Inclusively classical

W.E.B. Du BoisThe Du Bois Orchestra at Harvard fosters an inclusive view of music history and performance, and has developed outreach programming to engage and mentor the next gen of musicians. 

By Sasha Barish ‘20Last year, Kai Johannes Polzhofer, a doctoral student in composition, and Karen Cueva ’16 HGSE founded a Harvard group with an unusal approach to music. When not playing concerts with works by marginalized

The Du Bois Orchestra Photo: Jada Ko
composers combined with the classical canon, members of the Du Bois Orchestra run Sistema-inspired music and mentorship programs for underserved youth. The group is named for W.E.B. Du Bois, historian, writer, civil rights activist and, in 1895, the first African American to earn a doctorate Harvard. (Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute is also named for him.) In a concert 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9 at the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square, the orchestra will play the music of Mozart, Schumann and Fanny Hensel. I spoke with Polzhofer, the conductor, about the Du Bois Orchestra mission. Below is an edited and condensed version of our exchange.

Could you tell me a little bit about the Du Bois Orchestra?
We are a diverse group of people university-wide, so we have Harvard graduate students and undergrads, we have a faculty member, but we also have players from the Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory, and the Longy School of Music. Our goal is to raise awareness about ongoing social discrimination in classical music. We know

Joseph Boulogne
Joseph Boulogne
that you can do only so much, and you can definitely not change the world so quickly, but we think it’s a good first step to highlight historically marginalized, yet impactful and high quality repertoire. We started our first season with a symphony by Joseph Boulogne, who not only inspired the early Haydn, but was one of the very, very few black composers in Europe [in the 18th century]. In the spring we focused on a piece by Silvestre Revueltas, a Mexican composer [whose music is] in many
Silvestre Revueltas
Silvestre Revueltas
ways similar to Stravinsky's rhythmical experiments. On December 9, we will perform a piece by Fanny Hensel. Not only was she discouraged to publish music by her brother, composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, she was also the granddaughter of famed philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was denied basic civil rights upon arriving to Berlin because he was a Jew. These examples summarize what the orchestra is aiming for: presenting performances comprised of works that model social interactions. The other pillar of our music-making is social outreach. In our first concert, we invited over 60 kids and their families from underserved communities in New York City to visit campus and perform side-by-side with the Du Bois Orchestra. We led tours of campus, educational empowerment activities at the Education School, and a panel for parents to discuss ways to access pipelines to higher education.

What are some of the social issues facing classical music today, or that are preventing social inclusion in classical music?
If you want to get into classical music, either as a performer or as an audience member, this requires a lot of training, especially on the performance side. If you want to participate in this culture, usually you have a family providing the access from a very early age. So there’s a lot of social exclusion in classical music, because there is a lot of social exclusion in society. The opportunities are just not made accessible to everyone. It’s also an issue that, even though theoretically classical symphony concerts are accessible, it still feels like the culture around performance is owned by a specific social class. But there can be not such a class ownership regarding the music itself, because the music, the works of art reveal to everybody and on many different levels of understanding the same uncompromising truth.

What should people listen for in the concert this Friday?
First and foremost, listen to the music. Don’t judge the music by the name or by the social heritage. I don’t want

Fanny Hensel
Fanny Hensel
people come to the concert and follow stereotypes and think, “Oh, they play Mozart, it's this Austrian genius, and Fanny Hensel, the woman who was not allowed to be a composer.” This is not what it’s about. Music itself is beyond these categories. At the same time I hope we see and are aware that these categories exist in our social reality, in the past and now.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
In the spring semester we will have a project called the Du Bois Orchestra Youth Arts Leadership Program where we select highly talented young people ages 12 to 16 from underserved communities to visit Harvard. They will be given the leadership tools to create and execute their own service leadership programs to bring the arts to their communities. In the fall, they will present on their experiences as arts leaders to the Harvard community. And as usual, we will do two concerts at Harvard, because we want to contribute to the atmosphere and discourse on campus, and because I think service can only work if we create a community of mutual service. For that reason I am really hoping that our audience will grow – an audience that might learn a lot from the presentation delivered by one of our future leaders.