The Fall River Symphony Orchestra is bringing a diverse array of orchestral music to an increasingly diverse audience. It may seem timely given the past year’s public outcry over systemic racism, but really it’s been the game plan for years.
“Fall River is a fantastic community and we have reached out and found more and more people who are interested in what we’re doing. And we’re continuing to find music that will engage this audience,” said conductor and music director Douglas McRay Daniels.
A Black conductor puts his own spin on the orchestra
Daniels, who is Black, took his own unique path to his current position. One of 12 siblings, he grew up in a small town in Alabama.
“In the South, band is king,” not orchestras, he said.
And as for the farm where he grew up, “It’s not really the typical place when you think of an orchestra conductor.”
When Daniels was 6 or 7, one of his brothers got him a small radio for his birthday. Using a clothes hanger for an antenna, he could pick up the classical radio station from just over the state line in Georgia.
“I loved that radio,” he said. “(The music) was something that I had that no one else around me had or was appreciating at the time. I would listen to it for hours until I could see it in my head.”
He took up piano and trombone, and soon realized that conducting was where his real passion lay. But for years, he kept his ambition to himself, he said.
“I didn’t want to say it to anyone, because it wasn’t something that I saw people doing,” he said.
Months before he began studying at the University of Montebello near Birmingham, Ala., the Birmingham orchestra went bankrupt and disbanded. Daniels was 25 before he saw his first live performance of the orchestral music he’d been captivated by for years.
Daniels ultimately earned three master’s degrees while he worked to break into the conducting scene. After helping lead orchestras in Nebraska and at Phillip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he became the associate conductor of the Waltham Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2014, he was hired as the Fall River Symphony Orchestra’s conductor and music director.
Diverse music for a diverse audience
Daniels said he brought two major goals with him to Fall River: to expand the orchestra’s musical repertoire and grow the audience. And so far, he’s done exactly that.
Since arriving in Fall River, Daniels has shifted the group from playing just movements from symphonies to performing full symphonies in their entirety. And, they’ve now incorporated Black composers like William Grant Still, more modern works by composers like Philip Glass and female composers like Jennifer Higdon.
Daniels said that, by including a broader assortment of music in the group’s performances, he can push people’s idea of what orchestral music is like, and who it’s for.
“It’s important for audience members to see someone who looks like them on the stage,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to hear music other than 300-year-old Europeans.”
After concerts, Daniels likes to go out into the crowd and chat with audience members. The more he can connect with the audience, the more likely they are to feel engaged with the performances, he said. And the higher the quality of the performance, the more likely they are to talk up the orchestra to friends and family and encourage them to also attend.
“With growing an audience, you have to do it one person at a time,” Daniels said.
As a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement erupted last summer over police and vigilante killings of unarmed Black people, Daniels decided he couldn’t be content with merely putting out a statement of support on the orchestra’s website or social media. Instead, he planned the orchestra’s current season, its 96th, to present music entirely by Black composers. And this spring, it will host a panel of Black composers and advocates for the arts to discuss their experiences and work.
“It just seemed like the perfect time to show our audience the excellence there is with composers of African descent,” he said.
Because of the pandemic, the concerts will stream live on YouTube instead of having an in-person audience. And, they’re focusing on chamber music, like duets and string quartets, instead of performing in a big group.
Daniels said he hopes his work with the orchestra, especially the current season, will spread the world: orchestral music is for everyone, even those who typically don’t see themselves represented in that sphere.
“This isn’t some exotic dish. These are fruits and vegetables that we grow in our own garden,” he said.
The Fall River Symphony Orchestra, a non-profit, will hold its next performance on Sunday, Feb. 21. Tickets for the current season are free and can be found on the orchestra’s website.