Orchestra Noir Conductor Puts Black Kids First: ‘You Have Classical Music As a Career Choice’

Jason Ikeem Rogers wants concert-goers to forget they are seeing a classical performance. (Provided by Keisha Jeffries)

Orchestra Noir is likely the kind of ensemble you’ve never seen or heard before.

Conducted by lifelong classical musician Jason Ikeem Rodgers, the all-Black orchestra will shake up the music scene with “Night at the Symphony” Friday, March 31, at Atlanta’s Center Stage Theater with a can’t-miss performance that fuses classical and popular music.

The maestro, who has appeared with various orchestras in his hometown of Philadelphia and guest conducted with Italy’s Orchestra Di Toscana Classica, said he wanted to change the way audiences experience classical music by “bringing the bar to the concert hall.” Orchestra Noir will transform the typical vibe of a classical music performance with the help of nine-time Grammy award-winning producer Bryan Michael Cox.

“This has probably never been done before. We’re going to give people what they’re used to — DJ and party — but we’re going to incorporate the orchestra in a very unique way,” Rodgers said coyly before revealing the show will be a battle between Cox and Orchestra Noir. Cox will spin pop, hip-hop and R&B songs as the DJ, while Orchestra Noir will play pop tunes to see who can get the most audience members grooving.

Jason Ikeem Rodgers grew up playing music, beginning with the piano. (Provided by Keisha Jeffries)

“I want to have people standing up and dancing, I want them next to their chairs. We’re celebratory people,” Rodgers said of the Black community. “We like to dance, we like to move. I want to incorporate that side of Blackness into the classical music spectrum … so people can say, ‘Yes, I heard some Mozart and I heard some opera, but, girl, I was on my feet dancing when they started playing some Usher!'”

Growing up, Rodgers did not have many Black orchestra conductors or musicians to look up to and said he “got used to that concept.”

“It just comes with the territory,” he said, explaining that part of the reason why he founded Orchestra Noir, which was inspired by Atlanta’s affluent Black middle class and bustling nightlife, was to increase the number of Black “high-caliber” professional classical musicians. 

“We need more African-Americans in these positions,” Rodgers said. “When African-American children see us onstage, they know that, ‘Hey, I have a place in classical music.’ So, even though it’s hard to find the positions, I know that it was necessary.”

As a testament to his commitment to youth, Orchestra Noir is inviting Atlanta Music Project to perform one of its pieces with them at “Night at the Symphony.” The 7-year-old organization provides free music education to youths in underserved communities.

Orchestra Noir is the first all-Black orchestra in Atlanta. (Provided by Keisha Jeffries)

“We all talk about doing something for the next generation,” Rodgers said. “We all talk about doing something to give our young people options … to explore different things, and this is one of them.

“These are the types of things that inspired me and I wouldn’t be here doing this if there wasn’t certain Black classical musicians that I looked up to,” he added citing classical pianist André Watts as an early inspiration, along with Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Rodgers said being the Black conductor that Black children look up to is the essential purpose of Orchestra Noir.

“[It’s] to send the message that, ‘You have classical music as a career choice, that is something that you can go into,'” he said. “I think just seeing people who look like them doing it will only encourage them.”

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