Growing up in a house where gospel music was prominent, Brandyn Lewis didn’t discover classical music until he started school.
The double bassist and only Black musician at the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) now wants to share his appreciation for the genre through his new project, Ensemble Obiora.
“Our mission is really to discover, to share and to program music by composers of colour who have been left out of music history,” Lewis, who is currently a substitute player for the OSM, told CBC Montreal’s Let’s Go.
Ensemble Obiora, a classical ensemble mostly made up of musicians of colour, is the first in Canada which aims to show school-age children that musicians who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour can perform Western classical music at an “elite level,” Lewis said.
Its inaugural concert will take place on Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. at the Université du Québec à Montréal’s Centre Pierre-Péladeau.
Inspired by similar music initiatives south of the border, Lewis says he hopes his 25-piece ensemble will help foster more diverse representation in Canada’s classical music scene.
He says Ensemble Obiora was born out of discussions with musicians of colour across Canada who felt classical music in the country was severely lacking in diversity, even when compared to the U.S. and the U.K.
He and his partner Allison Migeon founded the ensemble after taking a DNA test last year, revealing that they were both of Nigerian descent. To honour their shared heritage, they called the ensemble “Obiora,” which means “heart of the people” in Igbo, a language spoken in Nigeria.
“We wanted a powerful name that these musicians could relate to,” he said.
Because classical music is a white-dominated field, Lewis says children of colour who could potentially join orchestras as musicians and conductors might turn away from the genre because they don’t see themselves reflected onstage.
Most musicians of colour who try to break into the field, he says, often find themselves being the only non-white musician in classical music spaces, which was his case throughout his studies.
During his time at McGill University, only a handful of Black musicians were enrolled in the classical music program, he says.
“I think a lot of musicians of colour get discouraged,” he said. “But also, classical music isn’t a part of everyone’s culture so that’s something that we have to take into consideration.”
“I wasn’t even aware of all the many Black composers that have existed and that have contributed to this art form.”
The onus was on Lewis to educate himself about composers of colour overlooked in standard concert repertoire. When he found pieces by William Grant Still, Florence Price and Adolphus Hailstork that resonated with him, he questioned why it was so challenging to find them in the first place.
“I discovered so many beautiful pieces,” he said. “I want to have a chance to play these pieces and for audiences to discover something new, something refreshing.”