Open to All, Allegro Magazine, February 2014

Open to All
How the Symphony of the New World made history

The reality of musicians of all backgrounds playing together on the same stage may seem ordinary today. But under the cruel mantle of racism in this country, an integrated orchestra was only a dream for many years. It was something my father, Benjamin Steinberg, longed for and ultimately won, right here in New York City. The story of his dream – which was an ensemble called the Symphony of the New World – is one that many musicians may not know.

As early as 1940, my father began to work with conductors Dean Dixon and Everett Lee to establish the first fully-integrated professional symphony orchestra in the U.S. It took more than two decades. Flutist Harold Jones remembers, “There was a nucleus of people: Elayne Jones, Harry Smyles, Joe Wilder, Wilmer Wise, Kermit Moore, Lucille Dixon. We all got together and had these meetings. ‘Are we interested?’ Everyone jumped to the idea. ‘Yes. Let’s do this. We’re going to do it – have an integrated orchestra.’”

With my father as music director, the mission statement listed the other founders: Alfred Brown, Selwart R. Clarke, Richard Davis, Elayne Jones, Harold M. Jones, Frederick L. King, Kermit D. Moore, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Ross C. Shub, Harry M. Smyles, and Joseph B. Wilder.

Finally on May 6, 1965, two months after the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the Symphony of the New World performed its debut concert at Carnegie Hall.

The program notes for that inaugural concert stated, “At this period in our history, when the problem of racial integration has become crucial to our nation’s well-being as well as to its position in the world, the debut concert of the Symphony of the New World is a historic event in the history of our time.”

Trumpeter Wilmer Wise recalls, “Some people were crying because it was something we had dreamt about and it had finally come to fruition. I never felt in my life the way I did when I sat on the stage with Benjamin Steinberg in a fully integrated orchestra – because, usually, I was the one integrating it.”

From the beginning, one of the orchestra’s goals was to bring performances into the community – not just to Carnegie or Philharmonic Hall. Three days after Carnegie Hall, the symphony repeated the same program at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem.

Then came “the Lenny letter”:

October 11, 1965
Mr. Donald L. Engle, Director
The Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music
1 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Engle:

It is a pleasure for me to be able to recommend The Symphony of the New World for a sizable grant. I have not actually heard the orchestra perform. But I have heard and known Mr. Steinberg, who conducted one of my theatre works 15 years ago (“Peter Pan”). He is extremely able and gifted; and I am sure that under his guidance the orchestra will flourish. Most important of all, of course, is the sociological impetus behind the project – a truly integrated symphony orchestra. The success of this project will certainly stimulate more of the same, and may provide us with our first big step out of the unfair and illogical situation in which we now find ourselves with the Negro musician.

Respectfully yours,

Leonard Bernstein

They got the grant. Many successful concerts and collaborations followed. James DePriest became the symphony’s principal guest conductor. There were also breakthroughs. Marilyn Dubow, a soloist with the symphony, won a seat in the New York Philharmonic as the first female violinist. Elayne Jones, another symphony almnus, joined the San Francisco Symphony as its first black woman timpanist. Thinking back on her days with the Symphony of the New World, Jones remembers, “The legitimacy of our organization was not acceptable until we had people who were supporting us. We had to have donations to begin to establish as a viable organization and to get union support! We had to begin getting players for this orchestra. All I remember is how complicated it was and what we went through. We had to also deal with those who said it couldn’t be done.”

The Symphony was an orchestral expression of the Civil Rights Movement. It strove to be a cultural beacon to the world, embodying the true American spirit of equality. Its mission was to integrate the symphonic stage, from which non-white, Asian, and female musicians had been nearly totally excluded.

Among the orchestra’s original sponsors were Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Paul Creston, Ruby Dee, Langston Hughes, Hershy Kay, Gian Carlo Menotti, Zero Mostel, Ruggiero Ricci, and William Warfield.

By 1971, everyone had great hopes for the season. John Hammond was president of the symphony’s board of directors, which included Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and Zero Mostel. Ms. Anderson and Mr. Mostel were also patron artists, along with the Modern Jazz Quartet, George Shirley and William Warfield. In addition, the symphony had secured grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, among others. But that 1971 season was never completed.

One of the things my father used to do was ask principal players to sit second chair, so an up-and-coming musician could get a chance to gain experience. Everyone was happy to do it, until one person changed his mind.

Concert pianist and Smith College professor George Walker goes over his composition “Address for Orchestra” with Benjamin Steinberg. The Symphony of the New World premiered this piece at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, then presented it the following day at Lincoln Center.

Concert pianist and Smith College professor George Walker goes over his composition “Address for Orchestra” with Benjamin Steinberg. The Symphony of the New World premiered this piece at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, then presented it the following day at Lincoln Center.

Two factions emerged. Arbitration ensued. They tried to take the name of the orchestra away from my father. It got to the point where my father had to resign backstage at Philharmonic Hall just before a concert on Dec. 12, 1971, so the concert could go on. He conducted the concert, nonetheless.

