4 Sep

America’s Lost Generation of Black Conductors

 by David Patrick Stearns | WQXR Editorial

The 1970s are hardly ancient history, but the decade seems like a distant world that had African American symphony and opera conductors in a few highly visible positions. Though not exactly common, Black conductors were a definite presence — long-emerging careers blossomed and young firebrands soared out of left field, each in ways that intersected around that time.  

This lost generation of African American conductors led major concerts by Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, gave the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 8, and led the Metropolitan Opera’s celebrated rehabilitation of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. Most of them were robbed of that over-60 elder-statesman period when the world was likely to more widely celebrate their accumulation of artistic wisdom. But there’s ample proof that Dean Dixon (1915–76) and Calvin Simmons (1950–82) had many great moments well before then. They can be counted among the finest of any generation.

Their contemporaries include Henry Lewis (1932–96), who conducted 143 performances at the Met between 1972 and 1977 (including Le Prophète). James DePreist (1936–2013) built the Oregon Symphony over 20-plus years, and received the National Medal of Arts from George W. Bush. Paul Freeman (1936–2015) extensively recorded under-represented African American composers for Sony Classical, and went on to hold number of appointments, most notably the Victoria (BC) Symphony from 1979 to 1988. Isaiah Jackson (b. 1945) brought the massive Mahler Symphony No. 8 to Dayton, Ohio, and extensively conducted ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

What happened to these particular musicians? You name it — including freaky strokes of bad luck. When in Prague recording Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Dixon was forced to make a hasty departure when the country was invaded by the Soviet Union. When he was in his late 20s, DePreist contracted polio while on a State Department–sponsored visit to Bangkok and was paralyzed in both legs. And during a brief, pre-dinner canoe trip while vacationing in the Adirondack Mountains, Simmons capsized and drowned at age 32.

A Maestro Abroad

Harlem-born Dixon was the first, perhaps the greatest so far — and the one most overtly blocked by racism: In a profession that’s about authority, some musicians rebelled against the very idea of a Black man telling them what to do. After early successes in 1940s America that had little follow-up, Dixon decamped to Europe where he more or less worked himself to death, arriving back in the U.S. in weakened condition in his last six years. Musicians still knew they were in the company of a towering talent, but at least one also observed that he had a colostomy bag.

His career has interesting parallels the Jewish-Hungarian Georg Solti, whose beginnings in post-war Germany had him facing hostile, anti-Semitic musicians, forcing him to make his career in London and Chicago while also building a recording profile with the Vienna Philharmonic. Dixon faced similar resistance in America; the Rufus Jones Jr. biography Dean Dixon: Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) recalls one story: Upon asking for a more “agitato” reading of the violin solo in Don Juan, Dixon was angrily accused of personally insulting the associate concertmaster of the NBC Summer Symphony. Reactions among other musicians were predominately sympathetic to Dixon, who had his own way of handling it. “Strauss has written agitato and I would like to have a bit more agigato,” was Dixon’s measured reply. Though both Solti and Dixon shared an almost defiantly vigorous approach musical interpretations of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler, they were temperamental opposites: Solti shouted, Dixon did not.

And it was Dixon, much more than Solti, who thrived in Germany with guest-conducting gigs and recordings in Vienna during that post-war period when doors were open to conductors with no Nazis in their past. Early European successes landed him Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony from 1953 to 1960, but he perhaps did his best work with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony from 1961 to 1974. He also pursued one particular musical passion: exploring the juxtaposition of Henze and Bruckner.

Two things delayed guest engagements in the U.S. until 1970: Dixon was too busy elsewhere, and, in New York, he was facing an alimony / child support lawsuit from his first wife, Vivian Rivkin. In modern currency, his child support payments were more than $2,000 a month, and the price of settling the 1969 suit was $91,000. Remember: at the time, symphony orchestra conductors weren’t paid then anything close to what they are now — travel and hotel expenses easily outstripped a guest-conducting fee. Still, after Rivkin died of cancer, his daughter Diane resisted his reconciliation attempts. Subsequently, Dixon had at least five years of successful U.S. engagements. Something more substantial was bound to come his way in time, but he suffered from an array of health issues, and eventually died of a stroke at age 61.

Dixon made plenty of recordings, but try finding them. The labels he frequented — Vox and Westminster — have been bought and sold so many times that it’s hard to know who owns them and if they know what they have. Some of his Prague Symphony Orchestra recordings turn up on YouTube, but I have never physically seen them in this country. At least the Audite label has issued Dixon’s excellent Beethoven Symphony No. 9, though mainly on the strength of the final movement’s tenor soloist, Fritz Wunderlich. Indeed, the final-movement vocalists are extremely fine, and would have to be in order to navigate Dixon’s spirited tempos. This is one of the better Beethoven Ninths out there, but were it not for Wunderlich’s devoted posthumous following, the recording would likely be sitting, unheard, in a German radio archive. 

