Premiere Concert: Symphony of the New World at Carnegie Hall, 73rd Season

Elayne Jones said, “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.”

However, in May 1964, my father and 12 prominent musicians, including Harold Jones and Joe Wilder, formed a founding committee. My father had worked with conductors Dean Dixon, Everett Lee*, and an untold number of world-class nonwhite musicians for 25 years, and it was time.

It took almost a year to raise the money. I remember my father making calls to potential donors and crying when he could not understand why certain people refused. However, he didn’t give up. With a grant from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation, The Symphony of the New World gave it’s premiere concert on May 6, 1965, in Carnegie Hall, during the Hall’s 73rd Season.

The program notes 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. Under the direction of the noted conductor and music director Benjamin Steinberg, the Symphony consists of 36 Negro and 52 white musicians. Never before in the musical history of the nation has such a completely integrated symphonic ensemble been created.”

The program notes also stated, “In creating job opportunities for many talented nonwhite instrumentalists, who hitherto have not been widely accepted in this nation’s symphony orchestras, the Symphony of the New World aims to serve as an example of the principle of racial-equality-in-action. In the belief that so many of our symphony orchestras are not of today’s world, it has called itself the Symphony of the New World.”

Wilmer Wise told me, “You know, I got the Baltimore job and played with Philadelphia without the Symphony of the New World, but I never felt in my life the way I did when I sat on the stage with your father in a fully integrated orchestra, because, usually, I was the one integrating it.”

The papers for the Symphony of the New World reside at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. Their contact details are 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, NY 10037-1801, (212) 491-2200

* The article about Everett Lee has several errors. First, my father was not Canadian. He was American. Second, the orchestra was not called the New World Symphony. That is Symphony #9 by Dvorak, referring to America as the New World, as opposed to Europe. Next, the article does talk about the demise of the orchestra for financial reasons. That is correct, but I cannot talk about that at this time.

A Conversation with Harold Jones

“Oh yes, yes!” the gentle voice said on the other end of the phone. Harold Jones, one of my father’s friends, was telling me how The Symphony of the New World began: “out of a series of meetings,” he said.

I had sent him a picture of the orchestra’s first concert at Carnegie Hall. “Who was that person standing up in the picture you sent me?” Harold asked. “I can go look,” I said, “I have the original on my wall… That was Daddy.” “Oh, that was Benny!” Then he said with lyrical empathy, “That was Daddy.”

I had not been able to say or hear those words in 37 years.

As the afternoon settled in, my honor in speaking to the great Harold Jones turned into a gentle conversation between a pioneer and his friend’s daughter, who wanted to know what happened. “I’m 52 now.” “Time passes quickly,” he said.

It was 1964…

Lyndon B. Johnson had just signed the Civil Rights Act into law, 9 years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, AL, bus.

“Douglas Pew of the Urban League visited Broadway contractors and asked, ‘Why aren’t there any blacks in the Broadway pits?’ He put them under a lot of pressure, and pushed so hard,” Harold remembered.

“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.’

“The standards of the musicians were very high. We had to deal with personnel. Designating the spots to play was a big-time meeting. Benny organized who was going to be first chair, who was going to be second. Then he asked, ‘How many concerts would you like to do?’ We discussed it, and he took it to heart.

“Benny went out and got the money. He asked Zero, who was doing ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ on Broadway at the time.”

I remember standing by the mahogany desk and chair I still have now. It was in a corner of our Manhattan apartment. My father sat at the desk and made phone calls begging for money. I stood silently, quizzically looking at his profile. The lamp light bounced off his glasses and cast shadows on his changing face. He was incredulous and devastated when some wealthy African Americans turned him down. The lines on his face got darker, but dollar by dollar, he built.

It was heart-wrenching to watch him, but on May 6, 1965, The Symphony of the New World gave its first performance at Carnegie Hall.

On the program was Paul Creston’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 52; Soprano soloist Evelyn Mandac singing Mozart’s Recitative and Aria Bella mia fiamma K528; Cliea’s aria lo son l’umile ancella from Adriana Lecouvreur; and Charpentier’s aria Depuis le jour from Louise. The concert ended with Petrouchka, Alan Booth at the piano.

Then came Lenny.

“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 things happened to the orchestra from May 6, 1965 to January 2, 1974, when I held my father’s hand and kissed him goodbye as he took his last breath, but Harold said, “The racism is not over. There are still problems for blacks. It’s even harder. You have to play very well, but because you’re black you cannot get the job. There are no blacks in the NY Philharmonic now, and only 3 in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. You see the racism, but there’s not much you can do about it except give them a little suggestion.”

It might be time to give this idea a second chance.