Black classical music may be a foreign concept to many people. Not that there have not been a number of notable black classical composers over the centuries (George Bridgetower, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges), but according to Lee Pringle, skilled black classical musicians across America are often not presented with the same opportunities to make a career of their music or the chance to play with other black performers.
That is why he founded Charleston's Colour of Music Festival (COMF) eight years ago. Usually, it's held at various venues in the city each October, but this year's festival has been postponed to Feb. 3, 2021. The festival consists of an all-black orchestra, as well as guest appearances from other classically trained black performers. The event seeks to highlight the historical and contemporary role black artists played in classical music.
Prior to founding the festival, Pringle produced concerts for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra for over a decade, including their annual Gospel Christmas and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial concerts. Pringle had always noticed the lack of representation in the CSO's efforts, though he acknowledged that they have made improvements on that front since his departure in 2013.
"I suggested some ideas that didn't get picked up," Pringle said about his attempts to bring black musicians and compositions to the CSO. "That was when I decided 'I know so many people who went to conservatory and are now just waiting tables in New York or playing weddings and these are people with master's degrees in classical music.' That was how the Colour of Music got started. Of 2,000 orchestras in the United States that started to show up around the 1940s, all of whom get support from state and federal institutions, a large portion comes from white philanthropy. With 2,000 orchestras, less than 2 percent of the members on those stages are of African ancestry. It is truly the last water fountain for black people to drink from."
In 2014, there were 1,224 orchestras in the U.S., according to a study conducted by the League of American Orchestras.
Since its inception, the festival has hosted events in Pittsburgh, Nashville and New Orleans. "We've had to go to other cities to foster the appreciation of what our bold statement was," Pringle said. But being able to stay afloat and securing opportunities are very different. Like other black institutions in America, funding and exposure with help from the city and state are almost nonexistent. White-operated organizations and festivals often rest easy knowing that rich Charlestonians and city officials can swoop in with open wallets if money becomes an issue.
Financial problems black classical music organizations face mirrors the funding disparities and beneficial resources that are withheld from black Americans. "The government funds these organizations," Pringle said. "If you think about black folks not having the wealth against every matrix, 10 to 1 in economic income, a huge disparity in education access, HBCUs getting none of the funding that well established white institutions get, Harvard has like a $40 billion endowment, that's just an example of how the system was set up so that a Colour of Music couldn't exist. The average white orchestra fears that Colour of Music will shine a huge light on the fact that while you can't put black musicians onstage, this guy in Charleston goes out and finds 89 who are willing to play and have master's degrees from the same institutions as the white kids. All we're asking is the money that America has been giving to over 2,000 orchestras in this country should fund an organization like Colour of Music."
"Black lives may matter now, but there's still a lot of people sitting on their hands," Pringle said. "I often say, 'If you want to do something to change how society views black Americans, support black causes.' You benchmark black institutions against white institutions, when in fact the black institutions have been kept away from being able to implement the standards that you put in place."
These black causes, Pringle stresses, are often at a disadvantage economically. A large, ambitious festival like Colour of Music is building a stage for marginalized black artists, and needs significant support, just as a white-led event of its scale would. If black voices are to be heard and black art is to be expressed, Pringle hopes to drive home that they must have the same resources of white artists.