It had been a long evening at Shiloh Temple International.
Three hours into a “Spirit of the Season” concert featuring the Minnesota Orchestra’s first-ever performance in north Minneapolis, its new associate conductor, Roderick Cox, welcomed the Shiloh Temple Chorus to help close the event with Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus.
The crowd had diminished, but those who stayed experienced a moment of music singular in its beauty. The urgent passion and throaty call of the 90-voice choir swayed up against the rigorous beats of the orchestra to fuse a new sound: gospel sung on the back of Handel’s rhythms and lyric lines. It shook the room.
And at this confluence stood Cox, a young man feeling his way toward becoming a symbol of unity between two groups — classical musicians and diverse audiences — that hardly ever talk to each other.
“It was one of those surprise moments you couldn’t anticipate,” he said a few days later. “It was a monumental coming together of the two, the chorus and the orchestra. It was hearing the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus like never before.”
Orchestra president Kevin Smith said the Dec. 11 concert was a seminal moment for Cox.
“We could have just gone to play a concert in north Minneapolis but he was the thing that made the difference. The fact that he was with us was a game-changer.”
Cox, 29, who grew up in Macon, Ga., makes his subscription-concert debut this week with a program of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”
There’s a story behind each selection, and Cox will tell you all of them if you let him.
Stepping up big
During a November interview at his small, neat condo in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, he is eloquent, polite, charming — like the best teachers. He also is a good student who speaks with a scholar’s volume of knowledge and an eagerness to know more.
“I just got a book that [Stanislaw] Skrowaczewski sent me on Bruckner Eight,” he said of the orchestra’s former music director, who recently conducted that symphony. “That meant a lot to me. To look at his scores and his markings is so meaningful.”
As associate conductor, Cox leads young people’s concerts and serves as understudy if music director Osmo Vänskä can’t go on.
“Roderick is a very talented young conductor who has all of the potential to become a great maestro,” Vänskä said last week. “I have high hopes for his future. Time will tell.”
At the same time, given his duties with the orchestra’s education initiatives, Cox wears on his broad shoulders an evolving responsibility for building bridges.
“He’s a consummate musician,” said Yvonne Cheek, an orchestra patron and former board member who worked on the Shiloh visit. “He’s not apologetic about his heritage and he’s not apologetic about being a conductor of classical music. He straddles that.”
Musician in football country
Cox always has been on the path less chosen.
He grew up in the heart of Georgia football country and an older brother played basketball, but while Cox was tall and fit (he’s 6 feet 4 now), he was flat-footed. So he spent time in his room, where he would assemble action figures on a table, put on a gospel choir record and conduct.
“My imagination was a little odd at that age,” he said.
Well, that depends on what you want to do with that imagination. For him, his action-figure gospel choir stoked an interest in music that was first expressed as a percussionist and French horn player at a fine-arts high school in Macon. His imagination was further piqued as he sat in church and watched the man who sat a few pews away — Little Richard.
It makes sense that Cox will conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fourth for his debut. “It was the first piece I ever fell in love with,” he said. As an undergrad studying music education, he invited friends to his dorm room to watch a video of the San Francisco Symphony performing it.
The piece served as a catalyst in his career.
“I never imagined myself a conductor,” he said. “I thought I’d go into teaching. And one night a composer asked me, ‘What is one piece you want to conduct before you pass away?’ I thought of Tchaikovsky Four and I realized I wouldn’t be able to do that as a [high school] band director. So I decided I was going to go for it. I was going to take the risk, make the sacrifices needed.”
Soon after he got a master’s degree in conducting from Northwestern University, the Alabama Symphony signed him as assistant conductor. He first came to the Twin Cities in November 2014, when he was invited to guest-conduct the Minnesota Orchestra. He won an audition to become assistant conductor the next summer and was elevated to associate conductor last September, which gives him a chance to oversee a subscription concert.
This is a big year for Cox. After his debut this week, he will guest-conduct the Cleveland Orchestra in Miami on Jan. 29.
“You realize you must be doing something right,” he said of the opportunity to work with the legendary orchestra.
Seeing yourself — or not
Cox’s predecessor Bill Eddins recalls the first time he turned around on the podium and looked at the Minnesota Orchestra audience.
“I grabbed the microphone and saw a sea of white faces,” said Eddins, who was associate conductor from 1992-97 and is also African-American.
Eddins was not so much surprised — he knows the demographics — as he was visually reminded of the reality of classical music audiences and players.
