We look forward with hope to an autumn in which we will again be able to sing together, while simultaneously marking with sorrow the anniversary of the death of George Floyd. At this time, we want to update you on the steps we have taken in the past year to contribute to long-overdue recognition of the important contributions of Black musicians to the choral tradition.
My repertoire studies have introduced me to a wealth of beautiful music by Black American composers, and we shared recordings of some of this music in our February virtual Music in Place program, along with each composer’s biography and history. Each of our concerts in the 2021-22 season will contain works by talented Black composers, ranging from men and women born in the late 19th Century to those born in the late 20th, from renowned names like William Grant Still to composer Tara Mack, who is at the beginning of her career. Last fall, bass-baritone Dashon Burton was the featured guest on Music in Place. We listened to him sing in a variety of styles and periods, and he graciously had an open and frank conversation with me and audience members about his life as a Black performer at this moment in time.
Guest artists in the coming season will include the American soprano Sonya Headlam and the Harlem Chamber Players. In addition, we will be giving the New York premiere of Philip Lasser’s secular cantata “The Dream Keeper” on poems of Langston Hughes. Similar inclusivity in guest artists and repertoire is planned for the seasons that follow.
I’m proud of this programming, but achieving a more diverse membership and audience will be a slower process, requiring the involvement of an expanding group of stakeholders. We have spent the past year in examination, study, and preparation, exploring what habits and barriers (both known and unknown) have contributed to the de facto segregation of so many choruses, including ours.
The board met multiple times over the past year to discuss these issues and possible actions we can take, inviting interested individuals from both inside and outside the chorus to join us. A board member was appointed to gather diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) ideas and resources, reading lists were compiled, and Diana Solomon-Glover, an advisory council member, connected me to helpful institutions and potential collaborators; eventually, a loose group of a dozen or more stakeholders were involved in the effort.
Some attended together a four-week online Racial Equity Workshop, others joined them on a committee to establish goals for NAS. There were enlightening discussions online and through email, healthy disagreement, and promising ideas. Members of the group are now reaching out to esteemed colleagues for advice on singer recruitment and a line item has been placed in the budget for whatever is needed in the coming season. We’ll keep you posted.
We acknowledge the ways in which Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) have been marginalized in classical American music, and commit to continuing to do our part to bring about racial diversity and racial equity in our chorus. We know that including more BIPOC voices in NAS, jointly learning and singing music representative of their respective cultures, can only enrich and strengthen the NAS community and enhance the joy of singing. And as we continue the work, we look forward to being able to sing for you in public again.
We stand with the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in speaking out against anti-Asian violence and in acknowledging long-standing anti-Asian racism. We continue to be committed to addressing diversity in both membership and programming, as well as making all members feel comfortable.
The New Amsterdam Singers Board met recently and discussed the outrage we all feel about inequality and injustice in our country, and the board has dedicated an upcoming meeting to talk about steps we might take on diversity in both membership and programming. Music Director Clara Longstreth’s own thoughts follow; we welcome your ideas as well.
As I think about the intersection of race relations and music in this time of turmoil and hope, it seems useful to recall where we have been, and to consider where we are going. My personal history predates my leadership of New Amsterdam Singers, but it’s relevant, a place to start.
My family spent seven years in Nashville, Tennessee (1947-1954), where my Quaker parents taught at Fisk University, an historically Black college. The first concert I ever heard, at age 12, was given by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It made a big impression, one that surely led me to love choral singing.
NAS has a long history of collaboration with distinguished Black musicians, dating back to our early years. These include eight years with our charismatic Assistant Conductor Bert Ottley; a performance organized by mezzo soprano Betty Allen and conductor Byrne Camp of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (the first of that piece to be given in Harlem), in which we joined forces with The Harlem Chorale and a multi-racial cast of sterling soloists; and an exciting performance of Handel’s Messiah in Spanish and English, also organized by Betty Allen.
But looking back over our 52 years, I find a mixed story on diversity. While we have enjoyed the participation of many Black soloists, some choral singers and board members, the number of Black composers whose works we have sung is sadly limited: José Nunes-Garcia, Scott Joplin, Hale Smith, Carman Moore, Adolphus Hailstork, and John Work. We did not actively search for composers of color. Nor did we search enough for a diverse membership.
We sang spirituals on tour outside the US, because tour audiences loved and expected them, but not much in NYC, because we did not feel enough ownership to warrant a mostly white group of singers singing spirituals, no matter how much we loved them.
In the past, when I found choral music that I loved composed by a Black musician, I was glad – it was a big plus. But I did not seek out Black composers as a project. That is changing. Within the last weeks, I have assembled many resources, such as the database composerdiversity.com. I am talking to many musician friends and making lists. There is a lot of excellent choral music by Black composers available if one looks. And during this time of isolation, I am looking—intensively. It is a joyful task.