In April 2018, the soloist who was set to play Gershwin’s iconic Rhapsody in Blue for a small, new ensemble in Mansfield stopped showing up. Suddenly, the Next Gen Chamber Players had two weeks to find someone who could play the technically challenging piece. There was just one rehearsal left.
Calls to friends and postings on message boards eventually led them to Eldred Marshall, a local conductor and international pianist who was teaching at SMU and UNT at the time.
“When I programmed that Rhapsody in Blue concert, I was specifically looking for a Black pianist, because it’s jazz. We created jazz music and I thought it would be really important to get a local pianist who is African American,” says Fletcher Rudd, a cellist and co-founder of the Mansfield Philharmonic. “When things didn’t work out with that original soloist, I was bummed about it. But then we found Eldred and I was like, ‘this is even better.’”
Marshall is a titan in the music world. He began playing piano at age six. He was performing nationwide before he turned 18. He has conducted ensembles internationally and taught music at the renowned programs at UNT and SMU.
Despite only working with Marshall briefly, Rudd and Thao Pham, a violinist and another co-founder of the Mansfield Philharmonic, knew they had found someone special. At intermission on the day of their performance, Pham cornered Marshall and asked him if he’d consider being their conductor.
“I was like, ‘okay, I guess,’” says Marshall. He said he also found something special in the small ensemble.
“The thing that really stuck out to me … was that, with the exception of maybe one person, everybody was either Black or brown or Asian. And I was like, wait a minute, how do you find this many people that play classical music who aren’t White?” says Marshall.
But he had a stipulation before accepting the job: “I suggested that we change the name.”
After that first performance together, Pham, Fletcher, and Marshall discussed their plans for the newly named Mansfield Philharmonic over sushi. They talked about expanding the orchestra to include winds and brass, increasing the number of musicians, and leveling up their repertoire.
Today, the Mansfield Philharmonic boasts about 50 string, wind, and brass musicians who have played an impressive repertoire of compositions by composers such as Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Mozart. The orchestra’s influence has reached into other suburbs throughout the region. Public school music educators and private teachers from across North Texas have played in the Mansfield Philharmonic. One of the first composers to showcase his music with MansPhil, Kevin Day, has since gone on to a successful career as an internationally acclaimed composer and conductor.
Community is important to Marshall, who is eager for buy-in from his musicians. He says he often asks orchestra members to tell him what they want to play throughout the season.
“People are feeling like they have a voice in it, and they also feel like they’re taking ownership of it,” he says. “it’s not just Eldred’s orchestra, it’s everyone’s orchestra … This is something that most conductors don’t do; I wanted to make sure the orchestra was playing things that were relevant or really special to the players on the stage.”
The orchestra’s March 5 concert, titled “Bold and Majestic”, was an example of that collaboration between Marshall and the orchestra. The program consisted of classics like Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, and Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ overture to L’Amant anoyme. The orchestra also played an original piece called “In Isolation” by Cassidy Robinson, a private cello teacher and cellist in the orchestra. She says it is special to compose her song with an orchestra that has cultivated other talent before her.
“I’m usually almost always the only Black person in an entire orchestra,” says Robinson. “I think it’s great that we have so much representation, from amongst the founding members, to the concert masters, to the principal players. We’ve even had two composers of color before me who’ve premiered their pieces with Mansfield.”
The diversity of the Mansfield Philharmonic is an anomaly in the industry. Only two out of seven board members are White and the majority of the orchestra’s musicians are people of color. In the United States, a 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras found that fewer than 2 percent of classical musicians are Black. Most composers are White and only 4 percent of conductors are Black. In an industry known for its lack of diversity and accessibility, an orchestra in a suburb between Fort Worth and Dallas is consistently cultivating musicians and composers of color and is also home to a Black conductor. Considering the makeup of the industry, those are feats to be celebrated.
Marshall believes the diversity in the orchestra is a happy accident that’s been cultivated by word of mouth from the members involved and students from the surrounding areas.
“Part of the diversity you see in the Mansfield Philharmonic comes from the public school students at Cedar Hill because the Cedar Hill program is majority minority, Black and brown,” says Marshall.
Cedar Hill’s population is 52 percent Black or African American and 33 percent White while Mansfield’s is 52 percent White and 22 percent Black, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.
“Some of their top students played with us when they were on their way to college,” says Marshall.
In many cases, the health of a community orchestra depends on the health of the music programs in their local school district.
In the 2016-2017 school year, around the same time the Mansfield Philharmonic was starting up, the Mansfield Independent School District launched an orchestra program for students in grades six through 12.
“[The Mansfield Philharmonic is] great because it shows that there’s places for you to play post high school,” says Savana Hughey, a cellist (and sometimes bass player) for the Mansfield Philharmonic who also teaches orchestra at Ben Barber Middle School, one of 14 schools that now have an orchestra program in Mansfield.
“This is something that most conductors don’t do; I wanted to make sure the orchestra was playing things that were relevant or really special to the players on the stage.”Eldred Marshall
Hughey is one of several Mansfield music educators who play with the orchestra. She says she even sometimes offers students extra credit for attending their concerts.
The founders of the Mansfield Philharmonic understand the importance of MISD’s string program. When the public school orchestra program began, members “toured the Mansfield ISD intermediate schools and performed for the beginner string students in a mission to build relationships with the young musicians,” according to the MansPhil website. They also put on a Children’s Concert for Mansfield’s Arts Week every Spring Break. They run a summer strings camp for orchestra students with the music department at First Methodist Mansfield.
Pham says the orchestra growing alongside the MISD strings program means nurturing even more musicians in the area.
“I feel like if I were to have been involved in more stuff like a youth orchestra, or just anything outside of my regular school routine, or just saw community orchestras, I think that would have probably pushed me a little more to do music as my career,” Pham says.
Thao finished her culinary degree before founding the Mansfield Philharmonic and, like many students who participate in orchestra in public school, didn’t realize at first that she could make music her full-time job. “What really made me jump into the career was my involvement in community orchestras,” she says.
In the fall, students who started in the MISD orchestra program when it began in 2016 will be entering their senior year of high school. Marshall says he knows some of them will start to join the Mansfield Philharmonic soon. In fact, some of them already have, an encouraging sign that the momentum the organization has built can be sustained in future years.