From Familiar Strains, a New American Rhapsody

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From Familiar Strains, a New American Rhapsody

From Familiar Strains, a New American Rhapsody
The pandemic muted Chuck Dickerson’s Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, but the predominantly Black ensemble is reemerging now with a bigger-than-ever presence in California and the nation.

Chuck Dickerson was on the verge of calling it off.

His predominantly Black youth orchestra—billed as the largest of its kind in the nation—was slated to return for the first time in two years to Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for a season-capping performance this July. Its music would once more ride the contours of Frank Gehry’s temple to sound; its players would keep time on the same cedar floorboards as some of classical music’s greatest practitioners. It would also mark the return of the orchestra’s annual fundraiser, made up of ticket sales to the event.

Only, by early May, the interminable COVID pandemic was swelling again. Dickerson, WCL/JD ’78, couldn’t justify asking LA’s Black community, already so disproportionately taxed by COVID, to spend money to breathe indoors with 2,000 others. So he called the venue to let them know he probably would be canceling the event.

“It looks like we’ll have to wait until next year,” Dickerson, the executive director and conductor of the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, tells me a few hours after that call.

But when we talk two weeks later, the show is back on. It’s as if Dickerson, 69, has turned the page on a musical score, launching the next movement with resurgent brio.

The core players—about 60 students this year, mostly high-schoolers, plus more than a dozen mentors—were navigating toward this culminating show at the prestigious venue since resuming rehearsals in September 2021 after a year-and-a-half-long shutdown. They came back at a deficit from players who didn’t return, from practice time lost and momentum stunted, and still they pushed ahead. Then a COVID surge in December scattered the orchestra again until late February. More time lost, more musical footing to regain.

But Dickerson decided the orchestra would take to that Walt Disney Concert Hall stage because its kids and young adults had earned this shot, and because Black classical musicians still have doubters to disprove, and because problems have more than one solution, and he has spent a career learning to spot them.

Instead of being a fundraiser, though, the concert would likely come at a loss. It would be presented as “a gift to our community,” he says. They’d give tickets away instead of selling them.

But, I ask, isn’t he worried about that? Personal donations dried up during the pandemic, and now he was forgoing the year-end fundraiser.

“Worried about that,” Dickerson repeats flatly, letting it dangle for a moment. “Truth of the matter is, it’s like anything else in life: You have to roll with the punches, man. So yeah, we’re worried about it. It’s hit our pocket,” he says. “But what are we going to do? Just say, ‘Okay, we’re done. We’re not going to play anymore. We’re done with this orchestra’? The only option that we have is to find a way to crawl out of the hole that nobody asked for . . . and we’re in the process of doing that.”

I ask him if there was a point in the past two years when he was concerned his small nonprofit might not outlast the stranglehold of the pandemic.

The answer comes swiftly: “You’re talking to the wrong guy.”

Dickerson frames it, as he sometimes does, in a baseball metaphor: “When you strike out, guess what? You probably have another at-bat coming. If your perspective on life is [that] you’re only going to have one at-bat and you [might] strike out, then yeah, I guess you would be really, really frightened about going up there. . . . But I don’t look at it with such trepidation. . . . Those kinds of thoughts don’t even enter my mind. The thought that enters my mind is: When the hell are we going to get done with this so we can get back to what we were doing before?”

It’s a perspective that has had a much wider effect the past few years, well beyond rescuing this summer’s marquee performance.

A soloist knows that the right note sustained on and on, at the right time, gathers intentionality and intensity and anticipation as it pulls against the chord progressions that continue to reshape the sound all around it. And in a similar way, Dickerson’s outlook has brought his Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles some of its highest-profile national exposure even as the pandemic stretched and distorted life around it.

On Sunday evenings, the cellists may be in the kitchen. The flutists and woodwinds may be tucked in a side room or hallway, and the brass blowing outside. In the church’s event space, among practicing violins, Dickerson is probably lining up his conductor’s podium before a semicircle of folding chairs he arranged for when the musical sections commune.

The rented rehearsal space at Knox Presbyterian Church is about a mile away from the offices of the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, or ICYOLA (pronounced EYE-see-O-la). It’s a section of Greater LA that’s in immediate reach of a large Black population spread widely along the rungs of economic status. The office is just inside the LA line at its border with Inglewood, a city with a population that is 40 percent Black and with a median household income of about $60,000, while the church lies just beyond the city limits, in the tony and mostly Black enclave of Ladera Heights, where the median household income is just over $100,000, according to US Census data.

