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Charleston based festival tries to change the color of classical music

Pianist with Colour of Music Festival playing in Charleston
Victoria Hansen
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South Carolina Public Radio
Lawrence Quinnett plays piano during a matinee at the historic Middleton-Pinckney House as part of the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, February 2022.

Sean Daniels awes an intimate audience as he plays the Marimba, an African xylophone, at the historic Middleton-Pinckney House in Charleston, SC. His face is silhouetted against the room’s tall, ornate windows.

Daniels was just 12 years old when he told his mother he wanted to be a percussionist. He recalls how she quickly changed the radio station in the car as she drove, encouraging him to embrace all kinds of music. Otherwise, she warned, he might wind up a broke musician.

Later, in graduate school, Daniels got more advice about his career choice. This time, it was from a professor he didn’t know who praised his performance.

“He said, ‘You have a nice sound. I like your touch’,” remembers Daniels. “He said, ‘Don’t let anyone run you away from here.’”

Daniels was the only Black member of the Ohio State Symphony Orchestra at the time. The white professor confirmed what he feared.

“What crossed my mind, I said okay some of the things that I’ve been told were going to happen,” says Daniels. “It is real. I’m not just feeling something.”

Daniels felt alone, perhaps discriminated against, playing classical music in a predominately white field. Today Black people still make up less than 2% of orchestras nationwide. Lee Pringle, a Charleston businessman and Black musician, is trying to change that.

“I had many, many colleagues and friends who had gone to conservatories — some of the most prestigious conservatories — but yet they weren’t getting these coveted spots,” says Pringle.

In 2013, Pringle founded the Colour of Music Festival where he still serves as artistic director nearly a decade later. His idea was to bring Black artists together; to play, travel, inspire and raise awareness.

Joseph Bologne
Etching by Eugene de Beaumont (1758)
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WikiMedia Commons
Composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

He also wanted to celebrate often overlooked Black composers like Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The French, Caribbean-born son of a wealthy plantation owner and his slave is believed to have influenced Mozart.

“They all do not get the same recognition as the white, European composers, many of whom plagiarized some of the works that these Black composers were presenting at the time,” says Pringle.

Pringle tries to share some of the history of Black composers as he introduces musicians before a performance. The matinee at the Middleton-Pinckney House includes a little personal history as well. The old home is named for slave owners who are related to Pringle’s family. The irony isn’t lost on festival musician Courtney Jones.

“More than likely you had those African Americans that were brought over, likely they built this building,” says Jones. “Being not even thought of as a human beings and yet here we are having this conversation.”

The conversation is about the progress African Americans have made. Still, they struggle to be accepted, especially in the stereotypically white world of classical music.

But Jones likes to break conventions. He makes his entrance from the back of the room, surprising the audience as he plays trumpet.

“Now you’re shook. You don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s where I like it because now it’s more human. It’s more intimate.”

The audience is engaged as Jones begins what he calls a musical conversation with pianist Lawrence Quinnett. Their instruments exchange notes.

“I have this belief that we all have inborn gifts that we kind of discover along the way,” says Quinnett. “Sometimes we just need someone to explicitly or implicitly say that you can do it.”

It is a message these musicians, now mentors, once longed to hear.

The Colour of Music Festival returns to Charleston in May.