by DAMIEN GETER
The Oregon Symphony opens its 2018-19 Classical Series Sunday with a musically diverse program and a glittering star — Renee Fleming. As varied as the concert selections are, though, they all have one thing in common: they were all written by white people. In fact, in the orchestra’s entire main classical subscription series this season, only one composer of color, out of about 46, is programmed – Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto.
This is not a phenomenon happening only with the Oregon Symphony, or only among Oregon orchestras. African American composer Evan Williams noted that he considers himself among the lucky after landing a commission with the Cincinnati Symphony. That piece, however, was not recorded — and was performed only on a children’s concert.
“There isn’t a lot of music by black composers being played, and often when it is, it’s in February [for black history month].” Williams says, “It feels like an afterthought.” Unfortunately, no one in the League of American Orchestras, the member organization that supports the nation’s symphony orchestras, or the Oregon Symphony keeps track of the statistics surrounding programming composers of color.
Granted, other special concerts feature a variety of performers and composers of color targeted toward a very specific audience, like gospel Christmas. “The classical subscription series makes up less than half of our total programming,” says Natasha Kautsky, vice president of marketing and strategic engagement for the Oregon Symphony. “Through a wide variety of musical offerings, we target virtually every demographic across economic and social groups. While other larger orchestras may have a majority of classical concerts, our mix is much more diverse.”
But those “special” concerts are not led by the music director, meaning the regular patrons of the Oregon Symphony are not exposed to the music of this under-represented group of composers in its regular, sixteen week classical subscription series — the largest source of revenue for the orchestra, which plays for a mainly white demographic. Orchestra decision makers, like any business operators, work to keep their customers, or in this case, audience happy. And that audience has been trained by many decades of demographically narrow programming to expect a certain product. Continuously programming mostly music from the popular Viennese composers and other 18th and 19th century Europeans has resulted in an audience that wants more Beethoven, and Brahms. That also means, in Portland, Tchaikovsky is sure to make an appearance each season. But not composers of color.
Regardless of the composer’s race, there is apprehension in presenting music that is unfamiliar– fear that the audience won’t like it, resulting in a drop in the number of concert attendees and in revenue. “With all major institutions, it’s a balancing act of what the standard audience expectations are, and how far we can move to evolve them,” says Charles Calmer, vice president for artistic planning for the Oregon Symphony. However, several new works are programmed this year – all by white composers. So if newness alone isn’t the barrier to programming music by composers of color, what is?
If programming unfamiliar music proves to be an obstacle in itself, the opportunities for composers of color, specifically, to have their music performed adds to that complexity. Being a composer of color who is attempting to penetrate the realm of classical music aligns with the everyday disadvantages of people of color in this country. Andre Myers, a composer who is based in Redlands, CA, describes the inequities of getting a start in the business. “It’s a question of accessing a system which isn’t really designed to benefit not only composers of color but also to benefit new music at large.”
The European base upon which classical music was founded means that composers of color have to work even harder to get a foot in the door, or to be seen and heard at all. For Portland composer Kenji Bunch, it was about making early connections as a student. “It was the kind of thing that starts to snowball,” he says, “and the older you get, you realize how much luck does play into it.” But even Bunch, whose music the Oregon Symphony last year commissioned, performed, and recorded, notes that there are times when he is pigeon-holed. “Sometimes not everything I write has to do with me being an Asian American. It’s not always about me reconciling some part of my existence.”
Any composer wants her or his music performed regardless of whether its subject matter fills a niche on a concert, or checks a box like “diversity” for that reason alone. Tokenism becomes a part of the scheme which gives the appearance that an orchestra is being inclusive without really addressing the causes of exclusion.
But what’s an artistic director to do? How can she diversify programming to reflect the country’s demographic diversity, but not engage in mere box-checking tokenism? The answer is to program music for music’s sake. Avoid the one-off “culture concert” that only features a composer of color whose ethnicity fits a specific theme, and who would not otherwise be programmed on the orchestra’s regular season.
Classical music is contained in a small world where most of the major hits of the orchestral literature were composed by all white, male composers. Imagine what audiences might be exposed to if the canon were opened to include a wider range of composers from varying backgrounds — not only from today’s composers of color but also those who lived in a time and wrote in the style of music which seems to be the Oregon Symphony’s biggest draw.
Actually, we don’t have to imagine it — because it’s already starting to happen, though not in Oregon. “The lights are on,” says Jesse Rosen, President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. “People are aware of this issue, and there is a growing consciousness around it.”
But only a handful of orchestras across the United States are walking the walk.
