Esther Mellon has played cello for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 1977. In many ways, the job has been a dream come true: It has allowed her to make a profession of her passion.
But it has also been, in her words, “lonely.” Mellon is the only Black instrumentalist in the orchestra’s roster of 75 players.
“It’s difficult being the only one,” she said. “Sometimes you wish there was someone to bounce things off of. Sometimes you think, ‘Was that really a racist thing that happened? Was that what I think it was?’ ”
Mellon wasn’t always such a singularity. In an interview, she recalled her early days freelancing in New York City, when she was “around a lot of Black musicians. That was really fun.”
And she has seen a few other Black musicians come and go at the BSO. But not many. According to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun, in its 104-year history, the BSO has hired just six Black instrumentalists for full-time positions, only four of whom have been awarded tenure. The BSO was unable to confirm these numbers, citing difficulty accessing personnel records before 2012.
Orchestras are some of the least racially diverse workplaces in the country. A 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras found that in orchestras with larger operating budgets, just 1.2% of all players are Black, while 1.6% are Latino.
Held against national demographics — where it’s estimated that African Americans make up 13.4% of the population and Latinos 18.5% — it’s clear that these ethnicities are vastly underrepresented. By these standards, white and Asian musicians alike are overrepresented: 86.9% of major orchestral players are white and 9.3% are of Asian descent, compared with the national racial demographics of 60% and 6.1%, respectively.
The diversity of the freelance music world that Mellon experienced in New York has never translated to orchestras — and certainly not to the BSO, which ranks among the roughly 2 percent of orchestras in the country with annual operating budgets exceeding $20 million.
The BSO has at times undertaken measures to promote diversity. This fall, it named Jonathan Rush as an assistant conductor and rapper Anthony Parker, who goes by the stage name Wordsmith, as an artistic partner. Both men are Black.
Neither position is tenured — conductors’ appointments never are — but appointing a Black conductor is, in Rush’s words, “a milestone.”
While the appointments have been welcomed, critics say the symphony’s efforts still have amounted to too little — and there are more remedies to pursue, particularly for an organization based in a majority-Black city.
‘Musicians pick musicians’
Over the summer, The Sun spoke with BSO president and CEO Peter Kjome, vice president and chief operating officerTonya McBride Robles, percussionist and chair of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians Players’ Committee Brian Prechtl, and cellist Mellon about the orchestra’s plans to “recommit to the work of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Kjome acknowledged in emailed comments that there is “significant work to be done.” In an interview, Robles said: “The BSO has not done an effective job in DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion]. Because it’s like a large ship, turning it around … is challenging. That said, I do sense a new willingness among staff, musicians and the board to really engage on this issue.”
Recently, there have been calls to intentionally increase racial diversity in orchestras by ending blind auditions, in which candidates for open positions perform behind a screen. This practice was instituted by many orchestras throughout the 1970s and ’80s to eliminate gender discrimination.
According to the League of American Orchestras, the representation of female orchestral musicians increased from 38.2% in 1978 to 47.4% by 2014. But racial diversity has stagnated, and the demographics in positions of authority, like music directors, board members and principal positions, remain overwhelmingly white and male.
Many musicians of color continue to press for blind auditions — because most orchestras don’t actually keep the screen up all the way through the audition process.
The BSO, for example, does not. According to Prechtl, the curtain comes down during the final round, when a handful of musicians are left vying for the open seat. At the BSO and elsewhere, a committee of musicians tenured with the orchestra, along with the music director, votes to make the final hire.
Titus Underwood, principal oboist at the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (and the NSO’s only Black instrumentalist in a roster of 75), believes fully blind auditions are more effective than “mostly” blind ones in eliminating racial bias. It took him roughly 10 years to land secure employment in an orchestra: “I made 15 finals in that time. I know other Black colleagues that have made more finals than I have.”
As to the number of his finals where the screen stayed up the whole time? “None except for Nashville,” he said. “That’s the only audition I’ve played where I was selected at the end.”
Such accounts undermine another common explanation for the lack of racial diversity in orchestras. That’s the “pipeline” argument, which claims there aren’t more Black and brown musicians in high-profile positions because these artists don’t have the same access to rigorous classical music education as white and Asian students.
