Saturday Diary: Classical music -- an African-American experience

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

As soon as I saw an ad for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's program, "A Tribute to African-American Heroes," I knew that I had to go. I have loved classical music since childhood. I have also been all too aware, since childhood, of the widespread assumption that classical music is utterly alien to black people. A PSO concert specifically billed as a celebration of African-American culture tugged at me the way fundraisers for diseases tug at some people: I need to support this.

Elwin Green is a Post-Gazette staff writer (, 412-263-1969). For more information on African Americans and classical music, go to

More than that: I need to take some young people.

And then: Boys, I need to take black boys to this concert. Even if they hate it and never attend another orchestra concert in their lives, I need to give some black boys the chance to hear a live performance of a symphony.

I borrowed my godsons, Mosi and Kamau, from their parents. Mosi is 14, Kamau 11.

The concert, sponsored by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and the Hill House Association, was held Tuesday the 15th, on what would have been the 79th birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When we -- the boys, my wife and I -- arrived at Heinz Hall, the lobby was packed with more black people than I have seen there since the "Three Mo' Tenors" performance several years ago. But when we went up to our balcony seats, the auditorium seemed only half full. Kamau sat to my right, and Mosi to his right.

Before the music started, conductor Daniel Meyer introduced Dr. Helen S. Faison as host for the evening, to rousing applause. Mr. Meyer and Dr. Faison shared introductory remarks that highlighted the accomplishments, not only of Dr. King, but of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Harry T. Burleigh -- the heroes of the program's title.

The first half of the program featured "The Essential Ellington: Music of Ellington and Strayhorn," an orchestral arrangement by Jeff Tyzik of some half dozen jazz tunes by the two composers, followed by "Deep River," sung by bass Kevin Deas. Then Mr. Deas was joined by the Pittsburgh Interfaith Choir for "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." The choir then performed Richard Smallwood's "Anthem of Praise" and (speaking of anthems) "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."

So far, the program was jazz, spirituals and gospel, as advertised. It was all well and good, but I suspected that none of it would be new to the boys.

The second half would be the test. Mr. Deas would sing "Goin' Home," then the orchestra would perform Dvorak's Ninth Symphony ("From the New World"). Would my two young charges be able to endure an entire symphony, even one so melodic?

I hoped that the framing of the entire event would make that easier. After all, Dvorak drew inspiration from Mr. Burleigh's presentation of Negro spirituals in writing the piece, and the pseudo-spiritual "Goin' Home," by the African-American composer Hale Smith, was adapted from the primary theme of the second movement. Would the boys get the connection?

The portrait of Dvorak in the PSO program was so dark that my wife, not a classical music buff, asked, "Was he black?"

"No," I told her, "he was Czech."

"Why don't they play something by a black composer?"

As the Ninth begins, my attention is divided between the musicians on stage and the lads to my right. During the development section of the first movement, Kamau leans forward. Does that mean that he is engaged?

They are both quiet during the second movement. Of course, you're supposed to be quiet while a symphony is being performed. But are they being attentive, or are they bored?

The opening forte of the third movement makes me think that molto vivace, with timpani and triangle, is more suited for youngsters than what went before. Perhaps I would have done better to have taken them to a performance of "Le Sacre."

They're whispering. What about, I wonder. I tell myself to relax -- they are 11 and 14.

Mosi leans forward. Kamau yawns.

I begin to wonder what made the PSO choose this piece. I get the connection with spirituals, I really do. But honestly, the tremolos, the triangle, the lilting triple meter all sound very European. In the best possible way.

My wife's question is gnawing at me.

The program is "A Tribute to African-American Heroes." Why not play a symphony by an African-American composer? Can it be that none of the program's decision-makers is familiar with William L. Dawson's "Negro Folk Symphony?" Or with any of William Grant Still's five symphonies?

I suspect that many in the audience are hearing Dvorak's Ninth for the first time, and that is a good thing, because it is a jewel. But I wonder how much more it might mean to them to learn that African Americans have written symphonies, and to hear one of those.

On to Dvorak's fourth movement. I lean forward. After a few moments, Kamau does the same.

Odd thoughts enter my mind, about how like jazz classical music is in some ways. The description of a piece's structure as exposition-development-recapitulation could apply as well to most jazz performances as to any symphonic score. And the element of improvisation is no less important to a symphonic performance than to a jazz set -- it's just improvisation of a different kind. Instead of individual players improvising notes, the conductor improvises (after 50 tons of preparation, mind you) shadings of tempo, pacing and dynamics. In both cases, each and every performance of a given piece is unique, making it worthwhile to hear something you've heard 100 times before, just to see how it will sound this time, with this crew.

With those kinds of similarities between different types of music, no music should be alien to anyone.

Mr. Meyer's interpretation of the Ninth is intriguing, even suspenseful in its treatment of rests. Moments that I've heard treated as pauses in other performances, he treats as full stops (was it Ellington who said, "It's what you don't play that counts"?).

The Ninth ends; the lights rise with our applause. As we make our way toward the lobby, The RH Factor are playing a set there, in a tribute to the Hurricane Club, a leading jazz spot during the heyday of the Hill District.

I ask the boys if they picked up on the "Goin' Home" theme in the second movement. They did.

Cookies are being served in a side room. We grab some, and I question them further. Each of them has attended a symphony concert once or twice before. Further, they've been exploring classical music via Encarta, Microsoft's encyclopedia-on-a-disc, and have a couple of favorite pieces: for Mosi, it's Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D; for Kamau, Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" (they don't know these titles offhand, but can hum the opening themes passably).

As for the concert, they each give it a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. "It was a great experience," Kamau says.

Mission accomplished. Still, I need to know one more thing from them. Would they be surprised to learn that black people have written symphonies?

"Oh no, definitely not," Mosi says. "I would be happy. I wouldn't be surprised."


Now all I need to do is find some obscure recordings.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?