“Just tell the story”
Susie C. Owens
It’s July 21, 1970, a beautiful summer evening. The New York Philharmonic is hosting its annual Parks Concert Series. For a number of years the Philharmonic has presented summer outdoor concerts in city parks representing all of the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx. The No. 10 buses along Central Park West in Manhattan are doing extra business today, dropping off people of various ages and persuasions. They’re pouring in by the thousands and making themselves comfortable on the plush green grass at the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. Some observers are reporting that at least 75,000 enthusiastic and curious concertgoers are in attendance for this momentous occasion.
The anticipation of something great is in the air. This anticipation, however, does not remove the lingering questions in the minds of many who have come out to witness the return of Dean Dixon. Who is this conductor from Europe? Why did the Philharmonic bring in an “unknown”? Is he any good?
Few remember his first appearance with the Philharmonic in the summer of 1941 at Lewisohn Stadium, where 5,000 attendees witnessed the first Black conductor to lead the oldest orchestra in America. Even fewer remember his triumphal appearance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in its summer subscription concert that same year.
As thousands of spectators settle in with family and friends—arranging their pillows, blankets, and picnic baskets—a subtle cue from backstage signals the orchestra that all playing, warming up, or last minute run through of that tricky musical passage must cease. A faint applause, which emanates from stage right, begins to trickle throughout Central Park. It quickly strengthens as everyone now realizes that the concertmaster has entered the stage and is walking to his designated position to signify to the principal oboist that it’s time to tune. That all-important “A” resonates throughout the city park three times—one for the woodwinds and brass, one for the low strings, and one for the upper strings. After the tuning has concluded, the concertmaster takes his seat.
Then it happens. Dixon enters the stage in the same dignified manner he has done for over 30 years. His 5 feet 9 inch stocky frame gracefully approaches the podium as the orchestra stands to acknowledge the Maestro of the evening and the thunderous applause of the audience.
There he is on the podium, immaculately dressed in his custom-tailored white dinner jacket, looking out at an enthusiastically responsive audience. In his right hand, Dixon is holding a 15-inch molded fiberglass baton, which was given to him by the principal violist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra during his tenure as Music Director there. Dixon is a soft-spoken man, who looks the part of a Maestro—calm, self-assured, experienced, and focused. Not to mention his beautifully trimmed Afro—a hairstyle he sported in Europe long before it was popular in America.
After acknowledging the audience with an appropriate bow, Dixon turns to the orchestra to signal that they may take their seats. With precision and great subtlety, he quickly surveys the ensemble to establish eye contact. Feeling comfortable with his assessment, Dixon raises his baton and sets his heart, mind, and body to the compositions of Henze, Sibelius, and Brahms.
One journalist who attended the outdoor concert wrote in Newsweek: “…The 55 year-old Dixon came home to mount the podium before an American orchestra for the first time since 1949…This was a ripe Dixon, authoritative and precise. He is not a showboat conductor, yet he showered his program with lilting lyricism and controlled grace. And he gave Brahms’s Second Symphony a rich romantic sweep that brought the great throng to its feet in a standing, especially thrilling ovation.”
The return of Dean Dixon to his homeland after a twenty-one year self-imposed exile is news heard around the world. His is a story of triumph from years of disappointments in the United States to success abroad beyond anyone’s imagination. But there is something the public does not know about Dixon. His years of struggling to reach his goals were not without a heavy price. Dixon’s energetic countenance on the podium belies the fact that he is a man of great frailty. Over the years, his body has fought serious bouts of asthma, life-threatening allergic reactions, and hypertension. Despite his overwhelming infirmities, Dixon knows that he must savor his sojourn home. He is soberly aware that his life’s journey has brought him full circle.
Although recognized throughout Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia as one of the shining stars in the world of classical music, this West Indian American from Harlem, New York is a stranger to most Americans.
1 Harold C. Schonberg, “Philharmonic Opener Attracts Thousands,” New York Times, July 22, 1972.
2 Robert B. McElroy, “Dixon and the Philharmonic: Blackface and no gloves,” Newsweek, August 1970.