Celebrating Black Excellence in Orchestral Music

In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to take time to reflect upon and celebrate the contributions of Black composers and musicians to the world of orchestral and chamber music. Black artists have left an indelible mark on the landscape of classical music, which has been largely under-recognized, and we want to pay tribute to some of those remarkable artists that we have featured over the years and whose works continue to captivate audiences around the globe.

Xavier Foley:

Xavier Foley is a double bassist and composer who we featured as part of our “Composer/Performer Project” during our 2021-22 season. Foley’s compositions often explore themes of identity and heritage, drawing inspiration from his own experiences as a Black musician. We opened our season with a performance of his composition For Justice and Peace, with Foley as a soloist himself, along with violinist Eunice Kim, which was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization to mark 400 years of slavery ever since the arrival of the slave ship “White Lion” (1619) in Jamestown, Virginia. Foley continues to travel around the world and perform with renowned orchestras and musicians.

Jessie Montgomery:

GRAMMY-winner Jessie Montgomery is a composer, violinist and educator whose works are performed by ensembles all around the world.  Montgomery has been awarded the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation as well as the Sphinx Medal of Excellence. Since 1999, she has been working with The Sphinx Organization to support young African American and Latinx string players. She is currently completing a three-year appointment as the Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which will end this May.

George Walker:

Renowned as both a composer and a pianist, George Walker made history as the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996. ProMusica commissioned a piece from Walker titled Tangents for Chamber Orchestra and premiered this composition in January of our 2000 season. Additionally, we have performed his composition Lyric for Strings, a piece dedicated to his grandmother, several times over the years. During his lifetime, he wrote nearly 100 compositions which often drew inspiration from African-American jazz. Walker is known for a distinct composition style that incorporates Black voices and culture to distinguish himself from white composers. Walker passed away in 2018 but his legacy continues to impact many musicians and orchestras.

Carlos Simon:

Carlos Simon is a GRAMMY-nominated composer and activist that is a leading voice in contemporary classical music from Atlanta, Georgia. Simon has composed orchestrations for large and small ensembles as well as films. Simon gets much of his inspiration from growing up with a long lineage in preachers and roots in gospel music. We opened our current season with Simon’s moving Beethoven-inspired piece Fate Now Conquers. Simon is currently a Composer-in-Residence for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He has also released two albums in September 2023 that reflect on his experiences as a Black musician as well as current events.

Julia Perry:

Julia Perry was a prolific music composer who spent most of her life in Akron, Ohio. Perry did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime due to obstacles as a Black woman composer. By the late 1960s, her work was being performed by the New York Philharmonic and other major orchestras. We performed her composition A Short Piece for Small Orchestra this past December, and her music has seen a rise in popularity in the last few concert seasons being performed by several leading orchestras across the country. There have been recent efforts to promote the work of Perry as she was an influential figure for Black and female artists, highlighting the importance of recognizing intersectionality in classical music.


In addition to the artists mentioned in this article, we have featured many other Black artists including Oliver Lake in 2001 on our American Jazz Concertos CD, and we have played several works from William Grant Still. During this Black History Month, we celebrate these remarkable composers and musicians, whose contributions enrich the world of orchestral music and inspire next generations. Through their music, they have not only provided a voice in preserving the cultural heritage of the Black community but have also challenged conventions to expand the possibilities for the future of orchestral music.