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Classical 101

The Columbus Cultural Orchestra Embraces Diversity

Stephen Spottswood rehearses the Columbus Cultural Orchestra
Jennifer M. Hambrick
Stephen Spottswood rehearses the Columbus Cultural Orchestra

On Stephen Spottswood’s music playlists, jazz, hip-hop and R&B tunes rub shoulders with works by Chopin, Mozart and Mahler.

But when he was in high school, Spottswood, a classically trained violinist and violist of color, noticed that the orchestras he played with weren’t playing his favorite hip-hop and R&B songs. And they weren’t playing the gospel and blues tunes he heard each Sunday in his family’s church in West Virginia, either.

“I just felt there was more to my story than what I was playing in the orchestras,” Spottswood said.

That’s why he founded the Columbus Cultural Orchestra, an ensemble dedicated to exploring and performing R&B, jazz and hip-hop music alongside Western classical repertoire.

Founded in January 2020, the orchestra is gearing up for its Lincoln Theatre debut concert. Rehearsing in a church lobby, the musicians recently practiced a program of Spottswood’s own arrangements of songs by Drake, Beyoncé, the Black Eyed Peas, Kendrick Lamar, and movements from Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

A music teacher for the Reynoldsburg City School District, Spottswood says he hopes the Columbus Cultural Orchestra’s diverse repertoire and membership will inspire young orchestral musicians of color to keep playing their instruments.

“I’ve seen it time and time again. Middle school, fifth grade, sixth grade (music students say), ‘Okay, yeah, I love the violin. I’m just going to play it,’” Spottswood said. “Once they hit eighth grade … ninth grade … they look at the stage and they don’t see themselves. And they say, ‘Well, why would I do this?’”

Spottswood says lack of retention among young musicians of color is in part to blame for the low number of Black musicians in American professional orchestras.

“African Americans represent 1.8 percent of all the professionals in orchestras across our nation, Spottswood said. “So we just have to raise that number.”

That number might grow, as young orchestral musicians of color see that they can actually embrace their heritage by playing in an orchestra.

“I really want them to be able to take away the confidence to tell their story with their instrument,” Spottwswood said, “no matter what genre they’re playing.”

The Columbus Cultural Orchestra performs at the Lincoln Theatre Thurs., Sept. 23 at 7 p.m.  More information at lincolntheatrecolumbus.com.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.