Series brings chamber music concerts to Cincinnati’s Black churches

Local music series expands outreach, doubles season with concerts in area’s largest Black churches

Chamber Music Cincinnati’s new schedule is a sign of huge changes.

The goal for 2021-22 remains the same as it has been for 92 years, to present the “finest international chamber music ensembles and soloists” and to “build current and future chamber music audiences.”

But there are big differences in how – and where – CMC will seek those new audiences.

“For one thing, we’ll be presenting 13 concerts instead of six,” said CMC board member John Spencer. “And there will be five venues instead of one.” And then, almost as an afterthought, he adds, “We also asked every ensemble that is performing on our series to play at least one work by a Black or a Brown composer.”

Cincinnati Chamber Music's John Spencer
Chamber Music Cincinnati’s John Spencer

Making a ‘bold statement’

Initially, Spencer described the new CMC season as including “a few changes.” But this is far more than that. Those additional concerts and venues? CMC will perform each concert in Memorial Hall, which has become its de facto home. Then, each concert will be performed a second time in one of the area’s largest Black churches.

“I think this season is a bold move and makes a bold statement,” said CMC board member A. Michael Cunningham, a Cintas team leader and minister of music at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, one of the churches CMC will visit in the course of the season.

In arts administration lingo, this is classic “outreach.” And it’s not a new thing. Cincinnati Opera has presented “Opera Goes to Church” and “Opera Goes to Temple” since 2006.

But the idea of replicating the entire subscription series in other venues as a form of outreach is a radical one. Obviously, there are logistical issues. And doubling the number of performances is an expensive proposition.

“But it is the right thing to do,” said longtime board member and current board vice-president James Englert. “Chamber music can be so deeply moving. The best way to build an audience for chamber music is to give people the chance to experience it. So we’re taking chamber music to the audience.”

A chance to do more

The board used the pandemic hiatus as a time of reflection, a time to reconsider how they do what they do.

“Other than the pandemic, two things happened last year,” said Spencer. “One thing happened to the world – that was George Floyd. And Breonna Taylor. And Ahmaud Arbery. And on and on and on. And because of cell phones, people saw and could no longer deny that what they had been hearing about was actually happening.”

The other thing was more personal.

“When John Lewis died, I thought a lot about when I met him and had a chance to talk with him. It was one of the great honors of my life. He told us to ‘give until you can give no more. There is always more that you can do.’ So when we were putting together this season, we said there has to be more that we can do. And so we started looking for ways to do that.”

After much discussion and number-crunching, the board was approached with this greatly expanded season. Remarkably, there was no dissent. 

“The vote was unanimous,” said Englert. “Our whole board was incredibly excited.”

Cincinnati Chamber Music presents Harlem Quartet
Chamber Music Cincinnati will present the Harlem Quartet on Oct. 17 at Corinthian Baptist Church in Bond Hill and in Memorial Hall on Oct. 19.

So the season’s first concert is a performance by the Harlem Quartet, featuring pianist-composer Aldo Gavilán. They’ll range from Schumann to Strayhorn. On Oct. 17, they’ll perform at the Corinthian Baptist Church in Bond Hill. Two days later, they’ll perform the same concert at Memorial Hall.

Later in the season, the series will visit Word of Deliverance Ministries (Forest Park), New Prospect Baptist Church (Roselawn), New Jerusalem Baptist Church (Carthage) and return to Corinthian Baptist for two more concerts.

Living in the real world

For the record, Englert doesn’t see this approach as radical.

“I see it as doing more,” he said. “I just see it as a bigger version of what we’ve been doing.”

Likewise, Spencer would rather not look at this departure from the norm as anything particularly heroic.

“All we’re doing is living in the real world,” said Spencer. “Speaking personally, if someone invited me to come to their concerts and said ‘but there won’t be anybody who looks like you on the stage. And, by the way, none of the music on the concert was written by someone who looks like you,’ I might say ‘thank you’ and add some very choice words.”

Spencer recalls an exchange he had with one of the African American members of the board.

“I said this is what we should have been doing all along. And he was very gracious. ‘Better late than never.’ ”

Cincinnati Chamber Music-SMITH-KAZAVA
Pastor K.Z. Smith of Corinthian Baptist Church

“Everyone knows that Black people helped create American music,” said Pastor K.Z. Smith of Corinthian Baptist. “Almost no one knows our part in classical music history. Now, in Cincinnati, they will, and through the fund being created, Black boys and girls will have a growing role in that world. That’s important to us all.”

Single tickets to church concerts, $20. Memorial Hall, $40. Early bird subscription: $105 for seven concerts, until Oct. 19, then $200.

An opportunity to learn

Chamber Music Cincinnati is starting a fund to provide free and/or discounted music lessons to young people who could not otherwise afford them. Children can audit a lesson, then be matched with a teacher if still interested. Capacity is based on funds raised. Cost per student, annually, is $3,000 to $4,000. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is a partner in this effort. Donations are welcome. 

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