Carnegie Hall Will Welcome All-Black Orchestra for the First Time in the Hall’s History

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For the first time in the venue’s recorded 130-year history, an all-Black orchestra is set to perform at Carnegie Hall. The group performing will be the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra, and they will debut in the famed concert hall on April 24, 2022. The concert is set to premiere a new piece of work from Oscar-winning musician Jon Batiste; Batiste was also nominated for a Grammy for his work on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

The Gateways Music Festival Orchestra was founded in 1993, and they aim to celebrate the contributions of classical musicians of African descent. According to Carnegie Hall, the group plans to debut a “vibrant fantasia on ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’” — also known as the Black National Anthem.

Robert F. Smith, chair of the board at Carnegie Hall, repeated the title of the song and poem as his five-word acceptance speech for two 2020 Webby Awards for the series he produces, Black History in Two Minutes (or so).

Clive Gillinson, the Executive and Artistic Director of Carnegie Hall, noted about the upcoming performance, “We have long been inspired by the festival’s commitment to extraordinary artistry as it celebrates the many contributions that musicians and composers of African descent continue to make to classical music.”

A Significant Performance for Classical Music

Not only is the event an important moment for Carnegie as an institution, but also for classical music as a genre. On the historic performance, Gateways’ President and Artistic Director said, “Hearing and seeing the Gateways orchestra on Carnegie’s revered main stage will show Black children that they can perform classical music at the highest level, while reminding people of all backgrounds that this music belongs to everyone.”

This representation is important. Today, Black and Latino musicians make up just around 5% of American orchestras. Considering that Blacks and Latinos make up 32% of the U.S. population, 5% falls far below what equitable representation would look like. For decades, discrimination barred Black musicians from performing in concert halls across America.

Classical music performers and institutions often do not represent the diversity in America, nor have they historically been  fully inclusive of all people and cultures. For example, while the number of Black and Latino musicians have tripled in the past two decades to about 5% from just 1.5%, the number of Black and Latino musicians still falls well below their share of the U.S. population. Additionally, many composers of color often feel left out or excluded. 

One of the nonprofits that Smith supports, the Sphinx Organization, was formed to address the underrepresentation of people of color in classical music. Today, the group convenes full orchestras that perform at venues across the country — including at Carnegie Hall. They also provide music training to students of all ages and run full-scholarship summer camps.

There’s a long way to go before classical music represents America, and is truly welcoming of all people, but performances like Gateways Music Festival Orchestra’s are helping show that the genre is intended for enjoyment by all audiences and musicians of diverse backgrounds.

Learn more about the importance of Black music and the Sphinx Organization.