On Sept. 30, 1999, The Ritz Theatre (re)opened on the corner of Davis and Union streets, to great fanfare. As part of former Mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance plan — which cobbled together more than $200 million earmarked for low-income neighborhoods — the theater was originally conceived as part of a much larger revitalization effort. Although plans for a soul food bistro and a string of entertainment venues — all aimed at recapturing the vibrancy of the historic neighborhood — never materialized, the theater’s unveiling was still seen as a hopeful moment for a city coming to terms with its tumultuous racial past.
Terrance Patterson remembers well the hype surrounding the Ritz’s opening. The internationally acclaimed clarinetist had maintained his connection to his native city, following the saga of the Ritz from the early efforts to rebuild the theater in the early ’90s.
“I remember when the plans for the Ritz Theatre were being presented — it was supposed to house all of these different things in the community,” Patterson tells Folio Weekly Magazine. “It was going to be a museum, a performance space, a gallery, and all of these different things.”
Then there was the idea that the Ritz should have its own band. Patterson liked that idea.
When he was a young boy growing up in Northeast Florida, Patterson remembers, his father listened to local public radio. “He would leave it on all day,” Patterson says. “Back then, they had all these great music programs.”
Patterson says he was particularly fond of Karl Haas’ show Adventures in Good Music. “He was so engaging and the music was so wonderful,” Patterson says. “I really found my love for classical music through his show.”
As an elementary school student at James Weldon Johnson Elementary School, Patterson took piano lessons. Even considering the history of the famous man for whom the school is named — and though Patterson’s parents pushed him and his 11 brothers and sisters to practice music — it would be years before Patterson would meet another person of color who shared his passion for classical music.
Still, Patterson’s father stoked his son’s fire for the art form, acquiring tickets to a Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra performance that would turn out to be a life-changing experience for the young musician.
“I’ll never forget that first concert,” Patterson says. “My eyes were as large as 45 RPM records.”
Aside from being wildly entertained, Patterson met principal clarinetist Peter Wright at that JSO performance. Patterson played the clarinet in Raines High School’s renowned marching band, but under Wright’s tutelage, he began private lessons that would unearth the young man’s true talents.
He set his sights on the famous Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he hoped to study under Loren Kitt. Though he was accepted to the school, eventually excelling as one of Kitt’s best students, Patterson says the experience was a big change.
“The Raines marching band was like a big family back then,” he says. “You go from Raines, which was 99 percent black, to the Peabody Conservatory, which was roughly .00009 percent black. That was different for me.”
Black men and women have built practically every musical tradition in the West — from jazz to blues to rock to funk. But when it comes to classical music, both onstage and in the audience, people of color are few and far between. It’s estimated that fewer than three percent of American orchestral musicians are black.
While Patterson was making his mark at the Peabody, he says he and the other black musicians he met were acutely aware of the few African-American musicians who had broken through to become stars in the world of classical music. There was soprano Leontyne Price, pianist André Watts, and opera singer Jessye Norman.
“These were people that, even though they were rare, we were all, as African Americans, holding onto them,” he says. “They represented what was possible.”
Patterson’s illustrious career took him around the world and back again, performing with symphonies from Paris to Las Vegas to Moscow. Along the way, he worked with talented musicians and composers of all races, creeds and colors. When he returned to Jacksonville in 2001, Patterson was already making plans to start an ensemble of musicians whose purpose would be to foster an appreciation of chamber music through performances featuring preëminent African-American musicians and composers whom he’d met throughout his career. More broadly, the ensemble’s mission, Patterson believed, should be to expose more people to classical music — especially more young people of color.
Sparked by the early momentum behind the Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum, Patterson launched the Ritz Chamber Players in 2002, with a season of concerts at the Ritz. For 14 years now, Patterson has been bringing together some of the most talented musicians in the world, and offering free concerts and inspiring educational programming throughout the community.
The ensemble’s members perform with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and London Symphony Orchestra (to name a few) and a short list of RCP members reads like a who’s who of contemporary classical music virtuosos. Notable longtime players include principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot (40 years with the Boston Symphony ), violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins (currently the fiddler in the highly acclaimed Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof), and cellist Tahirah Whittington (who’s performed as a soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra and with jazz iconoclast Ornette Coleman).
Five-time Grammy-nominated pianist Terrence Wilson has been playing with RCP for the last 12 seasons. He’s performed with symphonies around the globe and is widely considered one of the most gifted instrumentalists alive. Demand is high for Wilson’s services, yet he always makes time for the Ritz Chamber Players Ensemble.
“The Ritz [Chamber Players] has enriched my musical life immensely,” Wilson says. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn and study and perform a whole repertoire that is new to me. To be able to immerse myself in this music and work with musicians of such high caliber has shaped who I am as a musician.”
Talk to many of the musicians in the Ritz Chamber Players ensemble and they’ll tell you the music comes first. The mission is also a driving factor in bringing everyone together, year after year.
“It would be special just because of the high quality of my colleagues in the Chamber,” Patterson says. “[RCP] exists to share the passion of this music with everyone. We hope it enriches the lives of people of all races. But we want to dispel the perception that classical music is only for a privileged class.”
Wilson praises Patterson for his commitment to making classical music more accessible.