Dickerson has known this region almost as long as he’s known classical music. His family moved to Compton, California, about 15 miles southeast of ICYOLA’s office, from Philadelphia when he was 7, and he was steeped in piano lessons and the classical strains of anthemic church music from nearly the start. His father, a teacher, was also a church choir director, and Dickerson’s mother, a nurse, sang in the choir. Dickerson studied music through high school, becoming a perennial trumpet player and choir singer in school groups. He spent a year at a local university as a music major, then auditioned for the Julliard School only to be waitlisted, so he came to DC in 1971 to bide time visiting a cousin. But Dickerson ended up getting a full-time job in a US senator’s office and putting himself through a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Howard University. Then he did the same for law school in the evenings at the Washington College of Law.

When he returned to California after AU, he largely held public-service jobs in the ’80s and ’90s, including as president of the board that oversees LA’s Department of Public Works and as city attorney of Inglewood. He’d also consistently led music or choir operations at churches since he was 22. And when he took up the conductor’s baton full time in 2003, Dickerson brought with him a lawyer’s pragmatic problem-solving, which proved helpful in establishing ICYOLA.

While hundreds of youth orchestras exist nationwide—including the LA Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, which last fall opened a Gehry-designed, 25,000-square-foot center in Inglewood that cost $14.5 million—none, Dickerson says, is quite like ICYOLA.

For starters, he says, the orchestra began with “an ambush.”

“We need something that’s going to push us, we need something that’s going to stretch us, something that’s going to challenge us,” pianist DaQuan Robinson, 28, remembers thinking in the summer of 2009. “And Chuck was the one that was going to bring that out of us.”

At the time, Robinson played bass in a performing arts high school and knew Dickerson as the conductor of the Southeast Symphony—a pioneering, mostly Black orchestra created in 1948. Robinson’s aunt, who raised him and had him in piano lessons from age 5, would take him to hear the orchestra. By age 10 he found himself admiring the ensemble from the front row and thinking, “This is what I want to do.”

At 16, Robinson was cajoling his aunt to arrive hours ahead of performances so he could lobby Dickerson for a spot in the symphony. That didn’t happen, but the two did make arrangements for Robinson and eight friends, all in search of musical growth, to spend the summer rehearsing under Dickerson outside the symphony.

Over the weeks the informal gathering grew, by word of mouth, into a de facto orchestra of two dozen musicians.

They put on a concluding concert in August, and around that time Dickerson attended a birthday party for a member of the group. “I felt like I needed to just show up out of courtesy, so I did,” he says. “But when I got there, all 24 kids were there, all sitting in the backyard waiting for me.”

They wanted to keep this going. So did he.

“When they came and worked with me that summer,” Dickerson says, “all these kids were Black, and they kind of felt a sense of home.”

Historically, he says, youth orchestras have tended to be located in affluent neighborhoods that lack a large Black population, where the kids there may have earlier access to music lessons. For young Black musicians that often means traveling to an unfamiliar part of town to be in a competitive environment with people who may already know each other, and where few others, if any, look like them. “So you automatically are walking into an environment where you’re going to be apprehensive,” Dickerson says.

It’s a similar picture at the professional level. A 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras, examining survey responses from more than 500 orchestras, found that Black musicians accounted for 1.8 percent of orchestra personnel in 2014, which was essentially unchanged going back to 2002. (Nationwide the Census estimates that 13.6 percent of the population identifies solely as Black; in LA it’s 8.8 percent.)

The survey found that the proportion of Asian/Pacific Islander musicians in orchestras increased to just over 9 percent in 2014, up from 5.3 percent in 2002. For Hispanic/Latino musicians it was 2.5 percent, up from 1.8 percent.

In the years since, the situation has improved—though it’s nominal, says Dickerson, who is on the League of American Orchestras’s board of directors. “Orchestras at least now recognize that there’s a problem, and they want to take steps to try to solve [it],” he says. “They’re not doing a hell of a good job on it yet. . . . Like many other industries, we’re still struggling.”

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