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Classically Black -€“ A Night At The Symphony

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By Chris Levister –

On a hot night in Milan, Italy, in 2006 Eldred Marshall captivated the sold out house as he always does. All eyes were on the then 25-year-old musical prodigy performing some of the most difficult works in the piano literature, including Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier Sonata” and Debussy’s “Images Book 1.”

Eldred is more than a mere virtuoso with elastic hands and dazzling dexterity. He is also a spellbinding performer with a flair for drama – strutting, swooning and wrapping his audience around his 10 nimble fingers.

The critically acclaimed artist has performed internationally: Spain, Italy and the Republic of San Marino. A landmark in his career was to become the first Black pianist to perform the entire cycle of 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven in public, from memory, as a concentrated series. In the fall and winter of 2007, he performed the feat in Portland, Oregon. In the winter and spring of 2008, he repeated the series in San Francisco.

Eldred began studying the piano at age 6, and the precocious young artist performed his first public concert at age 7. His prodigious and inquisitive mind allowed him to master large swaths of the piano repertoire quickly all the while consistently winning top prizes at the competitions he entered as a child. By 16, he debuted with an orchestra, playing Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto.

At age 10, he remembers being inspired to become a concert pianist after seeing the renowned Andre Watts perform in Pasadena.

“It was love at first sight. I knew I wanted to do that,” said Eldred, who also studied at the University of Salamanca in Spain.

“I love the intimacy, the tension and excitement of taking an audience on a journey through the internal emotions and spiritual experiences of a masterful work. You become the interpreter – It’s cathartic.”

Eldred, whose roots spring from a musical family, may have been a prodigy in his home town of Rialto, but said his parents Eldred and Deidre if you want to play on the world stage you’ve got to get out of town first. Following his high school graduation the young Eldred IV set off to Yale majoring in political science, music and Spanish. While at Yale he directed the award winning Yale Gospel Choir for two years.

By the time he graduated with honors, he had already mesmerized audiences all over the United States.

The 1999 Eisenhower High School salutatorian is more than just a supremely talented musician he is also a change agent who wants to broaden classical music’s appeal while acknowledging the gains minorities have made in the genre.

As a young Black pianist growing up in Rialto, it did not escape Eldred that no performers and very few audience members at classical music concerts looked like him.

Eldred envisions his brainchild ‘Classically Black – A Night at the Symphony’ will open the door to a world in which classical music reflects cultural diversity. “My dream is to become a catalyst to help overcome the cultural stereotype of classical music.”

Sunday October 18 the gala concert and fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of San Bernardino will showcase professional and novice African-American classical musicians.

I want to challenge everyone who ever said, ‘You don’t see more Blacks and Hispanics in orchestras because the musicians are just not out there’. “I want to prove that they are out there; they just need to be identified, encouraged and rewarded.”

“In these challenging times, arts programs in the schools and traditional music institutions are facing drastic cuts or elimination,” said Boys & Girls Club of San Bernardino Board Chairman Rikke Van Johnson. The fundraiser and Marshall collaboration aims to fill the education gap by administering youth development initiatives in minority communities through music education, increasing the participation of Blacks and Latinos in music schools, as professional musicians and composers and cultivate classical music audiences.

For example, most are not likely to know of the approximately 500 Black classical music composers spanning several centuries and continents.

In addition, there have been ground breaking Black professional musicians such as acclaimed violinist Aaron Dworkin in major professional orchestras since the 1960s, said Marshall.

“Though it has been extremely limited, Black composers and musicians have been heard in our symphony halls since the early 1900s.

This overall lack of awareness encompasses our entire society.”

In America, early Black classical performers were discriminated against and had to leave the country to perform in Europe, explains Marshall.

Singers like Elizabeth Taylor-Garfield, the ‘Black Swan’ performed in London between1850-1860. In the 1950 & 1960, with the color bar well in place, the only way for singers like Marian Anderson to make her debut was to do recital work. It was viewed at that time as the quickest way to succeed. Hence Anderson, who was the first Black person to perform at the New York Met, skillfully incorporated a fusion of Negro spiritual and classical music into her repertoire.

It is now well over forty years since the historical occasion in 1963, when Anderson performed to over 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

“I envision young people bringing to the study of classical music their own history and cultural background, which then informs the music itself in new and vital ways thus having a lasting effect on the classical music of tomorrow,” said Eldred.

Classically Black – A Night at the Symphony is sponsored by the San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra, Assembly Member Wilmer Carter, San Bernardino City Economic Development Agency, National Council of Negro Women and the Boys & Girls Club of San Bernardino.

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