African-American presence growing ‘slowly but surely’ in classical music, say visiting musicians | St. Louis Public Radio

African-American presence growing ‘slowly but surely’ in classical music, say visiting musicians

Feb 14, 2018

Fewer than 2 percent of musicians in professional orchestras in the U.S. are African-American, and the Florida-based Ritz Chamber Players are eager to change that.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, three members of the all-black ensemble talked with host Don Marsh about the presence of African-Americans in the genre and how they’ve seen that presence slowly grow over the course of their careers.

“We are seeing more young people being identified [in the classical world] and seeing the possibilities,” said clarinetist Terrance Patterson. He’s the founder and artistic director of the ensemble, which is in town to give a performance at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Washington University’s 560 Music Center.

Patterson recalled how, years ago, he and fellow Ritz Players met a talented young musician during a master class in Alabama. She “played beautifully” but didn’t yet seem to have the confidence to go on to “the next level,” Patterson said.

Then just last week, while in Detroit, he discovered that same up-and-comer was now part of the professional orchestra with which he was performing. It was a proud moment for Patterson to see her thriving in that capacity.

“Now she has grown to where she is in a professional setting,” he said.

Joining Marsh and Patterson for the conversation were harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, who became the first African-American principal player in a U.S. symphony orchestra in 1960s, and flutist Demarre McGill, a leading soloist who has appeared with major orchestras.

McGill started playing as a young child on the south side of Chicago, where his parents exposed him and his brother – now the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic – to a wide variety of visual art, dance and music.

That exposure is critical, McGill said, to growing the African-American presence within the world of classical music, and he does see things changing “slowly but surely.”

“I notice when I travel to different schools, different conservatories of music, that I do see more people of color studying, and that is the precursor to actually seeing, I believe, more people that look like me in professional environments,” he said, adding that when he’s on stage, “if there’s a young boy or girl that looks like me – that happens to maybe want to play the flute – and they see me, it’s a reason for them to be even more inspired to take it up, because I’m familiar to them.”

Pilot was hired by the Washington National Symphony shortly after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1966, and she was the only African-American in the orchestra throughout her three years there. That was also true during many of her years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which she joined in 1969, until Owen Young became one of its cellists.

“And [since] I retired in 2009, Owen is still the only African-American player in the BSO,” Pilot said.

It was early on in Pilot’s career that U.S. orchestras began using screens to keep auditions anonymous, she added.

“When I auditioned for Boston, it was behind a screen, and the screen had just been used,” Pilot said. “But before it was a system of the conductor [asking] his friends from Europe, ‘Oh, I’ve got an opening for flute, come take the job,’ you know. And so eventually … the players in the orchestra became aware that it needed to be a more fair system of getting players in order to diversify.”

While the number of African-American classical musicians remains low, Pilot and the other two St. Louis on the Air guests agreed that the usage of such a screen is an important component in the selection process.

“The committee is made up of members of the orchestra, and that [process] is what is going on until this day,” Pilot said. “And I think it is very difficult for anyone to get a job, no matter what color you are.

“Part of it also is – let’s say if you’re a string player – if you’re behind a screen, and you’re playing a very valuable instrument, you can hear that from behind the screen. And if you have an instrument that is not quite as good, you start off, you know, not in a fair sense anyway. So there’s a lot that goes into it.”

Related Event:

What: Ritz Chamber Players

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 16

Where: 560 Music Center, 560 Trinity Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63130

More information

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.