By Angelica Obioha | OBSERVER Managing Editor
The world’s largest Black classical musicians festival made its first West Coast appearance, as the Colour of Music debuted in Sacramento, November 10-13.
The four-night event consisted of vocal and orchestral performances by musicians from around the world presented at three venues: the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, the Guild Theater in Oak Park, and the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Theater at UC Davis.
Two years in the making, the festival was initially scheduled to come to Sacramento in 2020 but was postponed due to COVID-19 shutdowns.
Originating in Charleston, South Carolina, the Colour of Music Festival brings Black, classically-trained musicians together to showcase and perform the works of composers of African descent, highlighting their impact and historical significance on American and world culture. Since its inception in 2013, it has been held in several cities including Houston, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Nashville and Richmond, Virginia.
Speaking to The OBSERVER, festival founder and artistic director Lee Pringle said his focus is on enhancing and expanding appreciation of Black classically-trained musicians’ contributions to the genre.
“When these musical institutions were established, we were intentionally not included. I wanted to provide a platform for artists who otherwise wouldn’t have one,” Pringle said.
Featuring a diverse repertoire of baroque, classical and 20th-century music, Sacramento festival attendees witnessed a virtuosi all-female chamber orchestra with director/soloist Anyango Yarbo-Davenport, a chamber music spotlight with the Paris-based Grimbert-Barré Trio, a literary presentation by biographer Christopher Brooks honoring the career of renowned opera singer and California native Shirley Verrett, and matinee piano recitals with vocal performances by sopranos Kimwana Doner and Laquita Mitchell, among several others.
Following a record turnout, Pringle said he has great admiration for Sacramento’s Black community.
“We sold out three performances and we’ve never done that in a city before. So it’s a testament to the fact that [Sacramento] and its Black community understand that classical music is truly one of the last water fountains for us, as a people.”
And the opportunity to host a number of those performances at the Guild Theatre is one that Pringle described as “the icing on the cake.”
“Oak Park has become one of the up and rising Black enclaves. And although the community around the Guild Theatre is gentrifying tremendously, there’s still so much history there. Just knowing that for decades it was recognized as one of the first suburbs of the growing region that the Black community permeated, it meant a lot for us to present there,” he said.
Sacramento City Councilman Rick Jennings II, along with former councilmen Larry Carr and Allen Warren, were instrumental in bringing the festival to the Sacramento area. According to Pringle, the three Black council members at the time wanted it to be a part of the city’s unique cultural fiber.
“Sacramento loves the arts. We’ve proven it time and time again,” Jennings said. “I thank Sacramento for being who they are and showing us that we can bring art to the city and we can support it.”
According to a study by the League of American Orchestras, less than 2% of professional classical musicians in American orchestras are Black. The Colour of Music ensemble was a first-of-its-kind experience for many, a sight unseen that Jennings believes will ignite a passion for generations to come.
“This is something I’ve never seen before, and I’m 68 years old. I’ve never seen an all-Black orchestra. And in my lifetime, to be able to see it and witness how it happened … it’ll leave a lasting impression on me for many, many years.
“It is my goal that one day, the children that came to the different venues will be playing for us because of what they saw here. That is the vision I have for Sacramento,” he continued.
Sonya Bradley, Visit Sacramento’s Chief of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, echoed Jennings’ sentiments, affirming that the festival’s uniqueness struck a chord with many and that the feedback they received has been largely positive.
“It was just so uplifting. Music is good for all people, regardless of your race, but I think there’s just that special connection when you can see people who look like you on stage,” Bradley said.
In recognition of what he characterized as California’s role as a pacesetter for others to emulate, Pringle hopes their presence in Sacramento will in turn set the tone far and wide.
“California has the mantra of ‘the way California goes, so goes the rest of the country,’ ’’ he said. “And I’m hoping that it will inspire other parts of the nation to embrace the largest Black classical organization anywhere. There is no other entity that’s like the Colour of Music.”
There are already plans for the Colour of Music to return to Sacramento. Mayor Darrell Steinberg has committed to having the festival back next fall, and Pringle anticipates that official dates will be announced soon.
“And we know it’s going to be even bigger next year,” Pringle said.