Harlem World poster, 1981
Courtesy of Curtis Sherrod
“Classical Music has long held a special place in the cultural life of the Harlem community.”
Classical Music has long held a special place in the cultural life of the Harlem community. There have been so many performances of Handel’s “Messiah” in its churches that congregations can sing the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” by memory. Another popular religious work is “The Ballad of the Brown King” by Margaret Bonds, who lived in the Morningside Gardens apartment complex.
As far back as 1900, the Drury Opera Company attracted Harlem’s elite to hear European masterpieces performed by excellent singers including its founder, Theodore Drury. The noted critic and composer Virgil Thomson once observed that “Negro singers, as always, make opera credible... they never look bored or out of place on a stage or seem inappropriately cast for any musical style.”
In 1944, the National Negro Opera brought its production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” downtown to Madison Square Garden, attracting an audience of 10,000 people. Founder Mary Cardwell Dawson’s crowning achievement was a production of “Ouanga” by Harlem resident Clarence Cameron White in the Metropolitan Opera House in 1956, the first outside company to use these facilities.
Opera is very much alive and flourishing in Harlem through the efforts of Opera Ebony, founded in 1974 by a committee headed by Benjamin Matthews and Wayne Sanders. During its long association with City College, it presented the world premiere of Dorothy Rudd Moore’s “Frederick Douglass” in June of 1985 before a large audience at Aaron Davis Hall.
The Harlem-born soprano Martina Arroyo has created “Prelude to Performance,” an ambitious training program for exceptionally talented young singing-actors through the Martina Arroyo Foundation, Inc. This season, it gave one fully staged opera and a bill consisting of one-acts for each of three weeks, all superbly performed.
There are now several groups inspired by the original Harlem Opera Society founded by a Mr. Ward and later kept alive by Monte Norris, who was followed by Emory Taylor. The name Harlem Opera Company and variants have been nurtured by the tenor Gregory Hopkins. Notable newcomers on the scene include Opera Noire, Harlem Opera Theater and Opera Express.
The great choral tradition, exempted by groups lead by Hall Johnson and Eva Jessye, continued to flourish under the direction of Johnson’s protégées Leonard de Paur and John Motely. Only recently disbanded, the Schubert Music Society, founded 1927, was a major presence in the community. Founded in 1929, the Unique Musical Society is still going strong under the leadership of Robert S. Newton.
One of the earliest instrumental ensembles, the Negro String Quartet, with Felix Weir, Arthur Boyd, Hall Johnson, and Marion Cumbo, dates back to 1925. Not to be forgotten are such orchestras as the Cosmopolitan Little Symphony and the Symphony of the New World. Currently active groups include the Festival Musical Society, the LonGar Ebony Ensemble and the ANTARA Ensemble.
For years, concerts and recitals have attracted large audiences. The five local branches of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., founded in 1919, have inspired generations of performers. Some of the early presenters include Coffee Concerts, Triad Presenters, Inc., and musicians like cellist Kermit Moore. Classical Productions, Inc. and Musica de Camera are now active.
BY RONALD ABDUL
Music is sounds that have different vibes that is candy for the ears.
—Kayla Ross, Harlem Educational Activities Fund