Saturday, November 13, 2010

In UMass Lowell Magazine, Kay George Roberts Says: 'You have to fight the isolation black classical musicians face'

[Dr. Kay George Roberts]

When AfriClassical began to consider a feature on the conductor Kay George Roberts, we were told of a cover story on her in the University of Massachusetts Lowell Magazine for Spring, 2009. The article is such a comprehensive introduction that we have chosen to post a series of excerpts before asking any questions of our own. What follows is the first:

Nashville was a segregated city in the 1950s, when Kay Roberts was a child there. And when a local elementary school teacher, a man named Robert Holmes, asked to teach stringed music in the city’s public schools, the man in charge said no. 'Blacks cannot learn to play string instruments,' Holmes was told. And the matter should have been closed. But Holmes saw it differently. 'Give me the instruments and I’ll try anyway,' he told the music superintendent— then formed an all-black youth ensemble that he called the Cremona Strings (named for the small Italian city where, 500 years ago, the Stradivari family first made its violins) and began rehearsing his kids.

One of that group was the young Kay Roberts. And if you want to understand how the schoolgirl came to be the musician, conductor and educator she is today— and the tireless advocate for all things new and overlooked— there is probably no better place to begin. 'As an African-American woman, I am a minority within a minority,' says the UMass Lowell music professor, who came out of that experience nearly fifty years ago as a violinist in the Nashville Youth Symphony— and not long after, still a senior in high school, as the youngest member of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra— before winning a scholarship to Tanglewood, then admission to the Yale school of music, where she would be the first woman, black or white, to earn her doctorate in conducting.

'Without that early exposure, I never would have pursued a music career. You have to fight the isolation black classical musicians face, once they enter the mostly white world of symphony orchestras.' She has been fighting that isolation ever since, not only for herself but for others. Today, as founder and director of an orchestra whose mission is to link cultures through music – bringing to Lowell one opera that memorializes Cambodian oppression and another that fuses African drumming with jazz and gospel styles – and of a community-outreach program that offers stringed-instrument lessons to public school kids, she has been championing overlooked causes almost since the days when she was part of one herself.

'Kay Roberts has dedicated her career to advocating for the under-represented and overlooked in society, promoting music education for children and using music as a bridge to connect cultures,' UMass President Jack Wilson said last April in announcing his choice of Roberts as one of six winners of the 2007 President’s Award for Public Service. 'She utilizes her love of music to reach out to the community.' And, he might just as easily have said, to the world.

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