Leading the Orchestra, an Outsider Invited In

Addressing diversity in orchestras. New York Times article

By Phillip Lutz

After years of work and study culminating in an assistant conductorship at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Kazem Abdullah decamped to Aachen, Germany, where he became the city’s general music director. Four years on, he has programmed and conducted a wide range of symphonic music and opera from the core Western repertory.

But Mr. Abdullah, 36, who was born in Indianapolis and grew up in Washington and Dayton, Ohio, said he would like to return to the United States next year after his contract in Germany is up. The only problem, he said, is that he is most likely to find his opportunities limited in part because of his outsider status as an African­American, and a Muslim, in the world of classical music.

“There is greater openness in Germany,” he said over Thai food in Manhattan recently. “I had hoped that by working abroad and doing so well, that would translate into more opportunities from where I’m from.” “A lot of people say ‘diversity is great,’ and those are all nice taking points,” he added. “But as far as making sure the opportunities are given to everyone — that still falls quite short.

That is why he jumped at the chance when the Westchester Philharmonic contacted him more than a year ago about conducting Brahms’s Piano
Concerto No. 1 and Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. The concert would provide the opportunity to conduct a first­rate regional orchestra in the core repertory, which he said some orchestras were patronizingly reluctant to offer minority guest conductors.

“It’s just a straight program,” he said. “That’s why I said yes. I love to do that.”

The concert, which will take place on June 19, will feature Alone Goldstein as soloist. Mr. Goldstein, a native of Israel, said that despite having played about 40 concertos in the past 27 years, he had not met Mr. Abdullah, and had performed under only one other African­American conductor, Isaiah Jackson, with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra of Ohio.

The lack of diversity in American orchestras is an issue of long standing, but it has gained fresh currency. The League of American Orchestras held a major conference on the subject this month in Baltimore, reporting that only 1.8 percent of members of American orchestras are African­American and 2.5 percent Latino.
Read the full article here.
Excerpted from an article in the New York Times, June 17, 2016

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