As ICSOM Chairperson Meredith Snow stated in her April 2022 Senza Sordino report, “Building Inclusion into our New Normal,” American symphony orchestra musicians have long been champions of our nation’s highest aspirations for supporting peace, equal rights, and efforts against discrimination.
The historical racism in the orchestra world at the formation of our industry in the early 20th Century has been parallel to that in other professional arenas, but we union musicians have done much in the past several decades to attempt to change that. The question is, have we done enough? Can we better reflect and serve all the members of our community? And what is the appropriate path forward in our increasingly diverse world?
To those who would say that we should only play music and not engage in anything political I suggest that it is impossible to isolate ourselves from the world outside the concert hall, and that view is in direct opposition to our stated mission and values as union members and cultural ambassadors who strive to effect positive change in our communities.
It is in this context that many orchestras have been taking a hard look at the lack of representation of Musicians of Color in our ranks. Nationally our orchestras have only 2.5% Black musicians, which some in our field see as the expected outcome of cultural preferences, lack of access to classical music education programs, or socio-economic reasons beyond our control. However, more orchestras are willing to have a nuanced conversation and delve deeper into possible areas of bias or outright discrimination.
In the San Francisco Symphony we began our journey with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work in the fall of 2018, when our CEO sent an invitation to all musicians to join a cross-constituent DEI Workgroup with members of the Board, Staff and Orchestra. SFS had just engaged facilitator Jessica Schmidt, joined the Sphinx National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS), and launched an Inclusive Programming Initiative. Initially, the goal of the DEI Workgroup, supported by our top Administration and Board President, was to align around common language, vision, and focus, and then to identify more long-term goals.
We had seven musicians—including a Players Committee representative—volunteer to participate in the monthly meetings, preparatory readings, and small group discussions. From the outset Jessica Schmidt warned that some of us might be frustrated with the slow pace of our work and impatient with the necessary internal explorations before any outward-facing change would be made. I was definitely in this group, coming in with the naïve belief that the San Francisco Symphony is welcoming to everyone and would have more People of Color in our audiences and on stage if only everyone understood this and knew all the great things we have to offer! I soon discovered how clueless I was about how we presented to the world outside our bubble.
We began examining our personal histories: discovering privilege we may not have realized we grew up with, sharing ways we had faced discrimination or micro-aggressions in our own lives, looking at power dynamics throughout our organization. Questions arose as we noticed how our past experience may perpetuate the continuity and concentration of white privilege among our ranks—how are Board members recruited? Do we actively look for People of Color for openings on staff? Is there intentionality in presenting guest artists, composers, and conductors of different ethnicities representing a broader spectrum of our society? Is there potential for bias in our audition process?
With the pandemic shutdown, we moved our meetings to Zoom in sweatpants and used the opportunity to form smaller committees to come up with ideas for community outreach projects, mentoring/education/fellowship programs, learning modules, audition process changes, and to create resources of curated chamber music lists of underrepresented composers (see the list of Black and Latinx composers and the list of Women composers). Though lacking the ability to fully implement these worthy goals, our discussions were useful in thinking outside our individual boxes and creating the groundwork for future projects.
When considering DEI in the orchestra context, there is a misconception among some musicians that the initiatives want to prioritize race and gender over artistic excellence, thereby perpetuating another form of racism. But racial awareness is not the same as racial discrimination. Rather, what is meant is an intentional effort to look beyond our usual pool of musicians and consider who else is out there who may have been overlooked. What compositions deserve a chance to be heard in our concerts that have never been considered before? As one example, Florence Price’s dynamic Symphony in E minor, premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, is now finding its rightful place in the American symphonic canon.
Since our DEI Workgroup began its initial discussions, our new Music Director and Artistic Planning team have implemented numerous changes. Esa-Pekka Salonen innovated a new model of eight Collaborative Partners, some from outside the traditional classical world: jazz artist Esperanza Spalding, soprano Julia Bullock, Artificial Intelligence specialist Carol Reilly, Finnish folk violinist Pekka Kuusisto, flutist Claire Chase, and composers Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and Nicholas Brittel. During the lockdown we engineered digital collaborations with musicians from other genres including jazz, hip hop, Indian, Mexican, African, and Chinese music. Our 21-22 season has welcomed debut conductors Karina Canellakis, Nathalie Stutzmann, Ruth Reinhardt, Xian Zhang, Perry So, Akiko Fujimoto, Giancarlo Guerrero, Earl Lee, Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, and Tyshawn Sorey.
The DEI group began regular “Equity Chats” open to the full orchestra as we considered ways to eliminate possible bias in our auditions. We met with leaders in the Sphinx Organization to discuss their audition guidelines, many of which we already implement such as screening all rounds. While we strive to make our process as fair as possible, there is no easy solution to changing the demographic distribution.
As the work progressed, we soon found that not everyone was in alignment with the underlying premises. This became apparent at an annual July 4th concert where our CEO made a statement to the audience before we played the national anthem recognizing that “America has not always been the land of the free for everyone.”
Some in the orchestra felt that given its political implications in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, we should not have played the anthem at all, while others were outraged at what they saw as the CEO disrespecting our national holiday. This incident revealed a schism in the orchestra about how we should move forward.
In June 2022, the SFS hired a new consulting group, Black Women’s Blueprint, to help us define our next steps. They hosted several “listening sessions” to hear from all constituents. I’m encouraged that the Black Women’s Blueprint team has been able to engage more musicians in open, honest, and respectful communication around these complex topics. There is a definite need for more awareness and shared understanding of the language and goals throughout the orchestra, as we co-create our path forward.
Much like the polarized population at large, we may never see eye-to-eye on many of these issues—but as communicators and collaborative artists we have a responsibility to look with empathy toward different points of view and bring the heart connections that we share through music into our interactions with each other.