can have their works produced.

Watch a performance of “I Dream a World” from Troubled Island:

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Hannah Lieberman is a senior at Davidson College where she studies Political Science and Theatre. She loves her work at WDAV, where you can hear her live on Sunday mornings.