Diversifying the classical music world

When orchestras reach out to new, non-traditional audiences, people will listen.

The League of American Orchestras is meeting in Baltimore this week to talk about how to foster greater diversity in its industry. This is the first time the group, which represents the major symphony orchestras in the U.S., has devoted its yearly conference to the subject, and it comes not a moment to soon.

That's because, to a great extent, the fate of America's symphony orchestras is intimately tied up with the question of who listens to the classics, as orchestras rely on public funding from state and local government to sustain their mission. Along with that public support has come pressure to make orchestras and their programs more reflective of the communities they serve, so diversity in classical music has become a political — as well as an artistic — imperative.

Orchestras, of course, aren't alone in striving to broaden their appeal. Today diversity is an issue all the arts are grappling with. In Baltimore, for example, most of the major cultural institutions, including the symphony, the museums and the theaters, have instituted new programs aimed at attracting minority audiences, and generally they have met with success when their efforts are presented in an inviting way that makes people feel comfortable trying something new.

Groups like Center Stage and the Chesapeake Shakespeare Theater, for example, have launched initiatives aimed at attracting African-American theatergoers, and it shows in the vibrant mix of people — young and old, black and white — who show up for their performances.

But one only has to visit any recent Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert or local chamber music recital to realize that the classical music world still has a long way to go by comparison. Classical music audiences here and elsewhere are still overwhelmingly white and they are aging as well. For ensembles like the BSO, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Lyric Opera Baltimore, attracting new audiences that look more like the communities in which they are located is absolutely essential if they are to stay in business as vital cultural institutions.

Jesse Rosen, who heads the orchestra league, says the goal of the conference this year is to create a dialogue in which people can introduce new perspectives on the issue and offer strategies to address it. He admits there's no one-size-fits-all solution, but he insists that nothing much will change without a commitment on the orchestras' part to make it happen on every level, from the membership on symphony boards of directors to the conductors and players who perform on stage to the programming and outreach strategies orchestras create. It won't happen overnight, but it's past time for the country's orchestras to strengthen those efforts.

Take the problem of diversifying audiences, for example. Most of the people one sees in symphony halls aren't professional musicians, but they learned to love classical music early on because their parents and teachers took them to concerts. Building new classical musical audiences is a generational project; the more parents you can get to bring their kids to a concert of "Peter and the Wolf" when they're young the more listeners will feel comfortable visiting the Meyerhof to hear Mozart or Shostakovich later in life. Cultivating a love for the classics needs to start early.

In the past, the public schools helped encourage young people's exposure to music of all kinds, including symphonic works. Middle and high schools had bands or orchestras in which musically inclined students could participate, and those youngsters often went on to become lifelong music lovers and orchestra patrons.

But in recent decades schools have become less able to offer such programs — art and music are always the first things cut in a budget crunch. That's why initiatives like the BSO's OrchKids program, which offers free instruments and music lessons to about 1,000 city youngsters every year, are so important for the symphony's future. The BSO is literally building its own diverse future audience from the ground up.

Orchestras also need to put more thought into programs that will appeal to a broader audience. The Detroit Symphony, for example, offers an excellent jazz series as well as classical programs, on the theory that if you can get people through the door to hear Esmeralda Spaulding or Trombone Shorty they might be more willing to take a chance on a recital of orchestral songs by Audra McDonald or Janice Chandler. And last year the Cincinnati Orchestra commissioned African-American composers to create orchestral works celebrating the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which freed the slaves after the Civil War. The orchestra is partnering with nonmusical organizations to host evenings when local music lovers can meet the composers and hear them talk about their work.

In Baltimore, where two-thirds of the residents are African American, all the city's cultural institutions should reflect the diversity of the community in which they live. BSO president Paul Meecham says what's at stake isn't just a matter of what music the orchestra plays or which performers it presents but rather an urgent embrace the community and its needs.

That impulse was evident during the free outdoor concert Music Director Marin Alsop conducted last year outside Meyerhof Hall in the immediate aftermath of the violence that erupted following the death of Freddie Gray. The calming effect of that impromptu musical event was a poignant vindication of the idea that when orchestras make a point of reaching out to new, non-traditional audiences, people will listen.

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