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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

Conductor: The First African American

Dr Anne Lundy is one of the first African American women to conduct a major American symphony orchestra. She has been pushing boundaries throughout her long and illustrious career and her controversial opinions are often at odds with the classical music establishment.

On Monday 25 January, I was privileged to interview Dr Lundy, via Zoom. Dr Lundy generously gave me an incredibly frank, inspiring and sometimes heart breaking insight into what it means to become excellent, and to fight for equality and recognition, in that most White, male dominated of fields, classical music conducting.

How does a young, Black girl in Texas get into conducting in the early 1950s?

When I was a young child, the conductor of a kid’s music group, invited me to the front to have a go at “conducting”. It was the most fun I’d ever had! From that moment on, I never wanted to stop!

After that, it was a combination of my parents dedication and commitment and various teachers, both Black and White, that encouraged me on my path.

My love of music meant that I didn’t go to the Black high school that my sister and brother went to, Jack Yates Senior High School (the same school attended by George Floyd), because it didn’t have an orchestra.

I had to go across town to the Robert E. Lee High School. Robert E. Lee was a slave owner and there were many confederate flags decorating the school. I remember being the only Black face in the orchestra. I really didn’t fit in. Thankfully, it was the 60s and there were some White people who were adopting the hippy values of love, openness and tolerance and also some Hispanic people who were willing to look past race and be my friend. So I did have a great group of friends at school to hang out with. I was also lucky that the director of the school’s orchestra was supportive. In many ways though, it was a difficult time, but everybody’s teenage years are difficult aren’t they!

After that I went to university. I went to the University of Texas and did my Bachelor of Music Education in violin. Then I did a Masters in Orchestra Conducting at the University of Houston and finally, I did my doctorate in musical arts at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. I conducted throughout my university education. The conductor of one of the orchestras I played in allowed me to conduct any orchestral music that I arranged. So I tried to arrange as much orchestral music as I could purely so I had the chance to conduct!

You are known as one of the first African American women to conduct a major American symphony orchestra – how did that come about?

Well, I wanted to conduct! So in 1989 I approached the Houston Symphony to ask whether I could conduct. They were very sceptical because I am a Black woman, but they saw that I had qualifications and experience. So they allowed me to conduct a rehearsal to see how it went. It went well. That led to my conducting a concert. At that concert, I brought along African American musicians so that for that performance, the orchestra was made up of half Black musicians. I wanted to make sure other Black musicians were part of that experience. It was wonderful!

What is the situation with American orchestras?

The major symphony orchestras in America are not diverse and don’t represent the population demographic at all. Generally, I don’t see more than one Black face in an entire orchestra. I think everybody recognises the lack of diversity as a problem, but it is the solution that people disagree on.

Many orchestras will have a diversity committee or a community outreach and education program, and they will invite Black soloists or do some other type of special event for Black people. And that’s good. They should do that. But that is just baby steps. It’s not enough. There needs to be major changes across the board, not just tinkering at the edges.

The lack of diversity is a big, complicated problem that involves racism, education, lack of opportunity, money and history.

Do you get asked for your opinion on how to make changes?

I used to get asked a lot, but I would go to the meetings, express my views on how real changes need to be made, and then I’d never get asked back! My views are very unpopular and unfashionable. I think that the only way to get more Black musicians in an orchestra quickly is to embrace affirmative action. I’m not saying that you should hire a terrible Black musician to replace a brilliant White musician, but I do think that if a Black and a White musician are pretty much the same standard, then affirmative action can apply.

This means that I think auditioning behind screens should be phased out. This practice was introduced in the 1940s to ensure that women got a fair audition and by and large, it’s worked. Now, I think having people engage with the musician on a personal level would be more beneficial. Affirmative action would mean that you have musicians from a diverse range of backgrounds and the orchestras would begin to reflect the demographic of their communities and, as a result, audiences will grow.

In some parts of the states, the non-White communities are growing much faster than the White communities, so having cultural institutions that reflect the communities that they are a part of is the only way that those institutions will stay relevant and survive.

The problem is that generally the people in charge of making the big decisions are old, White men. I don’t know how to get old, White men to make the decisions necessary to bring about real change.

How has the Black Lives Matter movement affected you?

Well, I’m from the area that George Floyd came from. In our area, that type of tragedy is, unfortunately, not uncommon. I think maybe the reason why it resonated with the world so much is that it was so clearly captured on film. When you see it up close, the breathing, the cop’s face – the horror of it really hits you.

Since President Trump, racism in America has surged to terrifying proportions. It’s been there all along, but it was really given free reign. I think the hangover from slavery is still deep in the American psyche – it’s never healed. Once slavery ended, there was an idea that while Black people shouldn’t be slaves, they should still be kept below White people. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the abolition of slavery really embodied that.

There has been a lot of nuanced debate about what Black Lives Matter means. But to me, it’s quite basic. Black Lives Matter to me means, don’t kill us. Just don’t kill us. It doesn’t mean we’re better than you or that you don’t matter or anything like that. It means, don’t kill us. It means we have the right to lives our lives, the right to exist, to have friends, to raise families, the right to grow old.

What does the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris mean to you?

I am so relieved. I am just so relieved. Thrilled and happy and relieved.

What are your ambitions for the future?

Now that I’m older, my ambition for the future has switched from a personal ambition to achieve to a desire to see the next generation of Black musicians achieve. I’m currently the Music Director of the Community Music Center of Houston and I want to promote Black composers, musicians and conductors.

In our community orchestra, I try and promote the many Black composers that have been ignored by history. There have been so many incredibly interesting Black composers for hundreds of years that wrote music and continue to compose in the traditional forms such as symphonies, ballets, concertos, operas - but they have been pushed aside.

You will not learn about these composers at university – you have to find them out for yourself. I don’t want to denigrate the wonderful composers that I learned about at university – I love Shostakovich, Bach, Beethoven, but I want to learn about, and hear, a wide range of composers – not just from one race and gender.

Many African American composers bring an interesting sensibility to the traditional forms - quite a different sound while still conforming with the rules of classical music – sometimes the music is classical with a jazz sensibility. Doesn’t that sound beautiful? Wouldn’t you love to hear that?

Did you know that Scott Joplin, who is most famous for his rag time music, composed operas and a ballet? He wanted to compose more classical music, but the doors were shut on that part of his musical ability. There are many other composers like this such as Florence Price, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and many others.

I try and unearth music that’s been written by Black composers for my orchestra – it’s hard to track the sheet music down – it’s like a treasure hunt.

But my main focus at the moment is a practical one – to make sure our Community Music Center of Houston has its own premises so that we can control our rehearsal schedule and the programmes we can offer to our community. We’ve raised enough money to buy a rundown building - but now we need to raise some money to renovate so that it’s safe to use. That’s my main ambition – to see the Community Music Center of Houston with space of its own so we can start nurturing music and musicians in our community.

Music is important. Everybody should have music – whether it’s playing like a virtuoso on the violin, or playing a favourite tune with one finger on the piano or just singing in the shower. You don’t have to be the best or even very good – so long as you enjoy it! Everybody can and should make music – it’s the only thing that will keep us sane right now!


If you would like to donate to the Community Music Center of Houston, then please click on the Center's donation page here.


To find out more about Black musicians you can read:

· The Music of Black Americans: A History (3rdEd.) by Eileen Southern.

· Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras (2ndEd.) by D. Antoinette Handy.

· African American Music: An Introduction, Edited by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby.

· Black Women and Music: More Than the Blues by Eileen M. Hayes (Author, Editor), Linda F. Williams (Editor).


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