By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Me’Lisa James was brought to tears the first time she saw an all-Black orchestra.
“It was a healing process for me,” James, 32, said. “Growing up, I was the weird Black kid that played the clarinet. It’s very rare to see Black classical musicians.”
James was one of the many locals who last year saw the Sacramento debut of the Colour of Music Black Classical Musicians Festival.
The festival returned this year with its Nov. 15-Nov. 18 run, hosting orchestral performances and literary presentations at the Guild Theater, Memorial Auditorium, and the City Hall Galleria in West Sacramento. It also held a virtuosi performance at the City Church of Sacramento and an organ recital at the All Saints Episcopal Church.
Attendance was up this year compared to the 2021 debut, drawing nearly two thousand Sacramentans. Three nights sold out and the finale experienced a 20% increase in ticket sales, said Artistic Director Lee Pringle. In efforts to expose the youth to classical music, tickets also were comped for schools and underserved communities. With plans to expand next year, sponsors say the festival is poised to be one of Sacramento’s signature events.
The festival is a half-million-dollar operation that supports Blacks in a field where they make up less than 2% and arts enrichment at a time when music programs are routinely cut. The event relies on sponsorships from local corporations and public agencies in each city. In Sacramento, the city contributed a reported $150,000. Visit Sacramento kicked in a $50,000 grant with an additional $25,000 from the Sacramento Tourism Marketing District.
But the festival wouldn’t have happened without the Sierra Health Foundation. While the philanthropic organization initially contributed $25,000, it unexpectedly became the festival’s greatest fundraiser.
The week prior to the event, CEO and President Chet Hewitt stepped up to fulfill a financial shortfall. In just two days, he raised upwards of $175,000 by personally reaching out to public and private entities, elected officials, and private citizens who “understood the importance of the event.”
“In many respects, this is what community does to support the arts,” Hewitt said. “It all came together and we did it in a way that Sacramento does best. It was stunning, beautiful and transformative, in particular for the young people who probably had never seen Black people engage in classical music.”
James attended each day.
“I like classical music because you can tell how passionate somebody is by the connection with their instrument,” James said. “Keep an eye on the performers and see how they interact with their instrument.”
First violinist Anyango Yarbo-Davenport saved to buy her 18th-century French violin, which she said is “truly my voice… it’s close to my heart.”
More than 1,000 people watched as Yarbo-Davenport took center stage on closing night at Memorial Auditorium. The world-class violinist didn’t just run her bow over strings, she emoted. At times she paused, taking time to look upward before diving back into the melody with a furrowed brow.
Her talent may be otherworldly, but Yarbo-Davenport says performing feels “very human.”
“I feel very vulnerable and very human,” Yarbo-Davenport told The OBSERVER. “It’s a conversation with a musical instrument; it involves breathing, thinking, feeling and processing.”
After the performance, Yarbo-Davenport emerged from backstage asking “Where are the kids?” before making a beeline to elementary students from Aspire Schools. She had visited the school earlier that week via Zoom, answering questions and playing for the students.
The seven students and two educators attended for free, their tickets comped by the festival.
“It’s really important for Black students to see that excellence reflected back at them,” said visual and performing arts teacher Elika Bernard, 35. “This is the first time a lot of our students and staff are experiencing an orchestra.”
Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg also attended the final performance.
“The Colour of Music is really meaningful and impactful, but only if it motivates us to increase our commitment to arts education and music education in all of our schools,” Steinberg said. “Our Creative Edge Plan in Sacramento [has] committed to putting significant resources into arts education.”
The Creative Edge Plan was launched in 2018 and outlines the city’s cultural and creative priorities to be implemented over five to seven years. It is a partnership between the city, the county, the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and the Sacramento Region Community Foundation.
Mayor Steinberg also said the recent passing of Proposition 28 is projected to generate an additional $1 billion statewide in music education annual funds. The initiative mandates a 1% increase in state funding for arts and music education in public schools.
Second violinist Michael Jorgenson stressed the importance of music programs in schools. He was introduced to the violin in a fourth-grade music program.
“This is not a poor person’s game and it’s a serious issue,” Jorgenson said. “It takes a lot of hours, a lot of expensive equipment, lessons, and travel. … It’s like being an Olympian, but you’re an athlete from the wrist down.”
Four of Jorgenson’s family members attended the performance at the City Church of Sacramento. The intimate performance featured a pipe organ in a modern sanctuary with ideal acoustics.
Tony Hayes, Jorgenson’s uncle, said music programs need to be brought back to schools.
“When I was young, we had music appreciation. We went to the symphony and went to the opera,” Hayes said. “They don’t do that anymore.”
Sponsors soon plan to develop a local fundraising committee to raise money for the 2023 performance, currently slated for Nov. 15 – Nov. 18.
Former city councilmember Larry Carr spearheaded efforts to bring the festival to Sacramento in 2021. He hopes the event will be even bigger next year.
“We’ll be able to bring buses in from [the Bay Area],” Carr said. “And the musicians will be here long enough to get out to the schools and work with the young people.”
On closing night at Memorial Auditorium, Hewitt said he’d “been around a long time” but had never seen anything like the Colour of Music. After acknowledging the youth in attendance, he called for the adults to do their part in making the festival one of Sacramento’s “signature events.”
“It’s more than just about the music,” Hewitt said to The OBSERVER. “It’s the idea that things sometimes seen as foreign and untouchable really aren’t. Anything’s possible.”
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.