“I’m going to be an outlier and this is the way it is,” said Eddins, who still lives in Minneapolis but is now music director of the Edmonton Symphony.
Former board member Cheek says it’s the same for audiences looking at the stage.
“I hear people say, ‘I would go more if I was represented on stage,’ ” she said.
Orchestras are becoming very aware of the situation. The Minnesota Orchestra formed a diversity committee, which includes Cox, after the Cuba tour in 2015. There is not a single black musician among the orchestra’s permanent members.
Cox’s approach to bridge-building is to focus on the music itself. “Music explains how a black kid from Macon, Georgia, can wind up with the Minnesota Orchestra,” he told the audience at Shiloh. “Despite ideologies, creeds, race, we can agree on music, no matter what form it is.”
“That’s right. Amen,” said a woman in the back of the room.
Cox and the orchestra proceeded to play a piece by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor — a British mixed-race composer — and Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, inspired in part by African-American spirituals. Cox said he wanted to reclaim pieces of the canon written by black composers or inspired by black music.
“The human spirit in music is something we can all relate to,” he said during an interview. “Tchaikovsky Four, Beethoven Five, Mahler Six all talk about the human spirit. What is Ella Fitzgerald saying about the human spirit? Garth Brooks? Kendrick Lamar?”
Minneapolis isn’t home yet
Cox’s relationship with his new city and the responsibilities of being a public figure are “evolving,” he said.
“I like Minneapolis but I’m not in love with Minneapolis,” he said in November. “There’s a little resistance to calling it home because you don’t know if you’re going to be here in two years.”
His role is to appear at public events, whether to introduce himself to African-American leaders and audiences, or just to be a good citizen of the classical music world.
“I loved ‘Jitney,’ ” he said of a night at Penumbra Theatre. “Das Rheingold” required an afternoon nap to get ready.
Earlier this month, Minnesota Public Radio hosted a forum at which Cox told his story to an audience that included writer Marlon James, theater artists Ansa Akyea, Faye Price and Seena Hodges, and civic leaders such as former St. Paul City Council Member Debbie Montgomery.
“Roderick understands the gravitas and the thrill of the moment he is in,” said host Fred Child.
His constant companion at home is Oscar, a yappy but friendly Shih Tzu who keeps him company on nights when he needs to study scores or read.
“He helps with the lonely factor,” Cox said.
Orchestra violist Ken Freed knows that staff conductor jobs are transient steps in a person’s career. “I hope we can keep him as long as possible,” said Freed.
Cox loves the orchestra and goes out of his way to say it. After conducting a young people’s concert last fall, he worried aloud that he had “lost part of the strings” on one piece.
“No,” first violin Roger Frisch said. “If you’re conducting the brass at that point, you don’t need to turn toward us.”
Cox loves the feedback. Freed said he often talks with Cox — advice such as “What is the phrasing and emotion you’re trying to get across? Are your hands helping or hurting that effort? Are you singing this in your head? We don’t need every beat but we want a clarity of musical conception.”
To students at the young people’s concerts, Cox is a symbol of something that is possible to achieve. He told the MPR forum that he had received a letter from the mother of an American Indian boy who loved jazz piano but now felt he could be a conductor.
Two days after the Shiloh concert, Cox was sitting in a service garage, waiting for his car. As often happens, he was wincing at all the odd things that had happened that night.
“It’s hard to keep your concentration on the music,” he said. “You look to your right and see yourself on a screen being projected on the side.”
Still, he felt the moment.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be taken seriously as a musician and not as ‘that African-American conductor,’ ” Cox said. “Now I realize I can’t exclude myself. I can be both. No matter how I skew it, I will always be that African-American conductor.”
He noted how Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop has used her profile to encourage female conductors. “We have an obligation to lift as we climb,” Cox said.
Bishop Richard Howell, who was instrumental in inviting Cox to his church, felt the Shiloh concert was a “breakthrough moment” in the Minnesota Orchestra’s effort to inspire people from underrepresented communities.
“We’ve got to break down barriers, and Roderick can do that,” said Howell. “He has that attitude that we can do better.”
After the concert, Cox admitted that Howell’s comments had changed some of the presuppositions that made him cool toward Minneapolis.
“It makes me feel a little more attached. I can be an important figurehead for something like what happened here.
“This is an orchestra that is flexible enough and a city that is small enough where you can have a vision and you really just need people to implement it.”
People like himself — those who are willing to evangelize to both sides, with the gospel of music.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Twin Cities fine arts writer. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org.