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Canton Symphony Orchestra breaks down barriers to celebrate Black composers

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a conductor in front of an orchestra
Michael Barath
Canton Symphony Orchestra

Historically, Black composers have all too often been left out of the classical music narrative. But orchestras across the country are recognizing that must change.

The Canton Symphony Orchestra is among those who’ve worked to make classical music a more welcoming place for previously ignored communities. Ron Ponder, a long-time journalist and former president of the Stark County chapter of the NAACP, reached out to the conductor of Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann to talk about four composers who deserve the spotlight. Rick Robinson, Florence Price, William Grant Still and George Walker.

Opening up classical music

Zimmermann calls Rick Robinson a close friend. After years playing bass for various symphonies, he formed his own music company, CutTime Productions. CutTime combines classical music with jazz.

“He felt like classical music wasn’t doing enough to get to many people, ok. It had this stand-offishness about it. So, he resigned from the Detroit Symphony and he’s now known as Mr. CutTime,” Zimmermann said.

Robinson has won invitations to arrange, perform, conduct and publish more than one hundred symphonic works throughout his career. He began composing in 1999, which offered more opportunity to showcase his music to a larger audience.

Breaking barriers

Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. She was a classical composer, pianist, organist and music teacher. She was the first African American woman to ever have their music played by a major symphony orchestra. Her music was performed by the Chicago Symphony in 1933.

“She was really unknown when she was growing up" according to Zimmerman. "She entered a competition. It was the Wannamaker competition for composition and she won for her symphony number one in e-minor.”

Price composed more than 300 works, including four symphonies and four concertos. Price’s career took her to Chicago where her first symphony was included in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s program. She died in 1953.

Father of the African-American composer

William Grant Still was born in 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi but grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. He composed about 200 works, including five symphonies and four ballets.

Zimmerman describes William Grant Still as, “The father of the African American composer.”

Still was the first African American whose work was performed by a major orchestra. His piece titled “The Afro American Symphony” was performed by Howard Hanson of the Rochester Philharmonic.

“Believe it not, his music was the most popular of any American composer between the end of World War II and around 1950.”

Still conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936. His music was heard in films such as Pennies from Heaven that starred Bing Crosby. He died in 1978.

A Pulitzer-prize winner

George Walker was born in 1922 in Washington D.C. He was a composer, pianist and organist who was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Price (1966) for music.

“His music has a little bit more hot sauce to it. It’s a little spicier. He wrote a trombone concerto that I still hope to program sometime in the future at the Canton Symphony.”

Walker composed several works, including five sonatas. His composition "Lyric for Strings" was his most performed orchestra work. He died in 2018.

The conversation continues

The Canton Symphony Orchestra will host a conversation with Rick Robinson later this year. You can find more informationhere.

Our thanks to Ron Ponder for his work on this story. 

Corrected: February 18, 2022 at 1:32 PM EST
The quote on George Walker originally incorrectly referenced the term "caught-sauce" instead of what was actually said, hot sauce.
Kelly Krabill is a multiple media journalist at Ideastream Public Media. Her work includes photography and videography. Her radio and web reporting covers a wide range of topics across Northeast Ohio.
Ben Weaver is a Junior journalism student at Kent State University from Southwestern Ohio, in the Dayton area. Ben is pursuing a journalism major with a minor in photography. He is also working as a reporter at the Kent Stater.