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Orchestras, classical music programs working toward more diversity in the concert hall, leadership roles

Unlike most other members of the League of American Orchestras, at least one third of the musicians, staff and board of the Chicago Sinfonietta are people of color.

Chicago Pathways Music Initiative (CPMI) fellow Autymn Williams performs the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in recital at Symphony Center in 2019. CPMI is working toward more diversity in orchestras
Chicago Pathways Music Initiative (CPMI) fellow Autymn Williams performs the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in recital at Symphony Center in 2019. CPMI is working toward more diversity in orchestras
Chris Hurd Photography, LLC

Despite attempts to boost the numbers in recent decades, the share of African American and Latinx musicians in American orchestras remained at just 2.5 percent in 2014, according to the most recent statistics available in a 2016 report released by the League of American Orchestras.

The Catalyst Fund, a three-year, $2.1 million program launched in 2019 by the national support organization, is designed to help its members identify, confront and ultimately correct what Jesse Rosen, the League’s president and chief executive officer, called built-in “systems of inequity.”

In early June, the League announced a second round of Catalyst grants ranging from $12,000 to $25,000 each to 28 orchestras, including the Chicago Sinfonietta, which was founded in 1987 with diversity at the forefront of its mission.

Although these allocations were largely finalized on May 25 when George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, Rosen said, the resulting protests around the world have brought into sharper relief the field’s “stance around racism.”

“I think we are coming to grips with the reality,” he said, “that orchestras for a long time have really been complicit and we have not been honest about the role we have played in the past and we haven’t really tended to explore and figure out how to change and how to be a constructive participant in the equitable, anti-racist way of doing business.”

Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has been watching the Black Lives Matter protests from his home in Italy and he recently voiced similar sentiments to the Associated Press. “My dream would be to have many more African Americans in orchestras, choruses and in audiences,” he said. “But this was also our own fault, by giving the sensation that our musical culture is a culture of an elite, a culture of superior people, of very refined people. It is not true. We must open our arms, as we have done and will continue to do in Chicago.”

Adrienne Thompson, who leads the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, which is working toward more diversity in orchestras, praised Muti for speaking out and for the things he has already done to promote inclusion such as his work with the Chicago Symphony’s African American network. But she said more is needed.

“There can be ideas in your head,” Thompson said, “but when you speak about them and they go on public record, then that means, really, you are starting to move to an action phase. It also means that people can start holding you accountable to your words.”

The New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (with additional support from the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation) underwrote the Catalyst Fund. In addition, it has given about $18 million since 2015 to support a series of programs across the country to help 6th to 12th-grade music students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.

Adrienne Thompson is the director of the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, an organization working to achieve increased diversity in orchestras, starting with access to music programs for elementary and high school students.
Adrienne Thompson is the director of the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, an organization working to achieve increased diversity in orchestras, starting with access to music programs for elementary and high school students.
Copyright Todd Rosenberg Photography

Among them is the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, which was established in 2018 with a three-year, $3.5 million grant. It involves a consortium of area organizations, including the Merit School of Music, Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras and Chicago High School for the Arts.

“Instead of working with musicians once they have finished their conservatory training,” said Thompson, “[the Mellon Foundation leaders] are pivoting toward providing opportunities for students pre-conservatory, to help them get into the schools.”

Money is provided for such things as private instruction, summer intensives and the purchase of a suitable instrument — virtually everything a serious student would need on the pathway to a musical career.

“This is not a talent issue. This is an access issue,” said Susan Feder, a Mellon Foundation program officer.

Fifty area students from 6th through 12th grade were chosen for the 2019-20 class, with a diversity that reflects Chicago — 44 percent African American, 40 percent Latinx, 10 percent Southeast Asian and 6 percent South Asian. All seven of this year’s graduating seniors earned spots in music schools, including such prestigious institutions as the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. (Applications are being accepted through July 3 for 2020-21.)

It could take 10 years or more to know the full impact of the Pathways program, but Thompson said the idea is to create a “critical mass” of well-trained students who get into first-rate conservatories and become prime candidates for orchestral positions. “All of them are not going to be able be denied,” she said.

Blake-Anthony Johnson, the new CEO of the Chicago Sinfonietta, is photographed in his Loop office earlier this month. Equity, diversity and inclusion are “very much in the DNA” of the organization, he said.
Blake-Anthony Johnson, the new CEO of the Chicago Sinfonietta, is photographed in his Loop office earlier this month. Equity, diversity and inclusion are “very much in the DNA” of the organization, he said.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

American orchestras have tried such approaches as fellowship programs to boost the ranks of musicians of color, but a League study following a 2015 convocation on equity, inclusion and diversity showed that participants didn’t always feel comfortable or supported, and they often saw no career path forward.

It became clear that broader changes were needed within orchestras, so the Catalyst Fund is meant to take the focus inward and help musicians, staff and board members understand and address potential discriminatory beliefs and structures within their organizations.

The League is not making any commitment to achieving some precise percentage of African American and Latinx musicians in future orchestral ranks. Instead, success will be defined by achieving what Rosen called “authentic engagement” with these issues. “We’re more concerned right now with behavior than numerical targets,” he said.

He cited the San Francisco Symphony, one of the first Catalyst Fund recipients. As part of “hard conversations” it has had, the orchestra has revamped its hiring, which had included job listings without posted salaries, a practice which has been known to work against people of color.

Chicago Sinfonietta music director Mei-Ann Chen.
Chicago Sinfonietta music director Mei-Ann Chen.
Sun-Times File

Unlike most other members of the League of American Orchestras, at least one third of the musicians, staff and board of the Chicago Sinfonietta are people of color, said Blake-Anthony Johnson, who took over as chief executive officer of the Chicago orchestra in May. “It makes us quite unique,” he said.

Equity, diversity and inclusion are “very much in the DNA” of the organization, he said, and this second Catalyst grant will help solidify those beliefs and assure they are a “common language” among volunteers and everyone with any connection to the organization.

“Any time you get recognition from the League of American Orchestras,” said Chicago Sinfonietta music director Mei-Ann Chen, whose contract was extended in May through the 2023-24 season, “it’s a national validation of the work that we’re doing and it’s always welcome. Our work has been pioneering in terms of national efforts of diversity in our country for symphony orchestras.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.