Unless you're a classical music buff or studied classical music in college, you probably don't know much about Joseph Boulogne, otherwise known as the Chevalier St. George (sometimes spelled St. Georges). An 18th century fencing and violin prodigy, and a composer of hundreds of symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and operas, the Caribbean-born St. George was composing at the same time as Mozart — indeed, he came to be known as "the black Mozart." And yet his virtuosic works are rarely studied and rarely performed.
That's a real shame, says Lee Pringle, founder and president of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir and the founder of the upcoming Colour of Music Festival. An accomplished tenor, and no stranger to classical music himself, Pringle didn't discover the works of St. George until a few years ago. "I was in Toronto and a friend of mine invited me to a concert that was being performed by a famous Baroque orchestra," he says. "They did a Canadian broadcast documentary on St. George and played all the music that was in the video. I was blown away that I had never heard of this man."
Pringle had been trying to develop a music festival celebrating black classical musicians for several years at that point, and St. George fit perfectly into Pringle's vision. The idea for the festival came to him nearly 10 years ago. "I was actively helping the CSO solidify Gospel Christmas," he says. "And I realized that there were people who thought that was really the contribution of black musicians — gospel music. It took me many years to figure out how I could help the symphony with their outreach while showing people that that was not the case. Finally this past spring I said OK, I'm going to make this happen."
The mission of the Colour of Music festival is to honor the huge contributions that black musicians and composers have made, and continue to make, to classical music, especially in the U.S. and Charleston. "Most people associate black musicians with blues and jazz, but that's not the whole story," Pringle says. "Black musicians that were anchored at the Jenkins Orphanage — there's all kinds of connections to classical musicians of black ancestry. We think this is a wonderful opportunity to shed light on that."
All the musicians performing during the festival are black, and they come from orchestras and conservatories around the globe. Pringle began putting together his roster of performers with a single mass email that went out to black musicians of his acquaintance. "It spread like wildfire. I'll have some of the most impressive pedigrees on that stage, from the top conservatories and schools in the world converging on Charleston. Seventy percent of them have Ph.Ds in their instrument."
Each day of the five-day festival features four or five separate performances (with the exception of Sunday, which features two). Guests can take their pick from organ recitals, piano recitals, and chamber music programs throughout the afternoon, with larger works like "The Ordering of Moses" oratorio and an Ode to Black Composers concert offered in the evenings. The selections are by a wide range of composers, from the heavy-hitters like Chopin and Scarlatti to the less widely-known like St. George, the 20th-century African-American composer George T. Walker, and César Franck.
Despite the ease with which Pringle recruited his musicians — including a concertmaster, music director, and director of chamber music — most orchestras are still presenting a mostly white, or white and Asian, face to their audiences. "Very few [blacks] have principal positions in orchestras, very few are music directors, or conductors," he says. "It's still a very white-dominated area. Unfortunately, the black population as you know is not always on par with these other communities, so a lot of these black kids are not noticed until they're at the School of the Arts — and then technically they're already at a deficit, because what other kids are learning at three or five, they're learning at 10 or 13."
One of Pringle's main goals with the Colour of Music Festival is to inspire those children, and show them that it's possible to make a career out of classical music. Several schools will be bringing students to this year's concerts, and Pringle is already working on an educational outreach component for next year's program that would bring Colour of Music musicians into local schools. "If we are successful at changing the life of one black child, either at an organ recital at high noon or at a piano recital at 2 p.m. or a chamber music recital at 5:30 p.m., then we would have been successful," Pringle says. "This festival's goal is to inspire young black musicians and, long-term, all musicians with the importance of showing the enormous, enormous contributions of black musicians."