Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Michigan Radio: “Grand Rapids Symphony Improves Diversity”

[Adolphus Hailstork Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3; Grand Rapids Symphony; David Lockington, conductor; Naxos 8.559295 (2007)

GR Symphony Improves Diversity
Kaomi Goetz

Grand Rapids, Michigan - March 25, 2008

The Grand Rapids Symphony is trying to expand its audiences to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the larger community. Their challenge is to overcome stereotypes about classical music and who listens to it.

Joseph Conyers practices on his upright bass backstage at DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids.
The Georgia native is in his third season with the Grand Rapids symphony. He is also one of two African-American musicians with the orchestra.

Conyers - who is a distant cousin of Democratic Congressman John Conyers - smiles when asked what he thinks about being a novelty. "It's neat. I always joke when people see me, do you play in the symphony? Don't get that too often. It's neat and unique at the same time, but I never think of myself as different or special or on the outside."

In fact, being one of only a few African-Americans in a professional classical music orchestra is not all that unusual for Conyers. He says African-Americans make up less than four percent of orchestra personnel nationwide. Conyers says it's mainly an issue of exposure. He says he like so many African-Americans grew up on a strong gospel tradition.

But few have had that same introduction to classical music. And he says it's been viewed as music as something for the elite. "The biggest thing is the social stigma, behind classical symphony orchestras If we can find a way to erase the gap from seeing it as a higher-class thing, if that was the case, I wouldn't be involved. It's music, it's a voice."

One way to encourage more African-American and Latino young people to aspire to careers in classical music is through the Sphinx Competition in Detroit. The annual competition attracts talent from around the country and allows the musicians to see and play with others, who as Conyers says, "look like him." The 26-year old is himself an alumnus of the event.

[Adolphus C. Hailstork is profiled at AfriClassical.com] Full Story

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