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Oregon Symphony’s diversity deficit



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.

Composer Evan Williams

“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.

Narrow Expectations

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.”

Carlos Kalmar led the Oregon Symphony’s season-ending concerts.

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?


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Composer Andre Myers

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.”

Portland composer Kenji Bunch. Photo: Meg Nanna for Artslandia.

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.

Available Action

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.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

• 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.

Composer Unsuk Chin with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra

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.


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Portland pianist and composer Darrell Grant.

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.”

American composer Florence Price. Photo: The New York Times courtesy of University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections.

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.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Damien Geter is an opera singer, composer, and educator based in Portland.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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18 Responses

  1. One way to start diversifying the work of the Oregon Symphony would be to seriously consider hiring female guest conductors. There seems to be a serious lack in this regard.

    It would also be nice if the Symphony would be open to hiring a female music director. Is that an option?

    1. Agreed. Please reach out to the administration, board members and fellow patrons to let them know this is important to you. Marin Alsop and Mei-Ann Chen both have Oregon roots… it would be great to have them back.

  2. Not an overarching comment, just a very specific side note: it is near impossible to perform a Florence Price symphony right now due to a transfer of publishing rights that is in progress. Here’s hoping it gets sorted out soon.

  3. Thank you for exposing to lay readers these dilemmas within the classical music industry. Those who care about them, however, are relatively few compared to the broader American public. In fact, I believe the underlying issue might be described as “Classical music is apparently not so ‘universal.'” Unless and until we can repeatedly and ubiquitously prove that anyone can enter this isolated sound-world, without giving up other music they love, orchestras will remain hard-pressed to maintain enough earned income.

    As an emerging composer and a former member of a major orchestra, I recommend the steps I’ve taken. Place classical chamber music casually in many new settings. “Edu-tain” by assuming audiences don’t know anything about this kind of instrumental music-making but are curious. Commission new sonata-form music that mirrors the “timeless expression” of Mozart, Schubert and Brahms. Classical music suffers from an embarrassment of riches. There’s more fantastic music than we can possibly enjoy in a lifetime; which is why we skim the cream. Not every new work is actually worth playing and 1-6 musicians call themselves composers, because it’s so easy to print music now, and composition standards were dismissed over the 20th-Century. Composers today, therefore, need to create and book their own ensembles because the market is so saturated.

    I know there is a Classical Revolution chapter in Portland, somewhat allied with the Oregon Symphony. With freelance musicians and funding, and at low cost, they could pop-up weekly everywhere. I’ve run a chapter myself and can say the audiences are small but enthusiastic to have this alternative presented like jazz or rock. Furthermore, my own compositions blend many familiar elements of rock, Latin, soul, hip-hop, gospel, folk and bluegrass… because that’s exactly what Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms did too. Imitation is not a death, but a vehicle of meaningful expression.
    We must prove and testify everywhere we can how music in the public domain belongs to everyone, because everyone deserves beauty. Call that “Americanizing” classical music and drop all “nativist” claims. Oh, by the way, I’m black too.

    1. Howdy Rick! Agreed that classical music may not be as universal as all of us fan girls/boys think it is. One challenging aspect is that Portland (and Oregon) isn’t nearly as ethnically diverse as Detroit. This is reflected in the concert hall, office and board room. Thus those involved must remember to actively seek out the under-represented. I absolutely believe Portland has the appetite for it… I’ve witnessed the OSO audience jump out of their seats to applaud both Mahler and Prangcharoen. Even the gray hairs fondly remember the glory days under Jimmy DePriest’s baton.

      Thanks Damien Geter for the article & reminder.

    2. ” . . . and composition standards were dismissed over the 20th-Century.”

      Wow, that’s a pretty broad & sweeping statement with zero substantiation. Care to clarify your observation with some detailed specifics?

      1. Naturally, I didn’t take the time to lay out examples: my post was long enough. But there are so many to be found. Take the music of Stravinsky, Penderecki, or more recently John Adams, in terms of abandoning conventional sonata forms. Take the music of Schoenberg, Boulez, Britten or pointillism in general, in terms of abandoning conventional harmony. Take the music of John Cage, Stockhausen, Ligeti or Carter, in terms of abandoning (or dismissing) previous musical conventions. Yes, different standards arose, but little of it seems to carry the emotional impact (catharsis) most of us classical music lovers derive from the standards developed from Josquin to the late Romantics. Naturally, there were neo-classicist composers well into the 20th-Century (Shostakovich, Nielsen, Copland, Bernstein). And even with new music there were and are composers who DO maintain high standards for orchestration, development and “complexity.”

