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Everett Lee, who broke the color barrier on the conductor’s podium, dies at 105

Everett Lee, a conductor who broke down racial barriers but later evaded the stereotypes that Black classical musicians faced in the United States to forge an important career in Europe, has died. on January 12 at a hospital near his home in Malmo, Sweden. He’s 105 years old.

His daughter, Eve, confirmed the death.

Having become a leading concert conductor of white theater orchestras in 1943, Mr. Lee made a remarkable breakthrough on Broadway. when he was appointed music director in Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” in September 1945. The Chicago Defender called him the first Black conductor “to wave the baton in front of a white orchestra in a Broadway play.”

In 1953, Mr. Lee conducted the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, an afternoon that gave him a headache due to insufficient rehearsal time and the pressures of history. United Press report that Mr. Lee’s concert was “one of the first” at which a Black man conducted a white orchestra in the South; other stores have gone further, claim that it was the first time. A critic for The Courier-Journal in Louisville said Mr. Lee had “made the most favorable first impression”.

Then, in 1955, shortly after Marian Anderson Making his debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, Mr. Lee conducted the New York City Opera, another performance for the first time. (His first wife, Sylvia Olden Leea vocal coach, was appointed the first Black musician on the Met’s payroll around that time.)

“He was not just a commanding expert in all its technical aspects,” said one New York Times reviewer. Written about his “La Traviata,” “but it was informed with a musical talent and a particularly insightful understanding of the opera’s character.”

Despite those breakthroughs, racism limited Mr. Lee’s American career, but he refused to let it define his work. “A black man, standing in front of a white symphony?” artist manager Arthur Judson ask him According to Sylvia Olden Lee, in the late 1940s, refused to register with him. “No. I’m sorry.”

Mr. Judson suggested Mr. Lee to follow suit other black musicians exile abroad. Mr. Lee did not leave at first, but he eventually did so in 1957 and prospered in Germany, Colombia and especially in Sweden, where he succeeded. Herbert Blomstedt is the music director of Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra from 1962 to 1972.

Mr. Lee has frequently said that he wishes to return to the United States but would do so only to become the musical director of a major orchestra.

“I didn’t have much hope back home, despite some success,” he told the 1970 Atlanta Constitution, explaining that racism was not a factor in his life and work. he is in Europe. “It would be great to work from home. I’m American – why not? ” If he can make it to Europe, he concludes, “I will be able to get here.”

Only one top groupThe Oregon Symphony Orchestra, once dedicated one such song to a Black conductor: James DePreist.

Everett Astor Lee was born on August 31, 1916 in Wheeling, W.Va, the first son of Everett Denver Lee, a barber, and Mamie Amanda (Blue) Lee, a homemaker. He started playing the violin at the age of 8, and his talent motivated his family move to Cleveland in 1927.

Mr. Lee ran track and field in junior high, a few years behind the Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, and conducts the Glenville High School Orchestra as concert conductor. He came under the advice of the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Artur Rodzinski, after a chance meeting at the hotel where Mr. Lee worked as an elevator operator. He studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music with the concert conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Joseph Fuchs.

After graduating in 1941, Mr. Lee joined the Army and trained to be a Tuskegee Pilot in Alabama, but he was wounded and released.

He moved to New York in 1943 to play in the orchestra for “Carmen Jones“A Hammerstein II Oscar” rewrite in Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” has an all-Black cast but mostly white orchestra. When the conductor was hit by snow, in early 1944, Mr. Lee stepped out of the concert chair to conduct Bizet’s music. Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” performance spells followed, before Bernstein hired him as concert conductor and then music director of “On the town. ”

“In an age of Jim Crow segregation in performance,” musicologist Carol J. Oja has written“Lee’s date is remarkable.”

Mr. Lee later played the violin part of the New York City Symphony for Bernstein, who arranged a scholarship to Tanglewood in 1946. Mr. Lee studied conducting there with Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony and conduct Boston Pops in 1949.

“Like most young people,” he told the New York Amsterdam News in 1977, “I thought I could go out and conquer the world.”

But there was a colored line that he couldn’t cross. Rodzinski, now conductor of the New York Philharmonic, refused to let Mr. Lee audition for the violin part of the orchestra, despite knowing the inevitable outcome. Hammerstein considered producing a tour for him but told him that “if a colored boy were to be the conductor, and we go to the South,” it would cause an uproar and ticket bookings would be canceled. cancel.

Mr. Lee responded by creating in 1947 the Cosmopolitan Little Symphony, a synthesizer band that rehearsed at Harlem’s. Church of Grace Congregational. It premiered downtown with him on the podium at City Hall in May 1948, with a bill that included the premiere of “Brief Elegy” by Ulysses Kayone of many Black composers that Mr. Lee programmed during his career.

By 1952, Cosmopolitan was giving Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” concert performance in front of 2,100 people at City College, with the Met’s Regina Resnik as Leonora.

“My own team is making pretty good progress,” writes Bernstein, suggesting that “it could be the beginning of breaking down a lot of stupid barriers.” But starting any population was already difficult, let alone an integrated group. Hiring is difficult because trained Black musicians now believe there is “no future” to achieving high standards of qualification,” said Mr. Lee. Written in The Times in December 1948.

Although signed with the staff of the New York City Opera in 1955, he left for Europe. In 1957 he moved to Munich, where he founded an orchestra in Amerika Haus and headed a traveling opera company. Fast arrival destinations; He led the Berlin Philharmonic in June 1960, one of many in Europe.

Like Dean Dixon, a Black conductor who conducted the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra from 1953 to 1960, Mr. Lee found mecca in Sweden. He has maintained an ambitious repertoire in Norrkoping – performing operas from “Aida” to “Porgy”, conducting large amounts of Swedish music, with “Music for the Orchestra“Loved and often collaborated with jazz musicians led by saxophonist Arne Domnerus. It is a balance between new and old, local and other, which Mr. Lee repeated as chief of staff of the Bogotá Philharmonic from 1985 to 1987.

Even so, he pretty much gave up on American orchestras, and he started making guest appearances again. The Times critic Theodore Strongin: “The inevitable conclusion is, he should be around more often. Written 1966. In 1973, Mr. Lee took the helm of the Symphony of the New World, a New York ensemble formed in 1965 as a synthesizer, much like his now-defunct Cosmopolitan. . After joining the Philadelphia-based Ebony Opera House, he last played with the Louisville Orchestra in 2005.

“There hasn’t been a big change in my field,” he told The Afro-American Newspaper in 1972. “Orchestral companies feel that if last year they had a black conductor, this year they will. no need”.

He fulfilled a dream about conduct New York Philharmonic on the birthday of Father Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1976, led a show by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jean Sibelius and David Baker’s “Kosbro” – short for “Keep on Steppin’, Brothers.”

Mr. Lee’s first marriage ended in divorce. He married Christin Andersson in 1979. She and Eve Lee, his daughter from his first marriage, he survived, as well as his second son, Erik Lee; two nieces; and a great granddaughter.

Despite the hurdles he faced, Mr. Lee said in an interview published in 1997 that he was not “bitter”.

He recalls being denied a violin audition at two major US orchestras.

“Then I decided that if I couldn’t join you, then I would take you,” he said. “I made good on that promise to myself.

“Two orchestras turned me down for even one audition, I proceeded. I just have to. I just had to show them that I was there. ”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/arts/music/everett-lee-dead.html Everett Lee, who broke the color barrier on the conductor’s podium, dies at 105

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