Yo-Yo Ma, describing himself as a “slow learner,” had a tip for the leaders of America’s symphony orchestras as they gathered in Chicago June 13-15  to take a break from the urgent matters eating away at their days, the better to reflect on larger goals. Excellence alone is just analysis, he said, adding that it took him years to figure out that being a cellist alone would never make him happy.

The best ideas, “the ones that occur to you in the shower or just before you are falling asleep,” are the ones that integrate analysis and empathy, he said at a June 15 gathering. “The cello is my instrument of exploration,” he said. But he warned of the pursuit of excellence by itself as a trap that hampers bigger thinking, urging orchestras to adopt his mindset: “Culture is not a product. It is a helper. I am in the business of helping culture transform itself.”

Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) conductor Allen Tinkham acknowledges student musicians following the world premiere of Michael Abel’s Winged Creatures. The performance was part of the League of American Orchestras conference events in Chicago. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

The League of American Orchestras, operating out of the Palmer House Hilton as the headquarters and watering hole, included the country’s most prestigious ensembles and its smaller community and training orchestras. Top-of-the-mind issues for the thousand people attending were diversity and disruption: how to keep up with, and more quickly adapt to, the astonishing creative energy that’s bubbling up from vibrant women, people of color and young entrepreneurs in the music field.

While no one argues that it takes 10 to 20 years to produce a virtuoso violinist, conductor or composer of the highest rank, there is also the reality that orchestras, like most large organizations, are big boats slow to turn. Orchestras are now whiter, older and more male than are workplaces as a whole, and so is their music, and their audience. But League attendees also witnessed a number of impressive developments to help orchestras become more inclusive and to engage with their complex communities:

— Audiences were on their feet as singer Takesha Meshé Kizart joined Ma and musicians from the Chicago Civic Orchestra to perform a song with stunning lyrics written by Trevon Bosley in memory of his brother, which can be heard here. The project is one of a highly adaptable “Purpose Over Pain” songwriting project sponsored jointly by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Negaunee Institute and Faith Community of St. Sabina Catholic Church to serve the city of Chicago by helping people deal with the murder of a family member. There are 25 of these songs (with lyrics) available online; Bosley’s video is available here.

— Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, noted that her orchestra programmed nine works by female composers of out of a total of 20 works played during the 2017-18 season, which she said put this small organization second in the U.S. behind the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 10 works out of more than 200. Sinfonietta’s venturesome programming and aggressive policy of multi-cultural inclusion brought an Avery Fisher Career Grant of $650,000 to the organization in 2016. But she stressed that Sinfonietta’s out-of-the-box programming comes with risk. Will anyone show up? “Sometimes it feels like my team — administration, musicians, myself — are all lined up at the edge of a cliff singing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Chen said. “But you have to master your fear. Then you get a comment like this after one of our concerts: ‘No one should be allowed to have so much fun on a Monday night.’ ”

— Afa S. Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization, speaking to a packed room at a symposium on inclusiveness, noted several conspicuously successful initiatives on behalf of young African-American and Latino musicians. The Sphinx Virtuosi is a self-conducted ensemble of 18 African-American and Latino string players that now tours the U.S. annually, and the Harlem Quartet, founded in 2006 and made up of laureates of the annual Sphinx Competition for African-American and Latino string players, has played all over the world. Sphinx is also helping to launch solo careers and to prepare musicians of color for the audition circuit.

CSO Trumpet John Hagstrom leads a seminar on the history of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass section in Buntrock Hall, Symphony Center as part the League of American Orchestras conference in Chicago. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

— A vast composer database at composerdiversity.com is now sortable for 3,182 works by female composers, 2,982 by composers who are still living, in addition to sorting for many other demographics and musical styles. As conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya — music director of Chicago Opera Theater — pointed out, it’s just a first step, because nobody has time to look at 3,182 scores. But the drill-down feature is awesome if you’re a presenter wondering about something specific, like whether there are Chicago-based female black composers who have written choral pieces. (The answer is yes!)

— A further, encouraging reality check was to be enjoyed over at Buntrock Auditorium at Symphony Center, where CSO trumpet John Hagstrom had set up a large display of historic instruments played by members of the orchestra going back to its founding days. He also shared colorful stories about rehearsals being conducted in German, and a tyrannical culture of conductors of this then all-male orchestra. Especially in the early years, the maestros could demote and fire on a whim. It’s a different world today. The CSO brass section includes a female player, French horn Susanna Gaunt, and there are many female brass players on the audition circuit with their eyes on similar prizes.

Nancy Malitz is a local freelance writer.