Europe’s First Majority Black Orchestra Debuts Stateside

| How Africa News


Following more than three decades in the classical music world, British double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku began to ask herself a question she had been pondering for years: Why was she always the only Black performer onstage?

“Why did I never ask anyone about it? Why did we never talk about it?” she describes wondering. “Was I being tolerated, or were people just completely unaware?”

“Or were people okay with the status quo?”

The New York show featured the pioneering composer Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1, along with a rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto featuring the New York Phil’s principal clarinet Anthony McGill.

– ‘Door-opener’ –

The London-headquartered Chineke! echoes similar efforts in the United States, including the Detroit-based Sphinx organization that promotes representation of Black and Latino artists in classical music.

Yet the League of American Orchestras, which represents professional and amateur symphonies across the United States, found in a 2014 study on diversity that just 1.4 percent of orchestra musicians were Black — and there’s little reason to believe much has changed.

“Because the great majority of American orchestras are not individually transparent with racial and ethnic data on their artists, we do not know the percentage of Black orchestral artists in our orchestras today,” writes the Black Orchestral Network, a collective of Black musicians from more than 40 orchestras launched in 2022.

“From our vantage point, however, we have seen little meaningful progress.”

It’s mind-boggling to Nwanoku, who said during a rehearsal break that “it seems to me that the only colleagues of color that I see who have a job in an orchestra in this country are those who are exceptional.”

“We have to be that much better to actually be given a job.”

Nwanoku believes that especially for young people, seeing more diverse faces onstage is “an immediate door-opener.”

“It’s the most incredibly winning thing to feel represented on a stage,” she said. “Even if when you walk through the front of house to buy a ticket, if you don’t see anyone who looks like you, that is immediately uncomfortable.”

“But when you see people that look like you in any place — in the supermarket, at the train station, at the concert hall, at the cinema — you immediately feel that is a place that I can walk into with confidence,” Nwanoku continued.

“You can be what you can see.”

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