On May 25, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed while under arrest by a white Minneapolis police officer. Video of the tragedy, which documented the officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as three officers watched, sparked weeks of protests about police violence and racial injustice across the U.S. and abroad.

On May 28, Anthony McGill, principal clarinet at the New York Philharmonic and a board member of the League of American Orchestras, posted a video protesting Floyd’s death and racial injustice. After McGill finishes playing his own minor-key arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” he falls to both knees with arms behind his back. Text encourages others to #TakeTwoKnees in support of the struggle for justice and decency.

As re-examinations and protests of racial injustice continued, orchestras and classical music organizations nationwide responded. On June 1, the League of American Orchestras issued a statement of solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and committed to “dismantling our own racism and our role in perpetuating the systems of inequity that continue to oppress Black people.” The League added a new session, “Anti-Black Racism and American Orchestras,” to its online National Conference on June 4 (see articles in this issue).

Many classical musicians issued artistic responses to the situation. Violinist/composer Daniel Bernard Roumain posted a “Declaration and Affirmation of Love for Black People.” Trumpet player Aaron A. Flagg, chair and associate director of Jazz Studies at Juilliard, posted a video of his solo rendition of “America the Beautiful” and “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?” Charles Dickerson III, executive director and conductor of Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (ICYOLA), released new video to accompany a prior ICYOLA performance of his composition “This Is Why We Kneel.” Roumain, Flagg, and Dickerson are members of the League’s board of directors. Among musicians of color who posted artistic statements are tenor Lawrence Brownlee; Demarre McGill, principal flute at the Seattle Symphony and Anthony McGill’s brother; composer and flutist Allison Loggins-Hull; and Weston Sprott, trombonist at the Metropolitan Opera and a dean at Juilliard.

The Minnesota Orchestra created a video, “Music of Power and Grief for a Community in Pain,” that mourns Floyd’s death and shows protest and grief in Minneapolis, as four of its musicians—masked and socially distanced—perform music of Shostakovich. The orchestra stated, in part, “The Orchestra has a role to play in our community’s search for justice, and we are committed to listening, learning and taking action to effect change in the weeks and months ahead.” The orchestra subsequently cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, stating that it “will no longer engage Minneapolis Police Department officers to provide security at Orchestra concerts until the MPD implements fundamental changes.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra postponed its online June 6 gala and replaced it with a livestreamed public conversation about racial injustice. The event featured a conversation with Wynton Marsalis and Valerie Coleman, as well as a performance by Marsalis and the world premiere of Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, her second Philadelphia Orchestra commission, dedicated to pandemic frontline workers. The orchestra dedicated the event to “George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and the countless Black Lives wrongfully and tragically lost before them, and to the value and dignity of all Black Lives.”

In Washington D.C., the Kennedy Center, home of the National Symphony Orchestra, dimmed its lights for nine nights in June to honor Floyd and mark the final nine minutes of his life. The Kennedy Center stated, “Dimming the lights is a symbol. It is not the solution.”


Caption1: Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic and a member of the board of directors at the League of American Orchestras, in his video protesting George Floyd’s death and racial injustice.


Caption2: The Minnesota Orchestra’s “Music of Power and Grief for a Community in Pain” video captures protest and grief in Minneapolis, accompanied by music of Shostakovich performed by Felicity James (violin), Sarah Grimes (violin), Sam Bergman (viola), and Anthony Ross (cello). The musicians were recorded while masked and social distanced in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium. Minnesota Orchestra digital producer Frank Merchlewitz created the video, with still photographs by Joseph Scheller. Photo by Minnesota Orchestra.


Caption3: On June 19, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra livestreamed “Call and Response: A Concert for Equality,” a virtual event curated by Assistant Conductor Kellen Gray, featuring commentary from local speakers and music by African-American and Afro-British composers. “Our community has many voices that deserve the stage and this program addresses that directly, by giving stage to voices muted by inequality, those that empathize and want to help, and those who see how inequality has wounded our community,” said Gray.