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Symphony of the New World: 50th Anniversary of a Pioneering Organization

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In May 1964, two months before The Civil Rights Act (outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin) became law, noted conductor Benjamin Steinberg formed a committee of 13 musicians, 12 of whom were African American, with the intention of forming a new integrated orchestra called the Symphony of the New World (SNW).

The mission of the SNW was a simple one:

[We] aim to implement – in the sphere of artistic endeavor – those ideals of social equality which agitate the conscience of our time…

[We strive]… in the first instance, to create job opportunities for the many talented non-white instrumentalists who thus far have not been accepted in this nation’s symphony orchestras. 

Founders Alfred Brown, Selwart R. Clarke, Richard Davis, Blaine Jones, Harold M. Jones, Frederick L. King, Kermit D. Moore, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Ross C. Shub, Harry M. Smyles, Steinberg and Joseph B. Wilder, along with several sponsors including actors Ruby Dee and Frederick O’Neal, writers John O. Killens and Paule Marshall, and composer Leonard Bernstein, strongly believed in necessity of such an orchestra. For several years, the SNW accomplished this pioneering effort.  Yet it wasn’t the first time such an endeavor was conceived.

Twenty four years earlier, Steinberg and African-American conductors Dean Dixon and Everett Lee had made an attempt to found an integrated orchestra.  Although they did not succeed, the seed had been planted and by 1964 Steinberg felt it was a good time to try again. Social change was in the air and racial and social equality was its prime fuel. After a year of fundraising and, with support from such luminaries as Duke Ellington, The Symphony of the New World made its debut at Carnegie Hall on May 6, 1965. It was an extravagant affair that effectively buried the Jim Crow prejudice that had guided the orchestral community for decades, and served as beacon for those musicians formerly excluded due to race and gender.  The evening’s orchestra boasted 95 musicians, 36 of whom were African-American, 30 were women and seven were Asian-Americans.  

Along with providing non-white musicians and women with opportunities to perform, SNW also performed concerts in low-income areas of New York City including Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Three days after SNW made its premiere at Carnegie Hall, it repeated the program for students at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem.  Although the SNW moved its home to Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln Center in 1966, SNW continued to perform and conducted workshops throughout the metropolitan area for another decade.  

Two SNW artists, Gloria Agostini and Dr. Harold Jones, perform at the Community Church of New York, January 23, 1966. 

The Symphony of the New World exhibition combines materials from both the Symphony of the New World Records, which are housed at The Schomburg Center, and the Benjamin Steinberg Papers, housed in the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  This exhibit celebrates of the 50th Anniversary of the founding of SNW, and highlights the orchestra’s accomplishments from 1965-1978. The exhibition was curated by Barbara Cohenstratyner, Director of Exhibitions, and Karen Burke, Assistant Chief Librarian, Music Research Division, at the Library for the Performing Arts and Steven G. Fullwood, Assistant Curator, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 

Reflecting on the exhibition, Benjamin Steinberg’s daughter, Barbara, fondly recalled her parents and their role in the founding of the Symphony of the New World. 

“I guess behind great artists and acts of courage, there is a love story,” she said. “My parents were the loves of each other’s lives. I feel my mother Pearl Steinberg is the real (unsung) hero of this exhibition. She collected and saved everything until her death in 1994. I carried the boxes of papers with me for another 20 years,” before she, along with the help of Ed Berger, biographer of Joe Wilder, and Robert Kensaalar boxed up her father’s papers and the SNW records and donated them to the New York Public Library’s Library for the Performing Arts and the Schomburg Center.

“When I walked into the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public library and saw how superbly the items were chosen, written about, and displayed, I was in shock.  It was surreal to know the greatness of something all your life and then have the material finally organized so others could understand. I was in awe of it. I couldn’t believe it, and I am so thankful to everyone who put it together. The exhibition expressed the story.”

Pictured here with Benjamin Steinberg's daughter, Barbara Steinberg, is Dr. Harold M. Jones, a flautist, and one of the founders of the SNW, and Wilmer Wise, a trumpet player who also performed with the SNW.

Hours to view the Symphony of the New World exhibition are: Monday & Thursday, 12-8 p.m., and Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday 12-6 p.m. at the Library for the Performing Arts.

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The Symphony of the New World

The Symphony of the New World exhibition raises timely issues. Unfortunately, still timely. It should represent early stages in a campaign that already succeeded. But, there is an article in the Arts & Leisure section of the current New York Times (August 10, 2014, p.12) on the lack of performance opportunities for African American composers.

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