Radio Host Is Bridging Gap Between Blacks, Classical Music World

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Terrance McKnight is a longtime New York music-radio host and devoted musical multiculturalist.

PERSPECTIVE – Terrance McKnight, longtime New York music-radio host and devoted musical multiculturalist, has always lived his life “between the two worlds” of being Black and being part of the classical music culture. “When I started working in radio in Georgia, in 1999, and D.C., before I came to New York in 2008 to WNYC,” he said, “I tried to appeal to a multi-cultural society, by bringing everyone’s culture to the table, not putting one above the other.”

But in the world of classical music, McKnight sees a vastly different reality. “Classical musicians of African descent have existed on the margins of obscurity for centuries — in the classroom, the concert hall, the record industry, and on the radio,” he said. “This underrepresentation is what brought me to work in public radio.”

Soprano Julia Bullock is among the artists featured in Terrance McKnight’s new book.

A turning point for McKnight came last year, when he hosted WQXR’s Juneteenth special broadcast on “The Black Experience in the Concert Hall,” featuring accounts by industry leaders and testimonials from Black musicians describing concert life as they know it. From that broadcast came the inspiration for McKnight’s forthcoming book on Black musicians and the concert hall.

McKnight said his book will feature a great variety of performers, ranging from Black veterans to new voices, like Black Lives Matter activist and soprano Julia Bullock, a winner of the 2012 Young Concert Artists competition.

In the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the following nation-wide protests, America’s classical music institutions are faced with an increased urgency not only to have a  dialogue about social justice and inclusion, but also to determine solutions that offer fundamental changes to both pedagogy and traditional performance culture.

“Music can be on the front lines for equality and justice, just like it was for Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chopin, and Harry Belafonte, and [it can] help us see each other more clearly,” McKnight observed when he opened his Juneteenth forum. He went on to cite the African American poet Langston Hughes, a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, lamenting the hardship of the Black experience.

Former League of American Orchestras President and CEO Jesse Rosen

McKnight intersperses observations from industry leaders, like music critic and Juilliard Professor Greg Sandow and Jesse Rosen, who at the time of the show was the President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, with personal accounts by Black performers, composers, and conductors, like soprano Martina Arroyo, founder of the Martina Arroyo Foundation, and virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The host also swaps anecdotes from his youth with those of some of his guests on air. His own experiences carry mixed messages as he tells stories about being overlooked and made to feel like an outsider, while in other anecdotes he recounts being nurtured and inspired. 

“In grad school, I was accompanying in our studio class when a few months into the semester, the professor stood next to me in the elevator, saying, ‘How is the basketball team?’ ‘I did not even know we had a basketball team,’ I replied. ‘I am in your studio class playing the piano.’ But to counter this, I had a wonderful, inspiring piano teacher, Mark Buser, and at Georgia State, Kerry Louis, who talked about the ownership of emotions. ‘Music is colorless,’ he said, ‘and does not belong to any one group. If you understand what love and pain feels like, on a human level — how Rachmaninoff felt it — you can take ownership of this music and make it yours.’”

It is experiences like these that continue to motivate McKnight to advocate for the artists and the art form.

Titus Underwood, principal oboist of the Nashville Symphony

Titus Underwood, principal oboist of the Nashville Symphony, shared his own experiences and offered suggestions on what steps should be implemented for change in the makeup of America’s symphony orchestras.

“I am the first principal of color within 80 major symphonies to have tenure,” he said. “Musicians create unions, they negotiate contracts. We make sure, when negotiating these contracts, there is a corrective action that considers the factors of privileged communities. We will have Black administrators and will hire Black musicians., it should not be necessary to receive a financial incentive to hire Black musicians. It should just be done, to foster that power to be there and partake, having the same right as any other musicians.

“I regularly perform at the Gateway festival, which is an all-Black orchestra, with players coming together for a week or so. Playing with that orchestra feels like a family reunion. We take great pride of being part of this canon. But it is hard, sometimes, to feel you have reached the pinnacle of what classical music has to offer, when you don’t feel the communal connection. I would like to bring the team, that would affect true cultural change. Tenured contracts make that happen, and it’s time to not only have the conversation but for action. We already know what to do.”

A true transformation would indeed require a systemic change of all processes in the classical circuit, including how admissions to conservatories are regulated, how orchestras and management scout for talent, the role of executives in the realm of institutions, and how ticket sales are directed to audiences.

Conductor Leslie Dunner

Many times, we hear of the importance of having Black role models for the young generation to be inspired – not only by the art form, but by the fact that that classical music is played by someone they can easily identify with.

Conductor Leslie Dunner started his music training as a clarinetist only thanks to the bussing initiative of the 1960s that transferred him to a different neighborhood — predominantly Jewish and white — where access to music education was available. “Now I am working with high school kids,” he said. “We as professional (performers) have to instill a firm belief that we believe in what we are doing. We are role models for youth. When I was studying conducting at Eastman, some of the other students did not take me seriously. My professor supported me by (telling those students), ‘He will be the one hiring you for your next gig…’ That was empowering.”

Liz Player, who said that for a long time she was the only Black musician in some of the orchestras she performed with as a clarinetist, remembers how welcomed she felt at the New York City Housing Orchestra, filled with Black musicians. “It became all about the music, not about fitting in,” she said. Inspired by this experience, she founded Harlem Chamber Players and acts as its executive and artistic director.

Clarinetist Liz Player

As an artistic adviser to the ensemble, McKnight is involved with some of its presentations, among them his curated concerts at the Billie Holiday Theatre and at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He also regularly curates a variety of performances and concert talks at Merkin Concert Hall and the Museum of Modern Art. McKnight’s insights and advice on the cultivation of diverse perspectives are frequently sought by major cultural organizations.   

“I try to speak from a place of meeting them where they are,” he said of his visits to schools. “I don’t make it about culture but having fun with sound. I try to speak about music as a way to engage and to connect with people, not to aspire to some higher culture. We have to be realistic about racism. It’s been a social club for so long. And there are many who sit on boards, who want to keep it that way.

“I still feel the expectations that were there, growing up in a church, with my father at the table, discussing what could be done to make people feel more welcomed. It required making everyone feel welcomed. I brought this to my programming for my radio shows.”

Ilona Oltuski serves on the Music Critic Association of North America’s committee for diversity, equity, and inclusion. The German-American-Israeli music journalist’s blog, GetClassical, features artist profiles, reviews, and industry insights for various digital and printed media outlets. Her website is Http://www.getclassical.org