Walter Rhett

Encore for the Chicago Sinfonietta

In Arts on August 10, 2010 at 12:13 am

I applaud the Chicago Sinfonietta and its new conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. I wish all involved much success. My fifty years of musical experiences bear out the importance of building diverse audiences of performers, listeners, and managers for classical music and other important musical forms including jazz.

As a young African-American student attending a southern segregated public school, I was exposed to a large reprertoire of classical music through performance. We played transcriptions that included Beethoven, Bach, Franz Schubert, Howard Hansen, Alexander Borodin, Sergei Prokofiev, Edvard Grieg, Jean Sibelius, Charles Ives, among others. We also performed a full repretoire of John Phillip Sousa’s marches and Leroy Anderson favorites. This extensive exposure to structure, performance standards, and musical forms build my esteem in a way that allowed me to have confidence in any social setting. More importantly, it opened up a wide world of expression beyond the limits of my daily experience and revealed that creativity had no bonds to those who mastered and appreciated its techniques and challenges.

Later, I found that way we interpreted many of these classical pieces and performed them for community audiences was different than the interpretations of other bands. Our Beethoven had a little more swing, a different organic flavor, enriched by our own legacy, instilled by our conductor and director, born of our collective creativity. Was our version less authentic? No. What it did teach us was that as we embraced music, music also embraced us. Music allowed us to have a secret life of notes and dynamics transformed into a stage where we could shine and share our gifts and secrets with others in joy, while still giving of ourselves.

Today as a researcher, I often find old school music programs from the 1950s and earlier, from segregated schools. I marvel at the list of difficult classical performances that appear. I know what learning and mastering these compositions instilled.  I am glad to see that tradition continued by performers, organizations, composers, and audiences.

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