The Lists

12 Top Black Musicians in the World of Classical Music

who are the top black musicians composers and conductors in the world of classical music right now?

Here at Dandelion Chandelier, we’ve been exploring the world of luxury through the lens of black and African-American designers, artists, writers, chefs, vintners and more. Nothing is more Old School luxurious than the world of classical music, right? Which made us wonder:  who are the best African-American classical musicians right now? Our ace correspondent Abbie Martin Greenbaum has curated a list of the top black musicians in the world of classical music right now, including composers, conductors, violinists, vocalists and more – these are some of the names to know and celebrate.

The top black musicians in the world of classical music

As we continue our global conversation on the pervasive nature of racism and systemic inequality, each industry has its own injustices with which to grapple. We’re turning our attention to the rarefied world of classic music to learn more about names to know and artists to support as our national and global journey continues.

Cellist and violinist Esperanza Spalding at the White House. Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images.

As theorized in the New York Times piece “Black Artists on How to Change Classical Music,” perhaps it is classical music’s preoccupation with the past that has made the important institutions in the field very slow to take broader steps towards diversity. But while there is so much that still needs to be done, there are many organizations, like Challenge the Stats, that are doing the work to see these changes enacted within this generation.

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And of course, there are also scores of incredible Black musicians, composers, conductors and organizational heads in the world of classical music. They are already shining brightly within the industry, having found recognition for their immense talents in symphonies and orchestras worldwide.

Who are the top black musicians, composers, vocalists and conductors in the world of classical music right now?

Who are the top black musicians, composers, vocalists and conductors in the world of classical music right now?

Even if you are less familiar with the world of classical music, you’ll want to take a look at (and have a listen to) the twelve names below.

The top black musicians in the world of classical music

1. Roderick Cox

The 2018 recipient of the Sir George Solti Conducting Award, Roderick Cox is at the very top of the list of classical musicians you need to know. Originally from Macon, Georgia, he has worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, and many other musical groups.

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Roderick Cox. Courtesy Photo.

2022 includes debuts with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Seattle and New World Symphonies, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, Malmo, Kristiansand and Lahti Symphony Orchestras. He is also the founder of the Roderick Cox Music Initiative. It is an organization that provides young musicians of color with the funding necessary to provide instruments and instruction on their paths to success.

For a snippet of his work, listen here.

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2. Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Though only twenty-one years old, Kanneh-Mason garnered global acclaim when he performed a cello piece at the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. After winning the 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition, Kanneh-Mason went on to release two albums, and to play with many of the most renowned orchestras around the world.

top black musicians

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Courtesy Photo.

He is currently a full-time student at the Royal Academy of Music. What’s perhaps even more exciting about his story is that Kanneh-Mason’s six siblings all share exceptional musical talents. Isata Kanneh-Mason, 24, plays the piano. Braimah, 22, plays the violin. And Konya, 19, and Aminata, 14, play both violin and piano. Jeneba, 17, and the youngest Kanneh-Mason, Mariatu, 10, play both cello and piano.

In December 2019 they all played as a family on stage at the Royal Variety Performance, dazzling the audience with Vittorio Monti’s Czárdás. Sheku made his New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall that same month in a program he shared with his sister Isata. To hear them play and discuss their work, listen here.

3. Daniel Bernard Roumain

Both a composer and a violinist, Daniel Bernard Roumain is a household name in the world of classical music, having appeared everywhere from American Idol to the Sydney Opera House. He is known both for his prowess as a musician, and also his work as an activist.

top black musicians

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Daniel Bernard Roumain. Courtesy Photo.

Not only has he composed countless award-winning pieces, receiving recognition for his artistry across genres, but he has also made his mark by serving on the board of directors for the American League of Orchestras, and the advisory committee for the Sphinx Organization.

Hear his performance from the Skyline Series in Houston here.

4. Jessie Montgomery

Also a violinist and composer, Jessie Montgomery was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, as the child of a musician. A recipient of the Leonard Bernstein award, she is a chamber musician and an educator, as well as a former composer-in-residence for Sphinx Virtuosi, the touring company of the Sphinx Organization.

top black musicians

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Jessie Montgomery. Courtesy Photo.

Her work has been commissioned by prestigious orchestras across the country, including the New York Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony. In 2021, she was named the Mead Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,

Hear the Catalyst Quartet perform her composition Strum here.

5. Jonathan Bailey Holland

Perhaps one of the best-known composers in the classical world, Jonathan Bailey Holland’s legendary music has been commissioned by ensembles across the United States, including by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

A native of Flint, Michigan, Holland was awarded a commission by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to compose a piece inspired by John Singer Sargent’s dance-inspired painting, “El Jaleo.”

 black composers conductors violinists

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Jonathan Bailey Holland. Courtesy Photo.

Notably, he served as the first composer-in-residence with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, from 2018 to 2019. His pieces draw inspiration from many genres, including jazz, hip hop, and other classical works.

