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Aspen Music Festival alumnus who is highlighted in a Shortsfest documentary wants to see more Black conductors

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Conducting Life
Courtesy of Aspen Shortsfest
Roderick Cox conducts an orchestra at the opening of the documentary "Conducting Life."

Across the United States and Europe, prestigious classical music jobs tend to be dominated by white people. 

A new documentary from Aspen-based filmmaker Diane Moore tells the story of Roderick Cox, an African American conductor who spent time in Aspen on his way to international success. 

At the start of "Conducting Life," a shot of Roderick Cox fades up.

He’s conducting an orchestra, and he looks like he was born on the podium. His right hand flows in time with the music, his left gives cues to different sections of the orchestra, his whole body tightens as the tension of the music builds and builds.

The music peaks, and his face radiates energy — the type of tangible passion rarely found outside of the performing arts.

His path to the podium wasn’t easy.

“I remember sitting in my teacher's office,” he recalls early in the film. “I told her I wanted to be a professional conductor. She asked me, ‘Are you willing to make the sacrifices to do that? It won't come easy.’”

The film flashes back to his childhood in Macon, Georgia, where his mother held the family together, working two jobs to support the kids by herself. The audience also meets Zelma Redding, who was married to the late, great soul musician Otis Redding. She now runs a foundation named after him, and she helped Roderick Cox get his first classical instrument.

“Did you even know what a French horn was at that time?” Cox asks her.

“I really didn't care,” she laughs. “I just wanted to help a kid.”

Then he goes to college and, eventually, winds up in the Aspen Music Festival’s conducting program.

That part isn’t in the film, but that’s where director Diane Moore met him, in 2013.

“And I, after spending a little time with him, recognized fairly quickly that his journey to the concert stage was anything but typical,” Redding said. “And his story, to me, was one of those inspirational, timeless, against-all-odds stories that can change lives.”

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Conducting Life
Courtesy of Aspen Shortsfest
Roderick Cox practices conducting during the Aspen Music Festival.

Over the next seven years, Moore documented his sometimes rocky journey to eventual success on the international stage.

The film closes with a stark statistic: African American musicians make up only 1.8% of orchestras around the United States. More than 13% of the U.S. population identifies as Black or African American, according to the Census Bureau.

“An important component of all of this in the film is the underrepresentation of musicians of color in the arts, particularly classical music,” Moore said. “He is not a firebrand type of person. But he, in his own way, wants to work and inspire others and help change lives.”

"Conducting Life" is an intimate documentary about one of the most prominent African American conductors on the international stage today. It tells the story of his meteoric rise from a background shared by few classical music conductors. But, Cox said, he was reluctant about that framing early in production.

“At the beginning of the process, I felt a bit more protective because I wanted the story to purely be focused on music making and my music,” he told Aspen Public Radio. “And not necessarily the circumstances that got me there because I didn't want to be victimized or anything like that.”

But his thinking changed, as has his relationship with Moore.

“I think not only my closeness and friendship with Diane and our many conversations, but also, I think, my own personal growth and maturity helped enable me to become more vulnerable,” he said. “And, for me, it was not only my career but also how I'm sharing my story with other people, and how my life influences other young people around the world — especially young people of color — who want to pursue conducting. And then I realized that in order to do that, I'd have to be sincere and even more authentic to myself and to my audience and let them know my true story.”

He sums up that story at the end of the half-hour film.

“Starting my journey, a feeling I can remember most was fear and uncertainty about what this career will hold in store for me — if I can chart my own path as an African American conductor,” he said. “Where I find myself today, I feel like I'm still at the beginning. I feel like there's a long road ahead. But there's not fear that motivates me anymore. I believe it is hope and patience.”

“The future is bright,” said Cox, and powerful institutions of the classical music world have taken small steps toward higher levels of diversity — but there is still progress to be made.

“I think it has gotten better now, I think, by very, very little margin,” he said. “I'm still waiting to see these sort of breakthrough moments of (a Black person) being a music director of a major American orchestra. It's very interesting that we will have had a couple Black Supreme Court justices, president, vice president, astronauts, tennis legends — all of these things — and yet, this seems to be one of the most coveted and elusive positions.”

Cox will be back in town for the Aspen Music Festival this summer, and "Conducting Life" is one of 77 films on the lineup for this past week’s Oscar-qualifying Shortsfest. The film, which played Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, will be shown Sunday at Crystal Theater in Carbondale.