SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- The Emerging Black Composers Project is a 10-year program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music that spotlights early-career Black American composers.
"Being a composer, it's a challenging task, regardless of age, regardless of color. There are many people who don't get the opportunity to even hear their music," said Jonathan Bingham, a 2021 EBCP winner. "When we move forward into the 21st century, there is a shift in demographics. We want to keep the audience membership healthy in classical music."
Since 2020, the project has encouraged entries from Black composers under 35. Recipients are awarded a cash prize, mentorship and performance of their work by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by music director Esa-Pekka Salonen.
"A lot of black composers have been told in years past that there was no place for them on the podium, there was no place for them on stands of musicians across the world and that has changed," said Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, the chair of the project and the resident conductor of engagement and education for the San Francisco Symphony. "So now is the moment to help young Black composers flourish, to nurture them and to provide them with role models that they can look to and to have them represented on stage and in concerts all over the world."
A common concern among those driving this effort is a lack of arts programs in low-income public schools as well as a lack of exposure to classical music.
Students who have access to musical instruments and lessons and who get the chance to hear performances in a concert hall early in their lives might be attracted to a career later on. Institutions backing this project acknowledge their responsibility as influencers on culture.
"If you want to build relationships with communities -- you want children to see themselves in new roles for themselves -- you have to model it," said David Stull, the president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. "If we're not reflecting all of our communities and all of us and welcoming the totality of our complete community into concert spaces, into this world and all of the music and cultural import that comes with that, then we're failing in that role."
Another common goal of those involved in the project is increasing the diversity of the audience for classical music.
"Maybe someone comes into a concert hall and sees no one that looks like them. That can be very, very intimidating and very alienating so what we're doing about it is this: we're trying to put more Black composers on the stands of musicians around North America," Bartholomew-Poyser said. "Black composers are here now, they have been for years as well and now we will shine the light."
Bingham says he wants to see classical music reframed so it doesn't get labeled elitist. He compares the challenge of composing to being an author, working alone for years hoping someone will pick up your work and share it with the world. As a winner of the project, he wants both to increase awareness of his compositions and shine a spotlight on others.
"The person on stage is a reflection of those in the audience so we want to have a more diverse stage going forward so, that way, we can have a diverse and healthy audience," he said.
The deadline for applications is Feb. 14. Winners will be announced in the spring.
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