In 1977, Darrold Hunt seemed to have everything he could want. He had been for four years the assistant conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And he was an associate professor of music at Brooklyn College, where he had his own orchestra to conduct.
Today, at 43, Darrold Hunt has no steady income; he lives as a permanent guest in a home in Logan Circle, which is part of his base of operations. He eats a lot of his lunches free at the Metropolitan AME Church on M Street NW, another base of operations. His small personal expenses are covered by occasional checks from his brother Errol; "not much," he says, "but enough."
Hunt seems to be one of the happiest people in Washington. He has been working to get community-based programs of classical music rooted in Washington -- roughly in the area from Logan Circle to Dupont Circle. It seems to be working, and he is drawing audiences (still small but enthusiastic) from Washington and the suburbs.
What happened? In 1977, Hunt decided to give up a career and pursue a dream. "There is an excitement," he says, "in bringing people together for music and to celebrate." That's what he'll be doing this afternoon at the Metropolitan AME Church when he conducts the Washington Philharmonic in music of Beethoven and Ce'sar Franck. It's what he does when he brings a group called the Young Virtuosi to make music at the Carter Barron Amphitheater or the Pavilion. Or when he launches a program in the New Columbia Concert Series at International House on R Street.
"There's no salary, but this is obviously more than a full-time job," Hunt says. He doesn't seem to worry that there is no profit -- no financial profit, at least. "I have my personal agenda," he says. "I want to conduct an orchestra of people that I know and have grown with over the years. I'm not particularly interested in the fast world of touring, though I do want to conduct other orchestras. I have an admiration for men like Duke Ellington, George Szell and Herbert von Karajan -- men who devoted their lives to working with one group of musicians. There is a great deal to be said for staying, teaching and growing in one place, so that the community sees you as a vital part of itself. You don't become plastic."
Hunt is tall -- well over six feet -- and thin as a razor blade; ascetic-looking, like an early Christian hermit in a Renaissance painting. His eye has the kind of gleam you see in "There is a great deal to be said for staying, teaching and growing in one place . . ." those paintings, the look of an eye fixed on something beyond the horizon. He moves with the athletic grace common among conductors, but there is something different about him. You can talk to hundreds of conductors before you find one who is truly modest; it is not part of the standard equipment for telling an orchestra how to perform a symphony.
Hunt talks about himself reluctantly; he prefers to discuss the music he will be conducting this afternoon. Or pianist Frances Walker, who will be the soloist: "a superb musician who is not heard in Washington often enough." Or Bishop Robert L. Pruitt of the Metropolitan AME Church, where the concert will be held: "He helped me during very hard days; he allowed me to have lunch at his church, and he may have kept me alive."
Hunt's first musical experience was the one that pushed his life in its present direction; he began by singing spirituals with his family "as far back as I can remember," and he wants all his music-making to embody that special closeness, that feeling of a shared tradition. He wants it to embrace all kinds of good music, without the arbitrary boundaries that separate classical, jazz and folk styles. And he wants his audiences to be a sort of family -- one that crosses racial and cultural lines. "I have been told that there is an audience just for classical music, just for jazz, just for this and just for that," he says. "I believe there is an audience just for excellence. I believe there is an audience that can understand Reuben Brown, Mozart, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin and Silvestre Revueltas. Musically, all these people are excellent. We're setting up a place for excellence to be celebrated."
His voice gets excited when he talks about singing spirituals with his family: "It's like jazz, highly refined music, the result of filtering the same material through many, many generations so that what you have are exquisite expressions of a culture, a people. It goes far beyond the realm of folk music as it's generally described, because it looks forward as well as looking back. It brings us close to the definition of what it means to be human."
Hunt's first exposure to classical music was something he shared with many of his generation, the themes he heard on the "Lone Ranger" radio program: Rossini's "Wiliam Tell" Overture at the beginning and Liszt's "Les Pre'ludes" at the end. "I could figure out what some of the instruments were," he recalls. "I knew the clarinet, for example, but I couldn't figure out what the strings were for some time. Then I started buying records; I saved up enough to buy a $39 plastic phonograph and I suscribed to the Musical Masterpiece Society, a dollar a month. I was introduced to Tchaikovsky, to the Brahms 'Academic Festival.' When I heard the complete 'Les Preludes' for the first time, I was floored. I was in my early teens and I replayed these things endlessly; I had discovered a whole new world, and I dived in."
When he saw an audition announcement for the Tanglewood Festival on his college bulletin board, Hunt decided "Why not? I don't want to work summers in a factory, and I'm tired of selling encyclopedias." His tenor voice and musicianship won him a small grant to study conducting and choral music. He became a choral singer who wanted to be a conductor; he worked with such musicians as Norman Luboff, Gregg Smith, Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner; at 25, he was accepted at Juilliard and worked at several jobs to put himself through. An audition in 1963 made him Sergiu Comissiona's assistant in Baltimore. After four years, he realized that what he wanted was something else.
"I knew it would take as much work to pursue traditional conducting slots politically as it would to direct the kind of society the Philharmonic now is," he says. "I had to ask myself where my commitment was ultimately. The only answer I could come up with was that success without vision is degenerate. I've seen it; it doesn't mean anything. I have seen it from the inside and that kind of success is not the life I am going to live."
Part of the problem, he says is racial -- not discrimination against black musicians, although that exists, but a cultural division. It is possible for a black musician to make his way in the predominantly white culture of classical music, but he has to leave precious things behind.
"I was talking to a minister," Hunt says, "one of the ministers who are bringing people out for our concerts, and he told me, 'We know they're out there; we know we have some black conductors, but we don't know who they are.' He said, 'Thank you for coming to us.' If I had anything to say to my colleagues, it would be: Come home where the joy is. There is an old saying in the church that you can't forget the bridge that brought you over. I'm a part of both sides. I live on both banks, and it's destructive not to know that. I did throw a lot away, but I knew what I was going for. I've seen it work, I know it can work, I have no apologies."
Hunt's ultimate goal is music without cultural or stylistic barriers. His orchestra will be performing music of Duke Ellington along with Bernstein's "Jeremiah" Symphony in a later program, and his Young Virtuosi group, who are composers as well as performers, leap easily across the divisions between jazz and classical music.