Composer, pianist, and teacher Helen Hagan premiered her Piano Concerto with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in 1912. In that same year, she became the first Black woman to graduate from Yale when she received a degree from the Yale School of Music. Hagan grew up in New Haven; she began her studies at Yale School of Music while she was still in high school. She enjoyed an international solo performing career, but after her death in 1964 she was largely forgotten.

In May 2023, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra revived Hagan’s concerto with pianist Michelle Cahn on an all-African American program also featuring music of Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and Quinn Mason. In the weeks leading up to the concert, the symphony co-produced three community events to build interest within the Black community: at a public library branch; at the church Hagan attended with her family growing up; and at a florist shop with music, food, and conversation. Partners included the NAACP of New Haven and Alpha Kappa Alpha, Hagan’s sorority.

“Were those community events leverage to get people to the concert?” reflects Katie Bonner Russo, NHSO Marketing Director. “We had to get over that. These were community-led events. The one at [the florist] BLOOM was the most joyous event of my career.”

A festival with so much commitment from the orchestra and from partners “translated into a shift in our audience,” says CEO Elaine Carroll. “The classical music industry is unaccustomed to seeing so many Black faces, so a series of events like this may look to some people like overcompensation when it’s not.” It’s just overdue.

Read more about the EDI work of three of the orchestras featured in this Guide — the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Handel and Haydn Society, and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in the League’s Catalyst Snapshots publication.

Photo: New Haven Symphony Orchestra musicians perform music by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and Helen E. Hagan in May 2023 at BLOOM, a florist and community gathering space in New Haven, CT. Photo courtesy of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.


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