Orchestras Face Connection Between Diversity and Relevance

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June 8, 2016; Baltimore Sun

The headline for an article in last week’s Baltimore Sun says it all: “In Baltimore, the largely white orchestra world talks diversity.”

The conference theme for the 2016 League of American Orchestras was “The Richness of Difference.” This annual conference was held last week in Baltimore, a majority African-American city, with the conference drawing a mostly white audience. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) hosted the event, and invited the keynotes. Earl Lewis, the president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation and an African American history scholar, was the opening speaker, sharing lessons learned from Mellon’s initiatives to diversity the profession of college professors.

One specific issue that was addressed was the slow pace of change regarding the ethnic breakdown of orchestra musicians. Currently, less than two percent of musicians in League orchestras are African American, and 85 percent are white, Additional conference topics included creating diverse boards of directors and diversifying audiences. The focus on diversity in the arts is a recurring theme, which NPQ has covered here and here, among several other articles.

The keynote speaker for the closing session was DeRay McKesson, an activist leader connected to the Black Lives Matter movement. He is engaged in issues of law enforcement and, most notably, is not an orchestra person. McKesson spoke as part of a panel that discussed efforts to increase diversity and inclusion, which was paired with a follow-up panel of orchestral leaders.

According to McKesson, “It’s important that we talk about diversity in all communities, and an orchestra is part of the larger community.”

The BSO has tried new ideas to grow diversity and become more accessible. One is OrchKids, a music education program that collaborates with Baltimore city schools. The goal is to develop a passion for orchestral music at a young age, so that the musicians develop the skills needed to win the blind auditions for the orchestras. After the riots last summer in Baltimore, the BSO also provided a free concert outside the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and a “peace concert” at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, sited in an area near to where the unrest started.

Underscoring the universality of this orchestral focus on diversity, several orchestras across the country are also trying different initiatives. The Houston Symphony has one season under its belt of sending “community embedded musicians” into local neighborhoods. The “embeds” are of diverse ethnic racial backgrounds and spend three-quarters of their time providing educational leadership to children and one-quarter as performers in the orchestra.

Anne Parsons, the Detroit Symphony CEO, says, “We do a neighborhood series with open seating and low ticket prices in churches, schools and synagogues. That way you can make sure you diversity your public, and not just by race.”

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has an African American Fellowship Program, which works with musicians under 30 years old. Currently, there are former fellows who are now on the roster, having successfully passed the traditional audition process of performing behind a curtain.

What results from such conferences and efforts to change the culture of the orchestra world? According to Parsons, her hope is that people leave the conference and “begin to change behavior and ideas.” It may take more than hope; it may take many more half-empty performance halls and cities denying funding to the orchestras before there is large-scale change. The organizers of the conference hope not.—Jeanne Allen