DARROLD HUNT'S regular job is in Brooklyn, wher he teaches courses on Beethoven and musical analysis at Brooklyn College and conducts a symphony orchestra and a contemporary music ensemble.
In spite of the long commuting distance to the source of his bread and butter, Hunt has taken an apartment on Columbia Road and is looking for a more permanent home in the heart of the black community - perhaps in Northeast Washington. He is settling, he says, for a long-haul project - to make an orchestra called the Urban Philharmonic a basic, permanent fixture of Washington's musical life.
The long haul gets under way this afternoon, where the Urban Philharmonic makes its first appearance in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with Hunt conducting. The initial program makes clear the founder's intentions. The orchestra will play three works by classical composers - Beethoven, Mozart and Dvorak - and two by black American composers that are solidly in the classical tradition: "Night Music" by Howard Swanson and Lyric for Strings" by George Walker.
Black orchestras are evidently an idea whose time has come. Efforts have been made in Boston and New York with various levels of professionalism and artistic success, and a new organization called The Afro-American Symphony Orchestra is getting ready for its debut in Philadelphia. Hunt believes Washington is the logical place for such an idea to work.
"We hope to expand the cultural options in what is becoming a cultural boom town; you can see it already in the slow growth of Washington theater, jazz, the museums and galleries - certainly in poetry. There's cultural excitement here, and what the Urban can do is involve that part of the community that hasn't been involved in the excitement of the arts - open it up, bring the black community out into the mainstream."
In the 1978 classical music life of Washington, the mainstream means the Kennedy Center, and while Hunt has been preparing his orchestra to tackle that fortress, the Kennedy Center has been reexamining its relation to the black community. There has been a recognition in Washington, and in the Center itself, that with a few exceptions Kennedy Center audiences have been almost as dazzlingly white as the building's imposing facade.
Last year, under a mandate from chairman Roger L. Stevens, the Kennedy Center set up an 18-man commission headed by Archie L. Buffkins of the University of Maryland, College Park, to investigate the situation and promote remedies. The arrival of the Urban Philharomonic, which has been loosely organized since 1970 and has performed in New York and Baltimore, is one of the first efforts.
"I can say without reservations that the commission sees it as a long-range commitment," Buffkins said last week. "We made it clear that we did not want a one-time hit; we see this orchestra as developing into a permanent fixture in American culture. I am willing, as president of the commission, to go out after the first concert and make presentations to various boards of directors, find people to lend their means to this activity and give it a board of governors to hold it intact."
The orchestra's first corporate sponsor is TWA, which is supplying funds to have 500 Washington schoolchildren attend the first concert.
The Urban Philharomonic is one of approximately 150 cultural groups, black and white, that have approached the commission for various kinds of support, Buffkins said. About 10 percent of these activities are receiving assistance from the Kennedy Center, notably a project for funding black playwrights, several of whom will have plays produced.
"Roger Stevens set up several guidelines for the commission: a commitment to quality peformances, cultural diversity and accessibility," Buffkins said. "He has asked that only these be kept in mind in funding performances."
One activity somewhat parallel to the Urban Philharmonic that he would like to see developed at the Kennedy Center is "a permanent jazz ensemble that will give the same kind of programs as the symphony, an ensemble supported and managed like a symphony orchestra to preserve what we have created and help in creating more." He also sees the Urban Philharmonic as a possible resource for students at black or predominantly black colleges: "There is a need for a professional laboratory for young string and wind players."
"Darrold is very fortunate that he came along with a good project at the right time," Buffkins said.
But most of this potential is still down the road. At the moment, the Urban Philharomonic has funding for on econcert ($30,000 from the commission) and a small budget from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for support staff to handl paperwork and the other routine details of a continuing organization.
Two remaining questions are what kind of orchestra it will be and how much support it will find in Washington. "We have our track record in terms of performances and they have all been professional performances and quality performances," Hunt says. "We won't have the kind of sound that you get from a resident orchestra that sits and plays together for years, but we have a sound that is professional and exciting."
As for community support, he thinks people unacquainted with the black community may be surprised. "People persist in believing that the black community has only one kind of musical taste. I remember when we did 'Messiah' in Harlem and filled the hall; there were housewives there with scores, singing along. This is part of the black musical heritage."
Hunt believes classical music is "an expression of what it is like to be human, to be alive," and that "most people in our Western society can respond to the intense human energy that is inherent in the music." And he believes that black people, whose culture has enormously enriched the resources of modern classical music, relate to European musical idioms on a high level when they have a chance to know them.
"I can't think of any authentic black music that is purely entertainment," he says. "It is an intense spiritual engagement. Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker were not performing just for fun. It is so personal and so intense with us that, once you take down some of the social walls, the response will be predictably strong and positive.
"It is not necessary to study this music to respond, you just have to be there to hear it."
After meeting Buffkins and talking to him about his ideas, Hunt recalled, he was invited to make a presentation to the whole committee. "They were really very good," he said. "I came in from the clouds carrying these scores, and explained what I wanted to do - with their help or without it. I turned down a good full-time job to work on the Urban Philharmonic, and this was before the Kennedy Center came through. And they understood what I am trying to do and agreed to collaborate. We will have to let it run for a few years to see what can develop, this was what my presentation was all about." His employers at Brooklyn College also cooperated, consolidating his schedule so he can work in Brooklyn for two or three days a week and spend the rest of his time here.
As for the audience he hopes to develop, Hunt said, "Clearly, my emphasis is on the black community, but more specifically on the community that does not consider itself elite. The response among the people I have been talking to, mainly young professional people, has been phenomenally positive. The city really wants an institution like this."
Besides the European classics and American black composers, Hunt plans to program music by Japanese, Latin American and African composers who are relatively unknown in this country. "We are doing something that hasn't really been done before," he said. If it all comes together, he believes, the Urban Philharmonic can become part of a Washington renaissance similar to the Harlem renaissance of a half-century ago. "The community is becoming more involved in the arts," he says, "and it's a new development. Two years ago, Washington would not have been ready for the Urban Philharmonic but now it is. The Kennedy Center has had something to do with it. Just by existing, it has changed the climate here."
About half the members of the Urban Philharmonic live in the Washington-Baltimore area; most of the rest are from New York and Philadelphia. Hunt, who was for four years assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, organized the orchestra originally in 1970, when he was a student at the Juilliard School, and has assembled them for performances sporadically since then.
Most players earn their living by freelance work, playing on recording dates, in Broadway shows and similar short-term engagements. "Many could be members of symphony orchestras if they chose to live in El Paso or Denver," Hunt said, "but they would rather live in Washington or New York or Philadelphia. A lot of them choose not to join full-time orchestras simply because being a member of a symphony orchestra is not the day-dream of all musicians."
But an orchestra is the daydream, and more than a daydream, of Darrold Hunt: "I want to create an institution that will outlast me - otherwise, what's the point? I hope it may be a model for other young conductors: 'Hey, look what Darrold did in Washington; maybe I can do that in Detroit.'"