“Terrance Patterson is truly a great pillar of hope for the future of classical music,” Wilson says. “He is tireless. He is committed to the music first. But his mission is to share it.”
As Patterson began to prepare for RCP’s 15th season, Folio Weekly Magazine sat down with the founder of the ensemble to talk about his crowning achievements as artistic director, the 2016-2017 concert season, and the struggle to make classical music relevant in 2016. An excerpt from that conversation follows.
Folio Weekly Magazine: Can you talk a little about what defines chamber music, as opposed to what an orchestra performs?
Terrance Patterson: Chamber music is usually performed by two to nine people. In an orchestra, you can have somewhere between 30 to 125 musicians. We are working in classical music. We can have different combinations of players and instruments.
It’s been 15 years since the Ritz Chamber Players’ first season. Was there a lot of momentum for RCP when you started out?
There was, yes. When the plans for the Ritz Theatre were being presented, it was supposed to house all of these different things in the community. It was going to be a museum, theater with its own band, performance space, gallery; all of these different things. That changed a little bit, but we grew out of that and did our first season out of that facility. We haven’t returned in some time, but we kept the name [The Ritz Chamber Players] because we like to look back at the historical context of what the Ritz now represents — the musical and cultural heritage of LaVilla.
Did you have any difficulty recruiting musicians when you started RCP? Did you have to do some selling on the idea or mission?
When I started gauging interest, everyone was really receptive. I think that has to do with the fact that we all felt the mission was important. We all saw what was going on around us. When we would see each other at festivals then go back to our respective orchestras, we saw that we were the only one — or one of maybe two — black musicians. I think everyone was in agreement that we should try to change those statistics.
It’s commitment for these musicians, and it’s a bit of a whirlwind before each performance, isn’t it? You have all these players flying in from different parts of the country.
It’s not the easiest preparation. [Laughs.] Other chamber organizations, like a string quartet, they wake up every day together in the same town to rehearse. Or an orchestra, they’re together all the time and traveling together. But for us, we have to put on a level of concert that’s comparable [to those] in a day-and-a-half of rehearsals before each show.
So the other players must feel that RCP is an important institution.
They do. We’re really lucky that they feel that way and that they continue to want to be part of our organization. It’s like coming home, though. It’s become like a family reunion. Sometimes we have to remember, OK, it’s time to do some work.
How do you decide on a theme for each season?
This year’s theme is “Our Voice” and it grew out of the cultural fusion idea which seeks to tie all the Cultural Council institutions together with one common thread. The overarching cultural fusion idea this year is “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” We chose to focus on a broad range of topics for our series, under the main theme of “Our Voice.” For example: Our first concert of our main stage series will be called Coexist. It seeks to touch on different religions and backgrounds through the works of a variety of composers and bring them together to sort of work harmoniously. These are the types of programs we are always tempted to do. We try to think about things that are currently on our minds, as people living in 2016. People don’t typically think that classical music can touch on current issues. We want to show that this kind of art can bring about conversation.
Do you try to touch on something that’s socially relevant each season?
In the last five years, we’ve been trying to do that. But we are always building awareness just by arriving on stage and being who we are. [Laughs.] Worldwide, less than two percent of orchestra players are black and brown people. Social consciousness and awareness is sort of just built into our mission as an all-black ensemble.
How do you change those statistics?
Well, it’s difficult. It’s about awareness, certainly. We are always telling children the importance of art. We tell them how art will change their lives and make them better human beings. But what happens when you take these black and brown kids to see the symphony and they don’t see anyone who looks like them? You are telling them one thing, but then when they view our large institutions, they’re seeing quite another scenario.
You are the artistic director, but do you have a sounding board for your ideas?
The other artists always help. I typically put some broad ideas out there and then they help me focus. The other artists usually have some exciting works that they want to present. So that’s always great to find out what they want to play.
Do you have people in the local arts community with whom you also consult?
We’ve worked with the Cummer Museum quite a bit over the years. Hope McMath has made that such an inviting institution. I’m sad that she is leaving. But I’ve always felt that her genius cannot be confined to one building or institution.
You spend much of your time traveling and working with some of the best musicians in the nation. Do you still get inspiration from Northeast Florida?
Oh, definitely. We may be musicians from all over, but we are looking to Jacksonville for inspiration. We [RCP] want to present things that are going on in this community. For example, last year we had a theme “beauty is pain.” We did [Johannes] Brahms’ Piano Trio. We selected that piece because behind the beauty of it was this situation where Brahms was really struggling with a good friend of his who was threatening to commit suicide. Brahms took time away from writing the piece to help his friend.
So, when we looked at things that were going on in Northeast Florida last year, we discovered that there was a troubling suicide rate. There are so many interesting threads throughout history that tie together our common struggles. I think we can bring those out through music and art.
After 14 seasons, is there a especially particular moment or performance that stands out for you?
Honestly, the first day we get together to rehearse each season is always the most special time. We are so lucky to have these incredible musicians all in the same place. It’s an unbelievably special group.
The Ritz Chamber Players opens its 2016 season with the concert, Coexist, at 7 p.m. Oct. 20 at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, 4001 Hendricks Ave., San Marco, ritzchamberplayers.org.