“Egos,” said Joe Wilder. “It was all about egos. I had been very proud to be a member of the orchestra, but I was annoyed at some of the racial overtones to Ben Steinberg’s resigning.”

Jazz writer Ed Berger’s forthcoming biography on Joe Wilder also quotes founding member and violist Alfred Brown: “There were some people – not the majority – who had a problem with him. Some of them felt the conductor should be black. I was not one of them. I liked him very much. He was very idealistic.” (See “Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music,” Temple University Press, April 2014.)

In Feb. 1, 1972, my father wrote his last fundraising letter. It said, “It is with sincere regret that we must advise that, due to an internal controversy as well as unforeseen financial difficulties arising from the current general economic situation, the Symphony of the New World is canceling the rest of the 1971-1972 concert season. Not only have we sustained the economic pinch facing all non-profit cultural institutions this season, but because of the difficulties, some $100,000 in scheduled grants could not be received in time to permit the completion of this concert season.”

The symphony folded shortly thereafter. Despite its inglorious end, the musicians who were part of the Symphony of the New World felt proud to be a part of the project. “It built hope where there was very little,” flutist Harold Jones said. “It showed that, as black people, we had paid our dues and we could do it as well as anyone else. It was such a moment in life that I’m overwhelmed with it. I just wish it could have lasted. The inspiration that this could be done [remains] in all of us.”

The collection of my father’s papers was the life’s work of my mother, Pearl Steinberg. They reside at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library. The papers of the Symphony of the New World are at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. I welcome anyone who wants to contact me for more information. E-mail me at

Postscript: Coincidentally, two founders of the Symphony of the New World passed away recently. Kermit Moore died on Nov. 2. Alfred Brown died on Nov. 17. Both obituaries were published in the January issue of Allegro. In addition, we’re pleased to mention that Elayne Jones – another founding member of the symphony – is alive and well and recently wrote some reminiscences that were published here in the December issue .

Original Article in Allegro Magazine



Interracial Relationships in Oscar Movies and Orchestras
by Barbara Steinberg, reacting to the above article in the New York Times

As coincidence would have it, Alfred Uhry, author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” was my drama teacher in high school. I won the role of Viola in Twelfth Night, but wasn’t allowed to play it, because my father had just died, and I had skipped school for 6 weeks. I was too far behind in my other work, so I ended up playing a minor role.

Alfred was mentioned in a New York Times article the other day about this year’s Oscar nominations. Movies like “The Upside” and “Green Book” tell stories about interracial relationships, where the distance between the two main characters is bridged by a contract of employment. One look at the posters tells you which character was employed at the other’s patronage.

The article goes on to say that many movies and television shows were “light advertisements for the civilizing (and alienating) elements of white wealth on black life.” Civilizing???

Then something stood out.

“Any time a white person comes anywhere close to the rescue of a black person, the academy is primed to say, ‘Good for you!,’”

While working on the radio documentary “Bernstein’s Black America,” I was asking my dear friend Terrance McKnight to highlight the alliance between Lenny and my father, Benjamin Sternberg, founding artistic director of the Symphony of the New World.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to include the letter Bernstein wrote to the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation that secured funding for the Carnegie Hall premiere on May 6, 1965, but Terrance said reverentially, “You know Leonard Bernstein held a fundraiser for the Black Panthers in his Park Avenue apartment.”

Lenny lived on Park Avenue. If he was going to hold a fundraiser in his home, his address would follow. But Terrance did not say Lenny’s home. He said, “his Park Avenue apartment.”

I felt his comment was almost like the acceptance of the transactional nature of class difference inherent in racial inequality, portrayed in “Driving Miss Daisy” and this year’s Oscar-nominated movies. Of course you knew who lived Park Avenue, and who was there to benefit from the fundraiser.

The blurb for “Bernstein’s Black America uses a neutral tone: “To raise money for civil rights organizations, he also hosted jazz in the afternoon at his house.”

Lenny also marched in Selma with Harry Belafonte, and hired Sanford Allen to integrate the New York Philharmonic in the 1960’s. This isn’t about Lenny. This is about how African Americans accept help from white people without losing their dignity, and about white people who commit to civil rights because the inclusive nature of the term is obvious.

The late 60’s was a time of “limousine liberals,” and Jewish landlords, who mercilessly exploited their black tenants in Harlem. I think my father was misinterpreted as a white Jew who came to rescue black people, which was horribly false.

My father put his soul into the Symphony of the New World because he wanted to change the world. His catch phrase was, “I’m not a white liberal. I’m a white radical,” meaning I’m not a hypocrite. The mission of this orchestra is the core of my being. I’m real.

He did not hire black musicians personally. The Symphony hired them professionally, as the tax records in the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture show.

