Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Dominique-René de Lerma: An Evening With Minister Farrakhan

Minister Louis Farrakhan

Dominique-René de Lerma:


During my final days in Chicago (it must have been 1992), a bow-tied driver picked me up from my residence on South Michigan.  I was to be a dinner guest of Minister Farrakhan.  We drove down to his residence in Hyde Park and before I was escorted into the main part of the house, I paused in an anteroom to leave behind any superfluous items. Then I marvelled at the living room: a grand piano was there along with a circular sofa.  It was a kind of indoor atrium, with Islamic decor that recalled the home where I grew up.
            Already there was my good friend of almost 40 years, pianist Sylvia Olden Lee, who introduced me to my host.  We chatted for a while, and then Minister Farrakhan offered to play the violin.  I knew he had a background in music -- he had begun the violin when six years old and by age 13 was a member of both the Boston College Orchestra and Boston Civic Symphony.  Later he had been known as Calypso Gene (his birth name was Louis Eugene Wolcott), singing and recording music from his parents' Caribbean roots.  He converted to Islam, leaving the Episcopalian church, in 1955.  He said he had always loved music, but that Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) felt this was extraneous to the mission.  Now he could return to music.
With Sylvia at the piano, he first played the Meditation from Thäis and then the second movement of the Mendelssohn concerto.  He told me he was going to continue practicing this concerto and then schedule a formal performance.  By playing Mendelssohn with an orchestra, he said, this would demonstrate he was not an anti-Semite, that this was possible while still being pro-Arab (but not supporting Zionism).  One of my skeptic Jewish friends, on hearing this, said "Tell him he should play with the Jerusalem Philharmonic!"
His performance was quite acceptable.  At that time, he could easily have auditioned successfully for admission to almost any music school in the country.
            Following this, we went to dinner.  It was a long banquet-size table.  At the far end were some women.  I sat next to Farrakhan, along with Sylvia and the widow of Elijah Muhammend.  There was no preliminary cocktail, of course, and the food was quite satisfactory, very bland however for my Mediterranean taste.  The conversation turned directly to Beethoven's ancestry.  I stated that I had never found any justification for claims of an African heritage, while Sylvia was certain Beethoven's mother was from the Caribbean.  This was not the time to argue the point, but she was wrong.  Then the topic turned to others, including Haydn.  I felt we had a rich supply of giants without resorting to idle speculation.
I left after a very cordial meeting, honored to have been a guest in the home of this soft spoken gentleman of such importance.
Not too long after, a quite young violinist was soloist at Orchestra Hall in a performance of an extant concerto by Saint-Georges' contemporary, the chevalier Meude-Monpas (then thought to have been a Black composer) -- the soloist was Rachel Barton, the conductor Michael Morgan.  I had a guest in my box, a high school violin student from Ohio that I had invited to Chicago for this concert.  She had been the subject of criticism from her Black classmates for playing the violin; seriously misinformed, they regarded the violin as an instrument Black people do not play (see http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=3648 for a 17-page consideration of this).  The visit had been approved only if her mother and music teacher came along as chaperones.  My guest was impressed by Rachel and the concerto, but her primary concern was a figure seated in a box on the other side of the hall.  "Is that Minister Farrakhan," she asked.  I assured her it was and asked if she would like to an introduction.  Such was not to be -- the Farrakhan entourage left at intermission.  Alas, I never heard from the student again and have no idea if she followed her intent to go into Black studies.  It was sadly ironic that she was from Oberlin, that her education had not included the role the violin had played in Black history.
But Farrakhan did play Mendelssohn in public.   The start of the second movement is on line at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8Ei2XwrEnA, taken from his 1993 concert in Winston-Salem, with Michael Morgan conducting.
In 2014 he performed a benefit recital for Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, an event available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c28ILwUvUJs, in which he recounts his association with Sylvia (who died in 2004) and gives more than an acceptable performance of the Thaïs Meditation and the double concerto of Bach.  Data on the concert is provided at http://africlassical.blogspot.com/2014/05/detroitnewscom-farrakhan-will-perform.html. In the years since I heard him, he had advanced significantly and proven himself to be a most sensitive musician.

Dominique-René de Lerma

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