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BPO visits black churches to grow diverse audience

It's not unusual to hear gospel music in East Side Baptist churches – the kind of music that will move you to raise your hands and sing along. But hearing that same music coming from a Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra string quartet is a little more out of the ordinary.

The BPO Diversity Council wants to change that perception. To that end,  the string quartet performed three gospel songs during services Sunday at two predominantly African-American churches, Friendship Baptist and First Shiloh Baptist, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. They will also perform next Sunday at 9:30 a.m. in True Bethel Baptist Church, 907 E. Ferry St., and 10:30 a.m. at St. John Baptist, 184 Goodell St.

At Friendship Baptist, the choir and every member of the congregation joined in, said Otis N. Glover, co-chair of the Diversity Council.

"They asked us to come back next year," said Glover. "We heard from members and children that said they didn't know (the BPO) could play that kind of music and they were very surprised and happy. The church was just so enthused."

First Shiloh Deacon James Williams said Sunday's performance is an "excellent way" to introduce audiences to the Philharmonic.

"I'm lucky, I grew up going to a lot of the Philharmonic shows, including those at Canalside. But this is a great opportunity seeing the Philharmonic in our church and getting a little taste of what they have to offer," said Williams.

Elon Terrell, who was attending First Shiloh with his wife Laura and daughters Olivia, 3, and Camille, 2, said they recently took the girls to a BPO family concert of "Peter and the Wolf."

"We didn't really see a lot of African-Americans there, which was kind of unfortunate," said Terrell. "I don't really know if African-Americans really know these shows are out there. So the BPO showing their abilities and skills (in our church) really helps to make everyone more aware."

The Rev. Melody Rutherford, a Diversity Council co-chair, said it was a natural fit to reach out to gospel churches, where oftentimes worship music fills the air before the pastor speaks.

"Music is very important to the African-American church community. It sets the atmosphere," said Rutherford.

This is not the first time that the BPO visited area churches. It brought in opera singer Kathleen Battle to perform spirituals from the Underground Railroad two years ago and brought in a string quartet to six churches last year. But Sunday was the first time members have performed in churches under the auspices of the Diversity Council, which was created last year.

The BPO formed the council in July, when it publicly signed the Mayor's Opportunity Pledge, an effort by Mayor Byron W. Brown to promote diversity and inclusion. Three months later, the Diversity Council sponsored its first performance at the Hispanic Heritage Celebration.

But despite the council's recent formation, Robin Parkinson, director of education and community engagement for the BPO, noted a longstanding commitment to diversity. With the council, she said, the BPO is formalizing, expanding and raising awareness of what it already has been doing.

Glover said their mission is to reach out not just on holidays, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, but all year long. He said they are in the process of bringing in other artists that are relevant to diverse audiences.

"We want to expose the Buffalo Philharmonic's beautiful music to any and all audiences. If we can make that something the religious community is aware of, then their participation can only grow," said Glover.

Parkinson said the BPO, since 1945, has regularly reached out to schools and as part of the mission of the Diversity Council, it will support music education in underserved areas. On March 4, the BPO will present a concert featuring the music of Nat King Cole and the Diversity Council will host a reception with community leaders.

"The mission of the orchestra has always been to serve the whole community, not just a segment, and the council has been helping us," said Parkinson.

Members of the BPO string quartet performing Sunday were: Amy Licata and Andrea Blanchard Cone on violin, Janz Castelo on viola and Robbie Hausmann on cello. For more information, visit the BPO online at

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