• The Detroit Symphony has a Classical Roots African American Composer in Residence which is geared toward promoting and performing the works of black composers. (The 2018 winner is Evan Williams.)
• The American Composers Orchestra, whose tagline is “Innovating right before your ears,” premieres the works of composers from all walks of life.
• The Philadelphia Orchestra’s current composer in residence is Hannibal Lokumbe, whose oratorio African Portraits has been performed over fifty times with major orchestras including the Chicago Symphony.
• The series “Fifty commissions: Advancing our art,” at one of America’s most forward-looking orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, includes commissions from some of the most noteworthy composers of color today including, but not limited to: MacArthur “genius” grant recipient Tyshawn Sorey, Pulitzer Prize winner Du Yun, Kamasi Washington, and Unsuk Chin.
And it’s not just the major orchestras with large budgets who are doing this work. Perhaps the most notable orchestra that programs the works of composers of color is the Chicago Sinfonietta. Its entire season is devoted to equity and inclusion, and includes pieces by composers of color on every concert, including Adolphus Hailstork, Udhai Mazumdar, Reena Esmail, and Arturo Márquez, to name a few.
Expanding the Repertoire, Broadening the Audience
The Oregon Symphony should not stop programming Brahms. However, there are a plethora of composers of color (including those listed above) whose works are just as worthy and deserve to be heard in conjunction with some of the most famous composers. In fact, programming a new or unfamiliar work alongside the “classics” is a way to keep the audience evolving, to use Calmer’s term. We live in an age where access to names and information about non white composers is abundant. According to Rosen, “there are catalogs and resources to help people find out what is available.”
The question of evolution that Mr. Calmer alludes to is the responsibility of the orchestra’s leaders. The evolution can only truly happen when people are given the opportunity to learn and grow via hearing the music of a diverse group of composers who offer a unique perspective, and who perhaps present a new voice to the concert goer’s sound palate.
That’s half the solution. The other part of the equation targets people who are not showing up because of the banality of programming. With the success of new music organizations like Third Angle (which was recently awarded a grant from The Oregon Community Foundation to commission an opera, Sanctuaries, by Portland jazz pianist, educator and composer Darrell Grant) and Fear No Music, which also performs new music from a diverse crop of composers, there is a community in Portland who would be excited about a shake up in the Oregon Symphony’s classical series. Other classical organizations like Resonance Ensemble (whose October 21 concert is devoted to composers of color) and Chamber Music Northwest have also maintained and broadened their audiences by welcoming composers of color. (Read Matthew Andrews’s story about CMNW’s Imani Winds residency.)
“We are always looking for ways to be diverse and innovative,” Calmer says about the Oregon Symphony, whose stated mission is: “Adventurous programming. Inspiring collaborations. Bridging art forms. Connecting lives. Sparking conversation. Every day, and with each exhilarating performance, the Oregon Symphony is moving music forward.”
There are many stories to tell, however, and if the orchestra programs almost entirely white, male composers on its most popular concert series, it moves forward in only a single direction. It would help if those making the decisions could offer multiple perspectives to programming through diversifying the board and the administration, not only in terms of ethnicity, but also in thought – those willing to challenge the status quo and to step into the 21st century. According to Kautsky, the symphony launched a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) task force last year which included discussions around programming.
The search for a new music director offers the opportunity to find someone who is committed to presenting the works of composers of color. “The music director search committee discusses DE&I regularly in its meetings, specifically with an eye to incorporating a diverse candidate pool,” Kautsky says. “The search committee is also undergoing implicit bias training. Conversations with potential music director candidates will include discussions on diverse composer and repertoire selection.”
So who are this generation’s musical titans? It is essential for the Oregon Symphony to expand the repertoire of the classical series, including representation from composers of color, in order to contribute to the canon music from folks whose names in the future will be synonymous with the likes of Schubert and Schumann. “Our vision about music has to expand in order [for it] to thrive,” Myers says.
In fact, the next time symphony president Scott Showalter looks out at the audience of a classical series concert and says, “This is your Oregon Symphony,” he should reflect on how this particular concert aligns with the symphony’s mission and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. He should wonder how the audience might look different on a more consistent basis, and with every concert including the classical series, with the inclusion of a variety of voices and perspectives on its programs. Maestro Kalmar would surely find Florence Price’s music to be a worthy counterpart to Debussy or Ravel, for example. That would be a fine concert.
Readers, please share your constructive ideas about diversity in orchestra programming in the comments section below.
Damien Geter is an opera singer, composer, and educator based in Portland.