Friday, January 1, 2021

Bill Doggett: A Landmark Feature for Black Conductors: 13 Black conductors, past and present, who’ve inspired us from the podium

 Great conductors Thomas Wilkins, Calvin E. Simmons and Kalena Bovell. Picture: Getty / Chris Christodoulou 

By Rosie Pentreath

December 31, 2020

Classical music wouldn’t be the same without these trailblazers. From Rudolph Dunbar to Anne ‘Georgianne’ Lundy, these are the late and living Black conductors you should know.

We salute just 13 of the many Black conductors, past and present, who have taken to the podium and changed the course of classical music in doing so.

Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799)

Classical era violin prodigy and composer Joseph Boulogne was also an ensemble leader and conductor. Dubbed ‘the Black Mozart’, the chevalier was one of the first Black colonels in the French army, which is where he got the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, and he conducted one of Europe’s greatest orchestras of his time – Le Concert des Amateurs.

Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Picture: Getty

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912)

A British composer and conductor, Coleridge-Taylor studied at the Royal College of Music, and after graduating – as well as being a professor and receiving wide recognition for works like Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast – conducted the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire and other ensembles and music competitions. His daughter, Gwendolyn, followed in her father’s footsteps and was a composer and conductor too

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

William Grant Still (1895 – 1978)

American composer-conductor William Grant Still was a man of many firsts, including making history as the first Black conductor to direct a major US orchestra – when he conducted the LA Philharmonic in two of his own works at Hollywood Bowl in July 1936. Grant Still has been dubbed the ‘Dean of Afro-American composers’. 

William Grant Still
Picture: Getty

Rudolph Dunbar (1907 – 1999)

Rudolph Dunbar was a Guyanese conductor, clarinettist, composer and journalist, active in New York’s 1920s jazz scene and beyond. He was a friend of William Grant Still (see above), and studied composition in Paris.

His compositions include the ballet Dance of the Twenty-First Century, which was written in 1938 for Cambridge University’s Footlights comedy club. Dunbar made history in September 1945 when he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic – the first time a Black conductor had done so in the orchestra’s then-65-year history, and having done so as “a US war correspondent in battledress”, as Time magazine stated.

Rudolph Dunbar Conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Picture: Getty

Dean Dixon (1915 – 1976)

A Columbia University and Julliard alumnus, Dixon was a very successful American conductor. He conducted so many major orchestras that it’s hard to list them all, but said list would include guest stints at NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic early in his career; and positions at Israel Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony and Sydney Symphony Orchestra; plus appearances with Chicago and San Francisco Symphonys.

His work and influence introduced the works of many American composers, including William Grant Still (see above) to European concert halls.

Dean Dixon
Picture: Getty

James DePreist (1936 – 2013)

Conductor James DePreist was the nephew of the American contralto Marian Anderson, who in 1955 was the first African American to perform at the Met. DePriest was appointed by Leonard Bernstein as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1965-66, and he conducted and directed many of the world’s major orchestras, including the Helsinki Philharmonic, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony and Oregon Symphony Orchestra.


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