        But my larger point is that there are many times more composers who’s works seem to lack substantial reason to exist. How many short, new works have I heard or had to perform that seem incomplete; an interesting build that doesn’t lead to anything more (no B section)? How many longer works with seemingly quite random pitches or harmonic basis? How many works that seem more theoretical, or motorific rather than a balance of head and heart? How many works that try to “reinvent” music by leaps and bounds rather than grab the next rung on the ladder? The 20th-Century SEEMED to both evolve music beyond 19th-Century conventions and reinforce why those conventions are the more psychologically salient. I recognize that we probably need BOTH, but I’d rather build on the latter, esp. if it will help us introduce the “languages” of the common practice period to new audiences. Where is the “school” for neo-classical composition?

          1. … for the record, there are many people (including many Black people like myself) who love Stockhausen just as much as Florence Price, Chopin, and Schumann, and I have a plane and train ticket to Lucerne from earlier this month to prove it.

            Embrace it all. There is beauty in it all! Composers like Ed Bland, George Lewis, Renee Baker, Jessie Cox, Jessica Mays, Elizabeth Baker – they deserve to be programmed just as much as any composer who abides by a more out-dated “classical” standard. And I am glad to say that in my life I have performed Babbitt, H. Leslie Adams, Saariaho, L. Viola Kinney, John Cage (I moved an audience of 70+ year olds by playing “In a Landscape” after some Chopin etudes … how is that for lack of catharsis), William Grant Still, and my choices and curation aided in the musical experience. There are certain works that need context; you cannot program Stuctures 1A with Scaramouche, and too often you see orchestras making such poor decisions (see BSO). I can go on, but just wanted to say that there are DIFFERENT standards, and that the catharsis that is lacking for some is existent for others.

      1. Hi Anthony! As it stands, nearly half of my programs (unless requested) feature black composers, mainly, but not exclusively, my own music. Then I can talk about why I compose, and why I compose using techniques of the common practice period (neo-classical), sometimes blended with “the folk music of OUR time.” I much prefer to mix programs with some of the recognizable (hit) standard works to form a bridge so newcomers to classical might listen into and perhaps crave Schubert, Schumann and Dvorak. This is my main artistic goal. I have an all-black program too, but frankly I prefer to show that we can all coexist and borrow culture from each other. Making sense of the BULK of classical music for lay audiences is today a NEW art form in itself.

        I’m very happy that you enjoy and travel frequently to hear all kinds of classical music. You seem to be an omnivorous insider. There’s no doubt that many insiders genuinely LOVE “different standards.” I’m sure you recognize that most Americans– whites, Asians and POC– remain outsiders to ALL of it. And that’s who I am trying to serve in my comments and indeed my life’s work. Holding up a bridge in the MIDDLE means people will shoot at me from BOTH sides. I’ll leave it to others to work from the “different standards” position. We CAN have it all!
        Thank you.

  4. Rob Deemer has been putting together an amazing database of underrepresented composers. People should really be spamming the Oregon Symphony’s admins with this link.

    Of course, as the article rightly mentioned, there are TONS of *local* composers who would do an amazing job as well. I think it would be great for ORS to do more local outreach. There’s lots of talent in this city.

  5. Huge thanks to Damien for this thought-provoking and nuanced article. It’s so important for artistic leadership (not just with the Oregon Symphony but across other musical and artistic organizations) to seek out composers, conductors, and soloists of color, as well as female composers, conductors, and soloists. This is partly the nature of the canon — it’s easy for people to program music that everyone has heard of, and that artistic leadership has in their “back pocket” — but there is amazing music to be found by composers of color and female composers who may not yet be on the collective public radar. (And new music in general!) And, as Damien asks, how will composers who are currently underrepresented become part of the canon unless organizations program their works?

    In addition, how will we challenge the notion that an artistic director of a symphony is a white European male of a certain age (and leadership style) unless we start hiring conductors — even as guests — from varied backgrounds who demonstrate different types of leadership? Look at the success that the L.A. Philharmonic has had with Gustavo Dudamel at the helm, or the Baltimore Symphony with Marin Alsop. I’d sure love to see our Oregon Symphony have a diverse pool of finalist candidates for Artistic Director. Dan mentions Mei-Ann Chen — see also Laura Jackson (Reno Phil) and Joana Carneiro (Berkeley Symphony and the national orchestra of Portugal), among many other brilliant female orchestral conductors.

    I really appreciated this article, along with its suggestions of tangible steps orchestras can take and that some are taking already to diversify their programming.

    1. I’d like to add Susanna Malkki to the candidate pool for the next OSO artistic director. She is absolutely first-rate & used to direct the Ensemble Intercontemporain which means she has impeccable ears, technique & experience with modern music.

      I’ve heard rumors that she might succeed MTT in Frisco. If so, maybe we can get her to at least jog up ‘n’ down the coast from time-to-time if she sets up shop down south?

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