By Lenora Howze,
AFRO Executive Director
If you think representation doesn’t matter, look no further than the scene that recently unfolded inside of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Student conductor Bruce Perry, one of few Black conductors in the industry, was recently leading the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra orchestra in the Meyerhoff lobby when he inspired eight-year-old Carter Roberson to join the action. Carter repurposed a straw and began mimicking the movements of the African-American student conductor.
He beamed as Perry allowed him to co-conduct the opening act, but was even more elated when Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) Associate Conductor Jonathan Taylor Rush took notice and dedicated a song to him during the BSO’s ticketed Holiday Extravaganza show.
It was a full-circle moment for Rush, who grew up inspired not by other Black conductors– but a conducting skit from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
“I saw myself when I was his age,” Rush said. “And I knew then what I had to do.”
Rush, who normally doesn’t get a chance to see the lobby performance, went back to his office to retrieve a baton that he’d had for five years. He’d been waiting for the right moment—and child—to give it to. That moment came on Dec. 18 and the child was Carter Roberson.
When Rush presented the baton, young Carter was moved to tears. The young man who lacked representation for himself became that representation for the next generation of aspiring classical musicians and conductors.
But the road hasn’t been easy.
When the slender 27-year-old talks about growing up in Windsor, Conn., he notes that his family’s musical and spiritual roots were major influences. While Rush’s parents, both choir directors and pastors, were major influences in his life, it was Looney Tunes– especially Bugs Bunny–that led him to his passion for conducting the orchestra.
“I remember an episode where Bugs Bunny dressed up as this old-time conductor named Leopold, and as he walked out on stage, the musicians stopped playing and repeatedly shouted his name,” he said of a cartoon he saw when he was six. “While that was a silly portrayal of a conductor, as a kid I loved Bugs Bunny and seeing him conduct an orchestra made me want to become a conductor.”
From then on, whether it was chopsticks from Chinese food takeout or one of his mother’s crochet needles– Rush used any opportunity to conduct his imaginary orchestra. He believed he would be the conductor of a real orchestra, however, there was one problem: he kept running into people who told him, “no.”
A college experience nearly destroyed Baltimore’s chance at having dynamic Associate Conductor Rush in his current role with the BSO.
The dream of becoming a conductor was nearly dashed when Rush came into contact with a college professor who was offering conducting lessons to undergraduate students. When he approached the music professor to ask how to sign up for his class, he recalls the White man looking him up and down, saying “no,” and walking away. What could have been a crushing moment was only a temporary defeat.
Rush went on to earn a master’s degree at the Peabody Institute and now serves as the associate conductor for world-renowned BSO.
He says rejection, isolation, and lack of representation only made him more determined to achieve a place in the world of classical music.
With Rush going before him, young boys and girls like Carter will have a blueprint for success–but it starts at home.
Carter’s exposure to classical music began at an early age. His mother, Tiffany Roberson, said that while she was pregnant with Carter, she would play classical music close to her belly so that her baby could hear it. “I could often feel him moving around, seemingly in response to the music I was playing,” Roberson recalls.
His love for classical music never waned.
When Carter saw Rush conducting the 2021 holiday concert, he sat in awe as he experienced someone who looked like him doing something that not too many African Americans do, his mother said.
This year, he acted on his passion and picked up a mentor.
If the past eight years are any indication of future greatness, the AFRO is certain that young Carter has a bright future ahead of him that could very well lead to a symphony hall near you!
Click below to hear the engaging interview with Conductor Jonathan Rush and the AFRO’s Executive Director, Lenora Howze
To follow Jonathan Taylor Rush’s journey as a Black conductor, find him on Facebook at @jonathanrush and on IG at @jonrushconductor.
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