From June 2015 through July 2018, the Minnesota Orchestra had a rarity in its ranks: an African-American conductor. Roderick Cox, a Georgia native, was appointed assistant conductor in 2015 and associate conductor in 2016.
During his time with the orchestra, Cox led dozens of performances here and elsewhere, including Johannesburg, South Africa; and Washington, D.C., for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He led a thrilling Tchaikovsky’s Fourth that went viral and a concert at Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis that filled the church during a December snowstorm.
Today Cox lives in Berlin. He has guest conducted for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Houston Grand Opera and others. According to his official bio, he’s now “German based,” with high-profile bookings in his future: the New York Philharmonic on March 21, his Hollywood Bowl debut with the L.A. Philharmonic, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Opera.
But he’s not through with Minnesota yet. Cox has formed new ties here with the potential to change lives.
In 2019, three friends and advocates of Cox – Yvonne Cheek, Maurice Holloman and Anton Vincent – launched the Roderick Cox Music Initiative (RCMI). Cheek and Holloman are Minnesota Orchestra board members. The RCMI has two purposes: funding music scholarships for students of color and financing completion of a 30-minute documentary about Cox’s journey to become a conductor.
Cox knows the value of a helping hand. As a teen, he struggled to learn the French horn on an instrument held together with duct tape. The Otis Redding Foundation provided him with a professional model horn. The foundation later sponsored him to study in Oxford, England, and the Czech Republic and attend a competition in Spain.
Earlier this year, the RCMI awarded $10,000 to Walker West Music Academy and $7,000 to MacPhail Center for Music. On Feb. 3, Cox visited Walker West to meet with scholarship students there.
“We’re here to raise the ceiling of opportunity for you,” he told the students. “The idea is to see more people like us on the stages and in the orchestras around the world.”
After listening to the students play scales and music selections, he joined them for a conversation. He asked them about their favorite music. (They like Beethoven, Shostakovich and contemporary music.) He took their questions and shared advice.
“Practicing sucks,” he said. “And it’s going to suck for a long time. Then, all of a sudden, you’ll hit a turning point and think, ‘Oh my God, this is fun!’ Just hang on.”
Asked “How do you not get nervous before a performance?” he replied, “It’s about practice and being prepared. It’s like going to the gym. After a workout, you never say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have worked out.’ After practice, you never say, ‘I shouldn’t have practiced so much.’ I’ve found that practice is my sword and shield.
“When I do get nervous, I say to myself, ‘This is what you love. You asked for it. It’s what you wanted. So keep going.’”
In mid-February, MacPhail selected three recipients for its RCMI scholarships: two violinists in eighth grade and a cellist in ninth grade, all from different Minneapolis schools.
The documentary, “Conducting Life,” is in its final stages. Most documentaries about conductors are retrospectives, made after they’re dead or near the end of their careers. This will span Cox’s life from his childhood in Macon to the present day, including his appearance with the New York Philharmonic in March. It will show young people what it takes to become a conductor in the mysterious and mostly white (for now) world of classical music.
Cox met filmmaker Diane Moore in 2013, when he was a student at the Aspen Music Festival. “I thought it would be a little feature,” Cox said. “She did, too. But she’s been there with her camera when I’ve been taking auditions, when I didn’t have a job, when I got my first job, when I conducted my first concert. She was there at the Minnesota Orchestra, in Berlin and Houston. She was just in Paris with me.”
“Conducting Life” will be co-produced by Moore and Twin Cities PBS. A public screening is planned for spring. We’ll keep you posted.
Saturday at the Black Dog: Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog. This won’t be just any Saturday night. It will be the 300th Saturday night in a row when trumpeter Steve Kenny has made damn sure that anyone who walks into the Black Dog will hear live jazz. Kenny curates the series, wrangles the artists, introduces the artists, plays his horn(s) and passes the tip jar on which they all depend, since shows are no cover. (If you want, you can pay $20 in advance to reserve a seat at a table near the stage.) There’s always an opening set at 7 p.m. and a main set at 8:30 p.m. Saturday’s opening set will be a JazzINK Young Masters Showcase, followed by Kenny and the Zacc Harris Quintet. FMI.