Doing What It Takes, In Spite of the Hurdles

The two pillars of any conducting career are orchestra building and recordings. But reading the politics of any recording company almost requires a degree in Kremlinology. It now seems astounding that Paul Freeman’s 1970s nine-disc survey of Black symphonic composers from the 18th to the 20th century was cultivated by Sony Classical (then Columbia). Freeman also recorded plenty of standard repertoire with the pianist Derek Han.

Paul Freeman, founder of the Chicago Sinfonietta

Paul Freeman, founder of the Chicago Sinfonietta (Ken Carl)

James DePreist recorded all of the Shostakovich symphonies with the Helsinki Philharmonic on the Ondine label, though most of his 60 recordings were with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, which could play a Rite of Spring with the best of them. While Dixon’s music-making regularly pounded on heaven’s door, DePreist drew his power from inner tension, rhythmic vitality, and, in new-music premieres, impeccable preparation — qualities that register well on recordings. 

“He always seemed very musical, knew his scores, had a clear baton technique, and the musicians of the orchestra really respected him. And that, perhaps, is the best barometer there is,” said Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Jennifer Higdon, whose 1995 piece Shine, a major career stepping-stone, was premiered by DePreist. “He had a commanding presence on the podium and on the stage. I never heard anyone complain about him at all.” And that, she says, is unusual.

James DePriest, conducting the Oregon Symphony in 2009. (Oregon Symphony)

DePreist was also the most successful in orchestra building, turning a low-profile ensemble into a high-profile one during his 1980–2003 Oregon Symphony tenure. Similarly, Lewis built the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, from 1968 to 1976, into an organization that no doubt drew many New York listeners with niche programming such as the loved-but-seldom-heard Hans Pfitzner opera Palestrina performed in excerpts with star tenor Nicolai Gedda. Amid any number of other orchestral appointments, Freeman founded and led the Chicago Sinfonietta in 1987, and it’s still alive some 15 years after his death.  

Isaiah Jackson headed the orchestras in Dayton as well as Flint, Michigan, only to experience hearing loss starting in his 50s. His career suggests another kind of trap: The statuesque Jackson lost time when associate conductor of the Rochester (NY) Philharmonic in its late-1970s / early-1980s golden age: He was the orchestra’s public face, made the organization seem like the coolest place to be, and showed every sign of enjoying being second in command. But that number-two position comes with a lot of quickly-assembled lighter-weight concerts, when he was far better with more ambitious and better-rehearsed programs featuring, say, the infrequently mounted complete ballet version of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe.

Prodigious on the Podium

Calvin Simmons might’ve had a similar fate when on staff at England’s congenial Glyndebourne Festival — according to Rinna Evelyn Wolfe’s 1994 biography The Calvin Simmons Story or Don’t Call Me Maestro (Muse Wood Press) — but was kicked out of the nest, and from there, seemed to defy all gravity. Born in San Francisco, he had emerged from the ranks of the San Francisco Opera, and, in 1978, had three major breakthroughs: He was appointed to the Oakland Symphony and the Ojai Festival, and made his Metropolitan Opera debut. He was age 28, and a classic case of a conductor who innately knew all the things that can’t be taught. Artistry came so naturally to him that teachers told him to take matters a bit more seriously, no doubt because he was having great fun — and sharing it with his delightfully unbuttoned humor.

Once, when asking the Philadelphia Orchestra for a typical hairpin crescendo, he confided, “You know … those hairpins … I don’t use them anymore.” A number of his masterclasses survive, and they’re as insightful as they are buoyant. Broadcast performance recordings survive — not officially published, but passed around by collectors. Has any opera cast seemed to have so much fun as his Hansel and Gretel debut run at the Met? Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in the 1981 San Francisco Opera season, starring Anja Silja, is fearlessly explosive, with razor-sharp precision. His analytical powers were also evident in panel discussions where he argued against the conventional wisdom that then surrounded the opera. 

He was irrepressible, which could be one explanation why the six-foot-plus Simmons made the fatal split-second decision to stand up in a canoe on that chilly 1982 evening in the Adirondack Mountains, when someone on shore was taking his picture. Simmons had dressed in layers — not including a life jacket. But then, he was not the type to take precautions. Perhaps none of them were.

Conducting is a profession that’s taken up either out of unquenchable inner need (when artists can’t express themselves any other way) or absolute necessity (composers who need to double as performers to ensure their works are properly heard). Even when all doors are open to an emerging conductor, the climb to the top is extraordinarily steep. Has it grown steeper? Explaining the comparative lack of African American conductors today is beyond the scope of this article. But I bet that the 21stcentury classical world would look very different had these artists lived longer and inspired the world with the possibilities that they represented.

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