Azira G. Hill beamed with pride Wednesday as she watched classical musicians take part in a rehearsal ahead of a special Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. A number of the musicians on the stage were people of color.
Twenty-five years ago, she said, that would not have been the case.
At the time, the ASO featured no black musicians. There also were no black participants in The Atlanta Youth Orchestra, the symphony’s program for youths interested in classical music.
“We were told [black students] did not know how to audition,” said Hill, 95.
That fall, with the ASO’s blessing, she and Mary Gramling hosted 10 students for the inaugural Black Talent Development program to teach black students with an interest in classical music how to prepare for auditions.
“There was no expectation that a kid with dark skin could play classical music,” Gramling said.
In the years since, nearly 100 students of color from metro Atlanta from The Talent Development Program (TDP) — which now includes both black and Latino students — have gone to the nation’s top music schools, and fill chairs in orchestras across the world. Saturday’s concert is celebrating the program’s 25 years. It will feature several TDP alumni.
The program sought to bridge a divide between classical music and the black community, often overlooked as potential fans. According to “Forty Years of Fellowship,” a 2014 League of American Orchestras report, just 1.8 percent of the country’s orchestral music community is African-American, and 2.5 percent is Latino.
Metro Atlanta students from fifth grade through high school seniors with interests in classical music participate in the program, which affords them weekly music lessons and performa?nce opportunities. People apply on the insistence of their music teachers at school, through word of mouth from friends and other parents traveling in music circles.
Activism and advocacy has always been part of Hill’s story. She arrived to the United States from Cuba when she was 15, and later married Jesse Hill, a Civil Rights Activist and the first black Atlanta Chamber of Commerce president. A fan of the arts who grew up in a musical family, she took to the arts in Atlanta. Seeing no faces of color in the city’s orchestra, or its youth training program, disturbed her.
“There were no opportunities for black students to have lessons,” Hill said, adding that establishing a program “was the right thing to do.”
Program alumna Chelsea Sharpe is currently a violin fellow with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach.
“It’s so crazy that I do this,” Sharpe said, thinking back to her start in music.
Sharpe said she began playing violin at 6, at her mother’s urging. At first, she admits, it was something she did out of obligation. That changed after spending time with other artists at the famed Interlochen Summer Arts Camp in northern Michigan. She was part of the Talent Development Program from ages 10 to 18, and credits the exposure she received through the program — subsidized lessons, assistance with buying instruments and performance opportunities among the many benefits — for her success.
“It surely created a pathway to where I am now,” she said.
Mekhi Gladden, a 19-year-old TDP alumnus currently attending the Curtis Institute of Music, said the greatest benefit for him was the community of creative people who shared some of the same passions.
“There was a community of people doing [music] together,” said Gladden, who graduated from North Springs Charter High School. “So you never were alone.”
Gladden recalled with pride playing at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall, and traveling to South America to perform there as well. He said opportunities such as meeting Anthony McGill, clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic, provided inspiration to continue down a path to music. Initially, Gladden said, he thought about academia in some science field.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure,” Gladden said about his career path. “I let the pathway take me where it may. It exposed me to what could be.
His hope is to one day give back in some way to young people and help them realize their dreams through music.
“Take the chance,” he says to anyone considering the orchestra. “I just played music because it was fun. I didn’t even know the orchestra world existed, to be honest.”