Saturday, October 3, 2020 Orchestras Are Rushing to Add Black Composers. Will It Last?

Credit...Leo Acadia

Oct. 2, 2020

In June, as millions of Americans filled city streets with Black Lives Matter demonstrations and millions more rushed to share their solidarity online, the composer Jessie Montgomery noticed something unusual.

Orchestras across the country, already in upheaval because of the coronavirus pandemic and in the process of improvising new seasons, were asking to perform her music. A lot of orchestras: By the end of this year, her works will have been programmed more than twice as much as they were in 2019.

“I’m sort of flabbergasted, to be honest with you,” Ms. Montgomery, who is Black, said in an interview. “It’s also happening with my Black colleagues. They’re getting a lot more attention. It’s clearly a response.”

Classical music is not generally known for its swift responsiveness to current events. It is a field in which events are planned well — often years — in advance and the repertoire is overwhelmingly antique, white and male. In past seasons, concerts with works by composers of color tended to be noteworthy merely for existing; but this fall, orchestral programming has made a sudden, drastic leap forward in racial representation.

This isn’t what had been announced earlier in the year, before the pandemic wiped the coming season’s calendar clean. In the United States, many ensembles still aren’t able to perform. Some, however, have replaced their planned seasons with abbreviated ones — spun as “reimagined” — streamed online from empty concert halls.

Now, more than ever before, you’re likely to find music by George Walker, Anthony Davis or Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Major orchestras like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Symphony put works by Black composers on their first online programs. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra — which opened its season not with “The Star-Spangled Banner” but Ms. Montgomery’s “Banner” — plans to have composers of color represented on every livestream this fall. The New York Philharmonic’s Bandwagon series of pop-up concerts debuted with a premiere by the Black composer Carlos Simon.

Credit...Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

All of this amounts to welcome change, but it also raises questions about what has kept orchestras from more representative programming in the past — and whether they are truly committed to long-term transformation.

“There’s a real sense of people trying to save face,” Ms. Montgomery said. “It has to be met with some skepticism. It’s always this concern that I’m being programmed just to fit a mold, like I’m being tokenized.”

Leaders from a few of the orchestras that have made noticeable strides in their programming noted how the pandemic, while devastating to the industry at large, made a substantial reconsideration of their repertoire possible.

“We have this challenge in front of us,” said Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, “but it’s provided some real opportunity.”

It’s one thing to mix up programming in a unique season; it’s another to take more lasting steps toward racial equity. Over the summer, Black artists spoke out about the lack of representation not just in orchestral repertoire, but also in administration, community engagement and the players onstage.

Performing music by Black composers is the least an orchestra can do. Given the flexibility of the moment, if ensembles don’t continue to diversify the repertoire in coming years, this fall will not have been much better than the platitudes that proliferated on social media in June.

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