A letter to our members from Jim Waldo, MSO Board President

It is still only few days since we had hoped to play our Family Concerts at North High and St. Matthew’s.  So tonight, I want to ask us to particularly consider our collaboration partners in the North High faculty, students, and neighborhood.

In our time working with North High, we have learned how stretched their faculty and staff are in working to meet the needs of their students in very challenging circumstances.  This year, there is a new Principal, Mauri Friestleben.  You may remember Principal Friestleben and several of her colleagues on the local news a couple of months back.  They were speaking about the intense challenge of getting the students to and from the buses and their homes safely, and keeping the immediate surroundings of their schools secure.

Last week, one of those students, DeShaun Hill, 15 years old, lost his life to apparently random violence.  He was waiting at a bus stop when he was shot.  A suspect has been arrested, but to my knowledge, there is no real idea of what might have behind the shooting.  What I do know is that DeShaun and several other North Students were waiting to take the bus downtown to a student gathering to recognize Amir Locke.  Amir, in turn, is the man who was shot in the apartments across from Orchestra Hall a few days earlier during a “no knock” police entry.

If we had been able to play at North on January 30, DeShaun might well have been in our audience.  In a different year without the pandemic challenges, he might even have interacted or collaborated with us.  What we now know is that when we do get to return to North, DeShaun will not be with us.

Please think of DeShaun, his family, and the entire North High community, as we get back together for rehearsals.

SPHINX: Transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts

by Kris Kautzman

As the MSO seeks new ways to support artists of color in classical music, we’ve learned about and gotten connected to Sphinx, an amazing national arts and social justice organization based in Detroit. Now in their 25th year, Sphinx focuses on increasing representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music and recognizing excellence through programs that serve beginner students to seasoned classical music professionals, as well as cultural entrepreneurs and administrators. The organization is led by Afa S. Dworkin, its long-time Artistic Director, who has been with the organization since its inception. 

This season the MSO has formalized our relationship with Sphinx by joining their coalition of organizations who provide audition support to artists of color. Known as the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS), the program offers Black and Latinx musicians a customized combination of mentoring, audition preparation, financial support, and audition previews, and you can learn more here: https://www.sphinxmusic.org/national-alliance-for-audition-support

As part of NAAS, the MSO is available to provide transportation to and from auditions when people are in town for auditions with the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO (both of which are also members of NAAS). MSO Musicians, please reach out to Jon Lewis if you’d like to be a volunteer for this program!

In coming weeks and months we look forward to sharing more about Sphinx – and our connections to the important work they do in the orchestral community! 
Photo credit: Kevin Kennedy

Racial Equity Learning Together

From Christine Melchert, MSO cellist

This week we were fortunate to rehearse “African Suite: IV. Dance Negre” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a composer many of us were unfamiliar with.  Here are some fun facts about him:

– His mother named him after the famous English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge
– His first commission came via Edward Elgar
– His most famous work is “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” based on a poem by Longfellow
– He was influenced by his friendship with African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to concentrate on his African heritage in his music
– He was 23 years old when he wrote “Danse Negre” (the 4th and most familiar movement of “African Suite which highlights elements of the African experience)
– He was hugely popular in the United States 110 years ago and inspired leading figures in the early civil rights movement
– In 1904, he was the first black man to conduct a white orchestra in America
– You can watch a 2 hour documentary on YouTube about  Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and His Music in America (1900-1912)
– Chineke! Orchestra has made more of his music familiar like this Ballade for Orchestra Opus 33

I highly recommend this in-depth and fascinating presentation about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the Musical Fight for Civil Rights

You can also listen here to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s All Time Best Works.

Harry T. Burleigh & Dvorak

Harry T. Burleigh: Encounter, Appropriation, Nationalism, and the man who taught Dvorak the Spirituals.

Around here, we think a lot about Dvorak’s time in Iowa, and his visit to the Czech Hall on West 7th Street.  But, his time in New York was also crucial to the perspective he gained “From the New World”, as it were.

In New York, Dvorak ran into a wonderful musician named Harry T. Burleigh, who became both student and mentor to Dvorak.  Burleigh was a baritone and double-bass player, and ultimately a great composer, arranger, and editor.  He was a young Black man from Erie, Pennsylvania, attending the National Conservatory in New York (now Juilliard), when Dvorak met him.

Not only did Burleigh sing many of the traditional Black Spirituals for Dvorak; he became a good friend to the older composer, and helped him to absorb a great deal about American music and culture.  He studied composition with Dvorak, eventually composing orchestra music, and arrangements of a great many Spirituals which are still standards of art song today.  Dvorak recognized his intellect, broad interests, and attention to detail, and recommended him to his publisher, Ricordi of Milan, as an editor.  When I first learned this, I got out my Billé double bass etudes (learned by every serious bassist of the last 100 years), because I knew it was published by Ricordi.  Sure enough, there was “H.T. Burleigh, Editor”, in the book I had owned for 40 years.

Dvorak famously said that American composers should focus on using Black music, Native American music, and other folk music to build a truly American Classical music.  Was he also a cultural appropriator?  I don’t feel qualified to make that judgement.  I know that he was a Nationalist composer of the original type: he was a member of an ethnic group that had long been dominated by an empire, and was struggling to define their national identity through art. That sort of Nationalist musician ran from 1848, right up through Sibelius and Paderewski.  His advice to Americans would have come from that self-understanding. 

On the other hand, Wagner and others had already started spreading a toxic Nationalism by that time.  And Debussy, at the 1889 exposition in Paris, had encountered Javanese Gamelan music through a consciously Orientalist, exoticist lens, as a representative of a colonizing culture.  His use of Southeast Asian techniques was clearly appropriation.

I can’t think about that era of European classical music without also thinking about these broad cultural themes.  But, I also really admire Mr. Burleigh and what he achieved.  His arrangements are exquisite.  There was a time when most vocal recitals in the U.S. would end with one or two Spiritual arrangements, often by Burleigh.  As a final note, he had regular weekly singing gigs at the most prominent Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan, and its most prominent Synagogue, concurrently, for decades. 

– Jim Waldo