Monday, January 10, 2022 Power and grace: Composer Bill Banfield and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra open the world’s ears to the works of Black composers

Bill Banfield with the WCO at one of last summer's Concerts on the Square.


Banfield is retired from a professorship at the Berklee College of Music in Boston but remains active in performing, research and educational initiatives. He has composed 13 symphonies, nine operas, seven concerti, two ballets, and countless pieces of chamber, jazz and popular music. Jazz musician Quincy Jones signed him up to create a curriculum and text to teach popular music in America’s public schools, one of six books the musician has written. He cites Detroit Symphony conductor Paul Freeman and jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave as mentors who helped shape his musical career and his social views.

Banfield graduated from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School (which boasts other celebrated alumni including singer Diana Ross, jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd, comedienne Lily Tomlin, and automotive engineer John DeLorean). Banfield credits the environment and the times for sparking his musical interests.

“What draws young people to the arts is what’s inside of them and how their environment opens them up to arts experiences,” Banfield says. “I was living in a vibrant city at a vibrant time. We had everything from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to Motown.”

In the largely white world of classical music, Banfield sees challenges, but also enormous opportunities. “The most important thing is to recognize Black classical artists, do justice to the canon and perform music that matters to our time,” Banfield says. There is the composer born into slavery but recognized as the “Black Mozart”: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. There are contemporary artists including Florence Price, William Grant Still, George Walker and Patrice Rushen (whose composition Sinfonia also will be performed by the orchestra on Jan. 28), but their contributions are often overlooked.

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