Leading the Orchestra, an Outsider Invited In

Kazem Abdullah conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

After years of work and study culminating in an assistant conductorship at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Kazem Abdullah decamped to Aachen, Germany, where he became the city’s general music director. Four years on, he has programmed and conducted a wide range of symphonic music and opera from the core Western repertory.

But Mr. Abdullah, 36, who was born in Indianapolis and grew up in Washington and Dayton, Ohio, said he would like to return to the United States next year after his contract in Germany is up. The only problem, he said, is that he is most likely to find his opportunities limited in part because of his outsider status as an African-American, and a Muslim, in the world of classical music.

“There is greater openness in Germany,” he said over Thai food in Manhattan recently. “I had hoped that by working abroad and doing so well, that would translate into more opportunities from where I’m from.”

“A lot of people say ‘diversity is great,’ and those are all nice taking points,” he added. “But as far as making sure the opportunities are given to everyone — that still falls quite short.”

That is why he jumped at the chance when the Westchester Philharmonic contacted him more than a year ago about conducting Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. The concert would provide the opportunity to conduct a first-rate regional orchestra in the core repertory, which he said some orchestras were patronizingly reluctant to offer minority guest conductors.

“It’s just a straight program,” he said. “That’s why I said yes. I love to do that.”

The concert, which will take place on June 19, will feature Alon Goldstein as soloist. Mr. Goldstein, a native of Israel, said that despite having played about 40 concertos in the past 27 years, he had not met Mr. Abdullah, and had performed under only one other African-American conductor, Isaiah Jackson, with the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra of Ohio.

The lack of diversity in American orchestras is an issue of long standing, but it has gained fresh currency. The League of American Orchestras held a major conference on the subject this month in Baltimore, reporting that only 1.8 percent of members of American orchestras are African-American and 2.5 percent Latino.

Also this month, the New York State Council on the Arts has been holding events around the state, including in New Rochelle, where it has been promoting a new diversity initiative, Arts Career Development Fellowships for Underrepresented Communities. Under it, financing is available to arts organizations to hire diverse administrative staff members or creative artists.

“There’s a real sense of urgency in the music community among those concerned about those issues,” said Robert Baron, the arts council’s director of music and folk arts programs.

The council’s meetings follow two conferences, convened this spring, at which those who work in the arts discussed increasing orchestras’ diversity. At the April conference, Mr. Baron said, Joshua Worby, executive director of the Westchester Philharmonic, made a compelling case for taking immediate action by recruiting diverse guest artists.

Mr. Baron said of Mr. Worby, “He has been a strong advocate and voice for diversity and addressing it right now.”

Mr. Worby said that the lack of diversity reflected “passivity by well-intended people of good will who don’t necessarily see or understand how lack of action, or failure to be proactive, can be part of the problem.”

The Westchester Philharmonic’s roster of 59 musicians, he said, includes three African-Americans and four Latinos, which translate into percentages that are higher than the League of American Orchestras’ averages. But turnover is slow, Mr. Worby said.

Since becoming executive director in 2006, he has recruited a diverse group of guest artists. The black artists include three singers, four instrumentalists and three conductors: Chelsea Tipton III, Kwamé Ryan and Mr. Abdullah. The Latinos include the conductors Alondra de la Parra, Tito Muñoz and Jorge Mester. A principal conductor, Jaime Laredo, is from Bolivia.

Mr. Laredo, who was guest conductor twice before becoming a principal in the 2014-15 season, is a prominent figure on the classical music scene; signing him has been a boon to the orchestra. The other diverse artists, among them up-and-coming musicians, have been readily accepted by orchestra members and audiences alike, Mr. Worby said.

Mr. Abdullah’s booking makes sense musically, Mr. Worby said, given his work with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, in Aachen and as a guest conductor with the likes of the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh symphonies. It also strikes a blow for diversity and, with Mr. Goldstein on board, for pairing artists who come from communities who are in conflict elsewhere in the world.

Mr. Worby, speaking before the massacre in Orlando occurred, repeated remarks made by Leonard Bernstein after he conducted Mahler’s Second Symphony in the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

The matching of Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Goldstein seems a promising one. They share training, having both attended the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In separate interviews, they expressed similar ideas about interpreting the Brahms concerto, both likening it to a kind of chamber music rather than a showpiece for a soloist. And both said they were eager to get to work.

But beyond the Westchester concert, Mr. Abdullah said he had no concerts booked in the United States. All of his guest-conducting for the 2016-17 season will be in Europe and Asia — a fact he wryly characterized in an unsolicited email, sent while he was in an airport waiting for a plane to visit his mother in Indiana in the run-up to the Westchester concert, as “very interesting.”

“I do not know and cannot say if that has any relevance,” he wrote, “but I will say that I am grateful for the Westchester Phil giving me the chance to work in my own country, and the chance to do a nice program, with a great soloist. Kudos to Mr. Worby.”

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