Everett Lee, who broke color barriers on the conductor's podium, dies at 105

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Everett Lee, who broke color barriers on the conductor's podium, dies at 105
Everett Lee and the coloratura soprano Virginia MacWatters prepare for a concert of the Cosmopolitan Little Symphony at Town Hall in New York in 1948. Lee, a conductor who broke down racial barriers but then fled the prejudice that Black classical musicians faced in the United States to make a significant career in Europe, died on Jan. 12, 2022, at a hospital near his home in Malmo, Sweden. He was 105. Via The New York Times.

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- Everett Lee, a conductor who broke down racial barriers but then fled the prejudice that Black classical musicians faced in the United States to make a significant career in Europe, died on Jan. 12 at a hospital near his home in Malmo, Sweden. He was 105.

Lee’s daughter, Eve, confirmed the death.

Already a concertmaster leading white theater orchestras by 1943, Lee made a significant breakthrough on Broadway when he was appointed music director of Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” in September 1945. The Chicago Defender called him the first Black conductor “to wave the baton over a white orchestra in a Broadway production.”

In 1953, Lee conducted the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, a nerve-shredding afternoon for him because of little rehearsal time and the pressure of history. United Press reported that Lee’s concert was “one of the first” at which a Black man led a white orchestra in the South; other outlets went further, claiming that it was the very first such time. The Courier-Journal critic said that he “made a most favorable first impression.”

Then, in 1955, shortly after Marian Anderson had made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Lee conducted the New York City Opera, another first. (His wife, Sylvia Olden Lee, a vocal coach, had been appointed the first Black musician on the Met’s staff around that time.)

“Not only was his conducting expert in all its technical aspects,” a New York Times critic wrote of his “La Traviata,” “but it was informed with musicianship and an exceptionally keen grasp of the character of the opera.”

Despite the breakthroughs, racism constrained Lee’s U.S. career, though he refused to let it define his work. “A Negro, standing in front of a white symphony group?” artist manager Arthur Judson asked him, according to Sylvia Olden Lee, in the late 1940s, declining to sign him up. “No. I’m sorry.”

Judson suggested that Lee follow other Black musicians into exile abroad. Lee didn’t leave at first, but eventually did so in 1957 and prospered in Germany, Colombia and especially Sweden, where he succeeded Herbert Blomstedt as music director of the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, from 1962 to 1972.

Lee frequently said that he longed to return to the United States but would only do so to become the music director of a major orchestra.

“I did not have very much hope at home, despite some success,” he told The Atlanta Constitution in 1970, saying that racism was less of a factor in his life and work in Europe. “It would be nice to work at home. I’m an American — why not?” If he could make it in Europe, he concluded, “I should be able to make it here.”

Only one top ensemble, the Oregon Symphony, has ever given such a post to a Black conductor: James DePreist.

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

Lee ran track in junior high, a few years behind Olympian gold medalist Jesse Owens, and led the Glenville High School orchestra as concertmaster. He came under the mentorship of the Cleveland Orchestra’s conductor, Artur Rodzinski, after a chance meeting at the hotel where Lee worked as an elevator operator. He studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music with the Cleveland Orchestra’s concertmaster, Joseph Fuchs.

Graduating in 1941, Lee enlisted in the Army and trained to become a Tuskegee airman in Alabama, but he injured himself and was released.

Lee moved to New York in 1943 to play in the orchestra for “Carmen Jones,” an Oscar Hammerstein II rewrite of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” that had an all-Black cast but a primarily white orchestra. When the conductor was snowed in, early in 1944, Lee stepped from the concertmaster’s chair to conduct Bizet’s music. Spells conducting George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” followed, before Bernstein hired him as concertmaster and later music director of “On the Town.”

“In an era of Jim Crow segregation in performance,” musicologist Carol J. Oja has written, “Lee’s appointment was downright remarkable.”

Lee then played in the violin section of the New York City Symphony for Bernstein, who arranged a scholarship to Tanglewood in 1946, where Lee studied conducting with Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony; he conducted the Boston Pops in 1949.

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

But there was a color line Lee could not cross. Rodzinski, now conductor of the New York Philharmonic, refused to let him audition for its violin section, knowing the inevitable result. Hammerstein considered him for a touring production but told him that “if a colored boy is the conductor, and we go into the South,” it would cause an uproar and cause bookings to be canceled.

Lee responded by creating the Cosmopolitan Little Symphony in 1947, an integrated ensemble that rehearsed at Harlem’s Grace Congregational Church. It made its downtown debut with him on the podium at Town Hall in May 1948, with a bill that included the premiere of “Brief Elegy” by Ulysses Kay, one of many Black composers Lee programmed during his career.

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

“My own group is coming along fairly well,” Lee wrote Bernstein, suggesting “it may be the beginning of breaking down a lot of foolish barriers.” But starting any ensemble was hard then, let alone an integrated one. Recruitment had been difficult because trained Black musicians now believed “that there was ‘no future’ in achieving high standards of proficiency,” Lee wrote in The Times in December 1948.

Despite signing with the New York City Opera staff in 1955, Lee left for Europe. He moved to Munich in 1957, founding an orchestra at the Amerika Haus and leading a traveling opera company. Guest spots came quickly; he led the Berlin Philharmonic in June 1960, one of many European dates.

Like Dean Dixon, a Black conductor who led the Gothenburg Symphony from 1953 to 1960, Lee found sanctuary in Sweden. He maintained an ambitious repertoire in Norrkoping, performing operas from “Aida” to “Porgy,” conducting vast quantities of Swedish music, with Hans Eklund’s “Music for Orchestra” a favorite, and often collaborating with jazz players led by saxophonist Arne Domnerus. It was a balance of new and old, local and otherwise, that Lee repeated as chief conductor of the Bogotá Philharmonic from 1985 to 1987.

Even so, Lee never quite gave up on U.S. orchestras. He started to make guest appearances again. “The inescapable conclusion is, he should be around more often,” a Times critic wrote in 1966. In 1973, he took command of the Symphony of the New World, a New York ensemble that had been founded in 1965 as an integrated orchestra, like his now defunct Cosmopolitan. After an association with the Philadelphia-based Opera Ebony, he took a last bow, with the Louisville Orchestra, in 2005.

Although Black conductors such as DePreist, Paul Freeman and Henry Lewis had become more prominent by the 1970s, Lee saw little real improvement.

“There has been no major change in my field,” he told The Afro-American Newspaper in 1972. “Orchestra companies feel if they had a Black orchestra leader last year, they don’t need one this year."

Lee fulfilled a dream of conducting the New York Philharmonic on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1976, leading Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jean Sibelius and David Baker’s “Kosbro” — short for “Keep on Steppin’ Brothers.”

Lee’s marriage to Sylvia Olden Lee ended in divorce. He married Christin Andersson in 1979. She survives him, as does Eve Lee, his daughter from his first marriage; a son from his second, Erik Lee; two granddaughters; and one great-granddaughter.

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

He recalled being denied violin auditions at two major U.S. orchestras.

“I then made up my mind that if I can’t join you, then I will lead you. I did make good on that promise to myself. Those two orchestras that denied me even an audition, I have conducted,” he said. “I just had to. I just had to show them that I was there.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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