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Asheville Choral Society Plots an Expanding Color Palette Running Deeper Than the Music

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Melodie Galloway is bothered by what she sees every time she takes the podium at a rehearsal of the Asheville Choral Society.

“We are very, very white,” she said with a chuckle. “We have a few people of color, but we are heavily caucasian.”

This is Galloway’s eighth season as the artistic director, and she and the choir’s board are taking strides to diversify the choir—in its music, its participation and its audiences. The first step was a strategic planning retreat focusing on diversity. Coming out of that is the second step, the choir’s upcoming program centered on African-American spirituals.

The Asheville Choral Society presents music and poetry by African-American artists Oct. 12 at Central United Methodist Church in Asheville.

“Part of doing this concert was a very intentional effort to not just say we want to be more diverse and more inclusive, but take action on that,” she said.

Addressing the racial disparities and inequities in Western North Carolina isn’t new for organizations inside or outside the arts, but Galloway is sensitive to the notion of tokenism. During the retreat, Galloway said she and the choral society’s board members learned about some of the barriers keeping people of color from their choir and audience.

She pointed to First Baptist Church in downtown, where the choir rehearses every Monday night.

“Largely, it’s been a traditional white church, not historically been very diverse,” she said. “So we’re actively looking for other spaces. How can we partner with historically black entities and organizations to create a space that’s more inclusive?”

Then there’s the musical programming. At a recent rehearsal with more than 100 singers, only a few were visibly people of color. Galloway has done what she can to teach these white vocalists to sing African-American spirituals and other music composed and traditionally sung by black people.

“I was instructing the 120-voice choir, most of whom are right, to move just side to side and it was almost a disaster,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Y’all, whatever we’re doing, we have to do with as much authenticity as we can find. Whatever we’re doing we need to do it with as much authenticity as we can must, and part of my role as a conductor is an educator, and teaching the chorus about the meanings of the songs, but also the way to produce the sound you want.”

Marietta Cameron lives in Weaverville and chairs the computer science department at UNC-Asheville. She grew up singing in her father’s church and is one of those few people of color in this choir. When she lived in Birmingham, she said she once turned down a request to sing spirituals with a largely white choir.

“For me, it’s a celebration to the almighty. The almighty doesn’t care what this is,” Cameron said of the choir’s racial makeup. “I trust my colleague Melodie, and her intent is not to ridicule, it’s to educate, and intent means a lot.”

Galloway wants to steer future programs to Latinx, Asian and Ukrainian music, and hopes those communities take notice enough first to watch the choir and then audition to perform.

“I think the future is very bright for the Asheville Choral Society to become what we want to become,” she said. “And this is a diverse organization that sings diverse music.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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