‘I don’t believe in Negro symphony conductors’

‘I don’t believe in Negro symphony conductors’

On An Overgrown Path

John McLaughlin Williams

‘Oh, come in, young man. I’m reading these reviews. They are out of this world. You really have something. But I might as well tell you, right now, I don’t believe in Negro symphony conductors. No, you may play solo with our symphonies, all over this country. You can dance with them, sing with them. But a Negro, standing in front of a white symphony group? No. I’m sorry.’

That is the impresario Arthur Judson discussing career opportunities with African American conductor Everett Lee, seen above, [also here (1948)] in the early 1950s. Judson headed Columbia Artists Management Inc and for twenty-five years was the power broker of musical America with a stable of artists that included Eugene Ormandy, Jascha Heifetz and African American contralto Marian Anderson, and at the time of the discussion he also managed the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 1940, together with fellow African American Dean Dixon and Canadian Benjamin Steinberg, Everett Lee attempted to circumvent the institutionalised racism in American classical music by forming an orchestra of black musicians. But the project failed for financial reasons and both Lee and Dixon went on to pursue their careers outside America, although Steinberg succeeded in establishing an orchestra of predominantly black players when he formed the New World Symphony in 1964…

…History was made in 1953 when Lee became the first black musician to conduct a white symphony orchestra in the south of the States, this happened at the concert in Louisville, Kentucky see in the photo below. There was another milestone in April 1955 when he became the first musician of colour to conduct a major opera company in the US with a performance of La Traviata at the New York City Opera in April 1955…

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