Canton Symphony Orchestra Breaks Down Barriers to Celebrate Black Composers | Arts & Culture
Historically, black composers have too often been excluded from the classical music narrative. But orchestras across the country recognize that has to change.
The Canton Symphony Orchestra is among those who have worked to make classical music a more welcoming place for communities hitherto ignored. Ron Ponder, longtime journalist and former president of the Stark County chapter of the NAACP, reached out to Canton Symphony Orchestra conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann to talk about four composers who deserve attention: Rick Robinson, Florence Price, William Grant Still and George Walker.
Zimmermann calls Rick Robinson a close friend. After years of playing bass for various symphonies, Robinson formed his own music company, CutTime Productions. CutTime combines classical music with jazz.
“He felt like classical music wasn’t doing enough to reach a lot of people, okay. There was this standoffish attitude about it. So he quit the Detroit Symphony and he’s now known as name of Mr. CutTime,” Zimmermann said.
Robinson has won invitations to arrange, perform, conduct and publish over a hundred symphonic works throughout his career. He started composing in 1999, which provided more opportunities to present his music to a wider audience.
Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. She was a classical composer, pianist, organist and music teacher. She was the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. His music was performed by the Chicago Symphony in 1933.
“She was really unknown when she was growing up,” according to Zimmerman. “She entered a competition. It was the Wannamaker composition competition and she won for her number one symphony in E minor.
Price composed over 300 works, including four symphonies and four concertos. Price’s career took her to Chicago where her first symphony was included in the program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She died in 1953.
William Grant Still was born in 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi, but grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. He composed around 200 works, including five symphonies and four ballets.
Zimmerman describes William Grant Still as “the father of the African-American composer”.
Still was the first African American whose work was performed by a large orchestra. His piece entitled “The Afro American Symphony” was performed by Howard Hanson of the Rochester Philharmonic.
“Believe it, his music was the most popular of any American composer between the end of World War II and around 1950,” Zimmerman said.
He still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936. His music was heard in films such as “Pennies from Heaven” with Bing Crosby. He died in 1978.
George Walker was born in 1922 in Washington DC He was a composer, pianist and organist who was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize (1966) for music.
“His music has a little more hot sauce. It’s a little spicier. He wrote a trombone concerto which I still hope to program in the future at the Canton Symphony Orchestra.
Walker composed several works, including five sonatas. His composition “Lyric for Strings” was his most performed orchestral work. He died in 2018.
The Canton Symphony Orchestra will host a conversation with Rick Robinson later this year. You can find more information here.
Our thanks to Ron Ponder for his work on this story.