Hear a performance of his 2003 composition Motor City Dance Mix here.

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6. Tania León

A composer and conductor of considerable acclaim, Tania León and her signature sound can be found throughout the world of classical music. As a conductor, she has performed with the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus de Marseille, and the Symphony Orchestra of Johannesburg  – among many others.

Tania León speaks at the premiere of her piece “Stride,” commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Photo Credit: Chris Lee/Courtesy New York Philharmonic

Her work has been commissioned and performed by groups such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the Cincinnati Symphony. Her opera Scourge of Hyacinths, based on a play by Wole Soyinka, has been performed twenty times across multiple continents.

Leonard Bernstein and Ms. León in 1988. Photo Credit: Jon Roemer, via Tania León.

Speaking about her new work, Stride, which was part of a commission by the New York Philharmonic on the occasion of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women in the U.S. the right to vote, Leon noted the following. ” ‘Stride‘ encompasses many things for me and is an idea that I realized by studying a little bit of the life of Susan B. Anthony. She was a force . . .  didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. She was determined . . . and had the intention of making changes. Created a movement, in a way. And she made it happen.”

You can hear Stride performed here.

7. Damien Sneed

From piano and vocals, to composition and conducting, to working with icons like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder – it seems like Damien Sneed has done it all. Winner of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, he’s also known as the founder of the Chorale Le Chateau – a group that performs vocal interpretations of Renaissance literature.

 black composers conductors violinists

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Damien Sneed. Courtesy Photo.

Most recently, Sneed embarked on a 36-city North American tour titled, “We Shall Overcome: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The tour coincided with the 35th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Listen to a 2020 performance of the piece here.

8. Julia Bullock

A classical singer originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Julia Bullock has completed residencies with the San Francisco Symphony and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 black composers conductors violinists

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Julia Bullock. Courtesy Photo.

A soprano, Bullock is a founding member of the American Modern Opera Company and has also starred in numerous operas herself, including Le Nozze di Figaro and The Magic Flute. Alongside Joyce DiDonato and Jakub Józef Orliński, Bullock starred in a new production of Handel’s Theodora at Royal Opera House in the beginning of 2022.  She will also be releasing a debut solo album later this year.

Here her perform Canción de Cuna Para Dormir a un Negrito here.

9. Jonathon Heyward

The 2020 recipient of the Sir George Solti Career Assistant Award, Jonathon Heyward is a conductor to watch.

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Jonathon Heyward. Courtesy Photo.

Originally trained as a cellist and chamber musician, Heyward has gone on to appear as the Los Angeles Philharmonic Dudamel Conducting Fellow. He has spent the last three years as the assistant conductor with The Hallé, an English symphony orchestra. In 2021, he made his Scottish Debut with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, leading the Myths & Legends program.

Watch a segment of his performance of Holst’s Mars from The Planets here.

10. Lawrence Brownlee

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee has been universally praised as one of the stars of the current opera scene. He has starred in numerous performances, including The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, and Donizetti’s La Favorite.

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Lawrence Brownlee. Courtesy Photo.

You can regularly find him performing with the most prominent opera houses all over the world. For the 2021-22 season, he will debut as Platée in Rameau’s opera “Platée” with the Opéra National de Paris.

‍Listen to his performance with the Lyric Opera of Chicago here.

11. Ashleigh Gordon

As well as being an internationally regarded violist, Ashleigh Gordon is also the co-founder of Castle of Our Skins. It is an organization devoted to supporting and celebrating Black artists, past and present, through both education and performance.

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Ashleigh Gordon. Courtesy Photo.

Based out of Boston, they are a major voice in classical music, and Gordon is the leading force behind them.  She herself has performed in festivals throughout the United States and Europe, making her recognized equally as a talented musician and as a voice for social change.

Listen to her story and her artistry here.

12. Aaron Dworkin

A giant in the world of classical music, President Barack Obama made Aaron Dworkin his first appointment to the National Council on the Arts. A MacArthur Fellow, Dworkin is an author, artist, and violinist. And an educator and a dean for the University of Michigan’s School of Music.

The top black musicians in the world of classical music, including composers, conductors and violinists: Aaron Dworkin. Courtesy Photo.

He is also the founder of the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based group that aims to use diversity in art as a method of transforming people’s lives.

Watch a performance of his composition The American Rhapsody here.

The top black musicians in the world of classical music

Those are just some of the top black musicians in the world of classical music right now. Composers, conductors, violinists, vocalists and more. Let’s celebrate them. And show up at their concerts, support their work, and help inspire the generation of artists who will follow them.

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For access to insider ideas and information on the world of luxury, sign up for our Dandelion Chandelier Newsletter hereAnd see luxury in a new light.

Abbie Martin Greenbaum grew up in New York City and currently lives in Brooklyn, where she drinks a lot of coffee and matches roommates together for a living. At Oberlin College, she studied English and Cinema, which are still two of her favorite things, along with dessert and musical theater. She believes in magic.

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