Appearing on Jack O’Brian’s “Critics Circle (WOR Radio, 196😎, the host asked my father, “What is the proportion of blacks in the Symphony of the New World?” My father answered: “About 40%. We have 36 black players. Actually 66 black players have gone through our orchestra, but 14 of them are now in other symphonies, and another dozen have gotten so busy with work in New York that they can’t play the concerts.”

When Jack O’Brian asked the same question of the other conductor on the panel, he answered, “I couldn’t say how many black people were in the orchestra because we go by color of sound not by color of skin.”

An article by Joan Peyser appeared in the New York Times on Sunday, Dec. 26, 1967. Ronald Lipscomb is quoted as responding to my father’s catch phrase by saying, “What we need now is a black orchestra. We are happy to be here, but this should be seen for what it is: a middle-class operation with integrationist ideals, having no relation whatever to the mass of black people.” Some colleagues agreed. “Only a white man could have found the money and backing to make this orchestra work.”

I don’t know why integrationist ideals have to be the sole property of the middle class, but ok.

I spoke with Ronald Lipscomb. When he came to school on the Monday after that article appeared, his friends looked at him strangely. “Why did you say that?” they asked. “What?” he was confused. Then they showed him the article. He was shocked. “I never said that,” he told me. He felt Joan Peyser needed an angry-black-man character for her story, and she chose him. He was horrified.

In addition, the tableau that comes to my mind most distinctly was my father crying at our desk in a nook off the living room after hanging up the phone for the 15th time. It was a conversation with another wealthy black potential donor, who declined to give money to fund the Symphony of the New World. “Why wouldn’t a black person support this?” he asked, as bewildered despair filled his eyes. I saw him take off his glasses and wipe away the tears. He was working so hard. My mother held him. I was 6 and didn’t understand what was going on, but I had never seen him cry before.

I would never dispute that there was racism at the major foundations, but that memory tells me that black people could have absolutely raised the money to start the Symphony of the New World, and the foundations would have had to follow. My father wasn’t a front. The people he loved weren’t transactional friends. The cause for which he gave his life for was still one for which he would give his life.

He resigned in 1971 because, according to a New York Times article by Donal Henahan on July 15, 1973, “members accused him trying to change the objectives of the orchestra.” My personal opinion is that they were lying, and my father resigned because he lost a personal power struggle with Kermit Moore. What was it about? I still don’t know.

Four months before he died on January 29, 1974, he was rejected for a professorship at Rutgers University, because a letter was sent in opposition to his hiring, calling him a racist. Rutgers University cannot find the letter. A letter telling my father the news is in the Schomburg collection. I’ll never forget how his eyes closed into his jaundiced face when my mother read it to him. It was the last blow. His body was rife with pancreatic cancer. I’d like to to see that letter. I want to know who signed it.

Unlike the Oscars, where people’s humanitarian views are celebrated with rhinestone-studded sincerity, sometimes the world kills a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. Integration will come to the classical stage and to the board room. Terrance and I want to tell the story of this orchestra, but we can’t get the funding.

Pictures for Free Use, Copyright License, Wikipedia

I agree to release all rights, unless otherwise stated, to all my image contributions to the English Wikipedia, enabling anyone to use them for any purpose. Please be aware that other contributors might not do the same, so if you want to use my contributions under free use terms, please check the Multi-licensing guide.

These are the two images I own, which I am uploading to Wikipedia, and to which I am releasing copyright restrictions so they could be used for the benefit of historians. They are framed and located in my home. I permit free use under the CC-BY-SA

Benjamin Steinberg: Last Fundraising Letter, 1972

This is a picture of the original document, my father’s last fundraising letter in 1972, after he resigned from the orchestra. The picture on the blog is a thumbnail, which links to a full-resolution document when you click on it. The header for the stationery was in use for many years. I took the photo. More Wikipedia source material.

Wilmer Wise Quote about racism in 1960’s Philadelphia

“Jim………..The cops in Philly stopped me back un the good old days on South Street,I was dressed in White- Tie and Tails. I was on my way to the Academy of Music to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I lived in walking distance of the hall………They were dressed in leather and they had a very angry German Shepard with them. They asked me to prove that I owned the 3 horns in the case. I picked up my C trumpet and played the loudest notes I have ever played………..With hands on guns they told me to get the heck off the street. I miss Philly:-)”

Wilmer related this experience in response to getting his first hoodie and the jokes that followed noting it was a dangerous piece of clothing to wear in light of the Trayvon Martin case.

More Wikipedia source material to demonstrate the kind of racism black classical musicians faced when the Symphony of the New World was formed.

Joan Peyser article NY Times, November 26, 1967

This is a photograph of a flyer made by the Symphony of the New World of the Joan Peyser NY Times article. I framed the flyer. It is in my home. I took the photograph. More Wikipedia sourcing. This image is linked to a full-resolution photograph, which I took, so it can be read. This article without Symphony of the New World fundraising images can also be downloaded from the NY Times digital library.