The League of American Orchestras, representing a mostly white industry, opens a three-day national conference Thursday in a majority African-American city at a time of increased racial tensions and heightened awareness of economic and educational disadvantages. The principal topic of the 2016 gathering in Baltimore: diversity.
About 1,000 participants — orchestra administrators, musicians, board members — will fill meeting spaces in an Inner Harbor hotel to explore various aspects of a theme billed as the "The Richness of Difference."
"This is the first time we've made diversity an overarching theme, the focal point of our conference," said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the league, a service organization with about 700 member orchestras. "We thought it was the right time. We want to focus our members' attention on the importance of the issue so they go back to their communities and have the kinds of conversations they need to have about diversity."
Matters to be addressed at the conference, hosted by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, include the slow pace of changing demographics inside orchestras — 1.8 percent of musicians in league orchestras are African-American, about the same percentage as a decade ago; 85.8 percent are white — and ways to improve that. Efforts to diversify boards of directors and audiences will also get fresh attention.
"The league is doing everything it can to bring this issue more to front-of-mind consciousness that can't be ignored," said Paul Meecham, the BSO's outgoing president and CEO. "It's particularly topical at this time, given what happened in Baltimore last year and the efforts of the community since then to address deep-seated injustices."
The conference will include contributions from people outside the orchestra environment. The keynote speaker is Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a scholar of African-American history.
"And for the closing session, DeRay Mckesson is coming to speak," Rosen said, "not as an orchestra person, but someone deeply involved in issues of law enforcement, crime in American cities, and the Black Lives Matter movement."
That such issues will get attention at a gathering of symphony orchestra professionals underlines the commitment behind the league conference.
"I am excited about participating," Mckesson said. "It's important that we talk about justice and diversity in all communities, and an orchestra is part of the larger community. I hope the conference will be action-oriented, striving for a world more just and equitable. I know from my talks with BSO staff that they are inviting this conversation; they're ready for it."
BSO music director Marin Alsop has encouraged discussion of diversification since she began her tenure in 2007. She provided the seed money for OrchKids, a nationally recognized music education project offered under the auspices of the BSO in a growing number of city schools in Baltimore.
"Almost every institution is grappling with trying to be more diverse, accessible and inclusive," Alsop said. "The conference is a wonderful opportunity to have this discussion in a city that is predominantly African-American, a city that has started to talk more about these issues. It's good that the conference is focusing not just on racial diversity, but gender as well, and Latino representation."
Last year, Alsop expressed strong feelings about the unrest, sparking controversy when she told the BBC, "It's heartbreaking that we haven't dealt with these issues, that it requires violence, which I think it does require, to be honest, to change this equation." In a subsequent interview with The Sun, she tempered her remarks, saying, "I'm not condoning violence. ... When people don't respond to each other, yet the conditions continue — how do you finally get someone's attention?"
The BSO reached out to the community a few days after the riots, offering a conciliatory concert outside Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and a subsequent "peace concert" at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, near one of the epicenters of the unrest. Alsop, who conducted those concerts, also led the orchestra in a program at Bethel AME last month. BSO players created their own series of chamber music concerts in the Penn-North neighborhood.
As for inside the BSO, improving racial diversification is "probably the hardest nut to crack," Meecham said. The orchestra has one African-American member, a cellist.
BSO percussionist Brian Prechtl, who will receive one of the newly established Ford Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service at the conference for his work with OrchKids, echoed that sentiment.
"There have been a lot of other fields that were exclusively white for a long time, like golf and tennis," Prechtl said. "It's going to take 10, 20 years, maybe more before we see the rainbow experience we'd like to see immediately."
League conference members, who will travel to an OrchKids school to see the program in action, will also hear about fresh ideas being tried around the country to yield greater diversity in orchestras.
For example, musicians at the New World Symphony, the high profile, postgraduate training orchestra in Miami, augment their own skill-honing activities with mentoring in local schools.
"We describe the concept as 'creating pathways,'" said symphony President and CEO Howard Herring. "It's about identifying talent, mentoring and moving that talent on to the next level."
One mentored African-American student is about to enter the New England Conservatory, he said.
The Houston Symphony Orchestra just wrapped up the first season of a project that sends what are called "Community-Embedded Musicians" into city neighborhoods. The embeds, of diverse ethnic backgrounds, spend 80 percent of their time doing educational work and community outreach and 20 percent performing in the orchestra.
"We want to get as many musicians as possible from under-represented communities to apply for the program, musicians who have the chops to be onstage performing with the Houston Symphony, but also are passionate about working with children and adults in a variety of settings," said Houston Symphony Executive Director/CEO Mark Hanson.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra runs an African American Fellowship Program, which has provided experience to promising musicians for 30 years. The current roster of symphony players includes former fellowship participants who successfully passed traditional, behind-a-screen auditions.
"If we could exponentially increase the number of fellowship programs in orchestras around the country, that would exponentially increase the diversity [of full-time musicians] in orchestras," said Anne Parsons, the symphony's president and CEO.
Improving diversity on boards of directors and staffs is another focus on the conference, along with attracting audiences that are more diverse.
"What you put on the stage matters," Parsons said.
The Detroit Symphony offers a jazz series, for example, and an annual concert highlighting the work of African-American composers and performers.
Taking orchestras out of the concert hall and into the community is another approach that has worked for some orchestras.
"We do a neighborhood series with open seating and low ticket prices in churches, schools and synagogues," Parsons said, "That way you can make sure you diversify your public, and not just by race."
As the league conference faces the diversity question, Parsons offers advice based on the Detroit Symphony's experience.
"You must have a value system in writing," she says. "It cannot be accidental. You have to aspire. ... I hope and expect people will go away from the conference thinking about their lives in a different way, not to change the world, but begin to change behavior and ideas."