Saturday at Northrop: A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham. Has it really been seven years since Kyle Abraham was here? Because we remember how exciting it was to see him at the Walker in 2013. Born into hip-hop culture, trained in classical cello, piano and the visual arts, the multiple award-winning choreographer (Jacob’s Pillow, Bessie, Doris Duke, Princess Grace, MacArthur “Genius”) will return on Saturday, this time to Northrop’s big stage, with his nine-member company A.I.M. The program will include Abraham’s first major solo in nearly a decade, his “Meditation: A Silent Prayer” and “Drive,” and works by Andrea Miller and Trisha Brown. Co-presented with the Walker. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($21-70). Performance preview – worth the time – at 6:15 in the Best Buy Theater.
Sunday at Pillsbury House Theatre: Celebration of Life for Marion McClinton. Award-winning director, playwright and St. Paul native McClinton died on Nov. 28 at age 65. Best known outside the Twin Cities for bringing the plays of August Wilson to Broadway as a director, McClinton was a friend, mentor, and inspiration to countless people. Many theater artists, in particular artists of color, got their start and stayed with it because McClinton believed in them. Pillsbury House Theatre was his artistic home for many years. At the celebration, an artistically designed program will occur twice, from 4-7 p.m. and 8-11 p.m., with time before and in between for food and gathering. 3-11 p.m.
Sunday at Macalester’s Mairs Concert Hall: Zoltán Fejérvári. The prize-winning, Budapest-based rising piano star will make his Chopin Society debut on Chopin’s birthday, but he won’t play any Chopin. Don’t hold that against him; his program includes three Beethoven sonatas, a Haydn, a Bartók and a Janáček. One critic called his all-Janacek first solo piano album, released in 2019, “the most sensitive and deeply probative recording of the Czech master I have heard.” Maybe he’ll surprise with a Chopin encore? 3 p.m. FMI and tickets ($35/30/15).
Sunday at the Ordway: Sphinx Virtuosi: “For Justice and Peace.” A chamber ensemble of black and Latinx classical string soloists, the Sphinx Virtuosi tours annually. This will be their fourth year in a row at the Ordway. This time they’re bringihttp://www.dot.state.mn.us/tmc/trafficinfo/metrocams/mapindex.htmlng Cuban-American soprano Elaine Alvarez as guest artist. The program will include music by Bartók, Schubert, Aldemaro Romero, Michael Abels, Philip Herbert, Xavier Foley and Jessie Montgomery. 3 p.m. FMI and tickets (start at $16 for adults, free for kids and students). P.S. Alvarez will return to St. Paul in May to perform in Minnesota Opera’s “Don Giovanni.” P.P.S. Earlier this month in Detroit, Roderick Cox (see above) guest conducted the 23rd annual Sphinx Competition Finals Concert.
Monday at the Dakota: Bill Frisell: “Harmony.” Grammy winner Frisell has been called “the favorite guitarist of many people who agree on little else.” With a career spanning more than 40 years and hundreds of albums, including 50 as a leader, his palette of sounds is unlimited, his musical tastes broad and questing. Touring behind “Harmony,” his debut as a bandleader for Blue Note, Frisell will play the Dakota with vocalist Petra Haden, daughter of the late, great bassist Charlie Haden, with whom Frisell often shared a bandstand; cellist Hank Roberts, part of Frisell’s musical team for years; and guitarist and bassist Luke Bergman. Ethereal, haunting and intimate, featuring songs from the Great American Songbook and American roots music along with Frisell originals, “Harmony” is the perfect name for an album where instruments, voices and harmonics dance and weave and intertwine. This will be magical. 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25-50).
Monday at Icehouse: Liz Draper: March Mondays. Bassist Draper will launch her March residency at Icehouse – she’s programing all five Mondays – with two trios. First up: JT Bates, Martin Dosh and Draper. Then Josh Granowski, Dan Rein and Draper. 8 p.m. showtime, $10 cover at the door.