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.