Several leading figures in classical music have contested this thinking. Afa Dworkin is the president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization; based in Detroit, Sphinx has trained and advocated for classical musicians of color from all over the country since 1997. Dworkin asserted that players of color “actually exist in large numbers, qualified and ready to go.”
Whether these musicians come to orchestra auditions is another question.
Dworkin said players of color “may not wish to come to your orchestra and, first of all, spend ungodly amounts of resources to travel and take 10 or 20 auditions in order to land something; but also, in the very best case, join a collective of musicians where they are one, or one of two … musicians of color, and feel disconnected, not welcome and ostracized.”
To address this, Sphinx created the Sphinx Orchestral Partners Auditions, an annual event in which representatives from major orchestras travel to Detroit to hear prescreened auditions by Black and Latino musicians. The hope is to put the players and the orchestras on each other’s radars. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra recently rejoined the partnership, after dropping out for the 2020 event due to financial challenges.
Even if a player of color does win a job, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll be welcomed.
‘My life is very different’
Most of the other musicians at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra “haven’t experienced some of the things I’ve experienced, being Black,” Mellon said. “When I hear about George Floyd, it has a different meaning for me because I actually had a [relative] that was a victim of police brutality. My life is very different from theirs, even though I grew up in a very middle-class background, had good training, went to good schools and so forth.”
“I think all of the stuff we’re planning to do is great,” she said. “I just want to make sure it doesn’t fizzle out. … In my career, I’ve seen other periods of time where there was a strong interest in improving opportunities for African Americans. And then that sort of went away.”
The BSO’s plans to address racial equity are wide-ranging. Prechtl said the musicians’ union planned to address the “protracted” nature of auditions, which have been put on hold during the pandemic for public health reasons.
Kjome and Robles spoke of plans to program more composers of color; increase board diversity; implement a staff, equity and inclusion work group; and renew partnerships with Sphinx.Even amid the pandemic, the symphony has virtually continued some community engagement efforts, including BSO OrchKids, a music education program that provides instruments, mentorship and more to Baltimore public school students. Prior to the pandemic, the BSO’s “Symphony in the City” series brought markedly diverse programming to venues located around the city. And the BSO has joined the National Alliance for Audition Support, another initiative spearheaded by Sphinx to increase racial diversity in orchestras.
Such plans — at the BSO and at other orchestras — fall short of making an outright commitment to hire more full-time instrumentalists of color. The BSO administrative staff alone doesn’t have the authority to make such commitments, as audition procedures are bargained with the musicians’ union.
As a workaround, orchestral fellowship programs have become a popular way for orchestras to address the lack of racial diversity in their rosters and in classical music writ large.
From 2012 to 2016, the BSO had a fellowship program for three Black and/or Latino string players; the program was discontinued due to financial difficulties. The Sun recently spoke with two of them, violinist Tami Lee Hughes and cellist Ismar Gomes. Both described their experiences as mixed.
“It was definitely a very cold environment,” Gomes recalled, “despite the few people who were really supportive and wonderful. There was some resentment in the orchestra. I was definitely a token figure. There was a lot of fear about whether I was taking a paid musician’s place.” (Prechtl said the fellows were not.)
Hughes said it was clear to her that “some of [the musicians] did not want me to be there. I think they were annoyed by the program.” She recalled times when she was invited to attend meetings addressing diversity in the orchestra, then was never consulted. “If someone had just turned to me and said, ‘Tami, what do you think about this?’ I would have shared my thoughts. But that didn’t happen at all.”
One of the first self-organized orchestral fellowship programs for underrepresented musicians was launched in 1990 by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. According to the League of American Orchestras, two Michigan senators threatened to block $1.3 million in public funding if the orchestra did not immediately hire more players of color.
One Black musician was hired, double bassist Rick Robinson.
Today, the DSO still has one tenured Black musician in its roster of 81 instrumentalists, in addition to two African American Orchestral Fellows.
Since 1990, as many as 23 orchestras have hosted fellows; but the study points out that it is these programs, rather than direct hires, that have “become the orchestras’ principal vehicle for addressing the racial homogeneity of their players.”
Robles said “something that [the BSO] learned from the fellowship programs that we had in the 2010s is that … there needs to be a cohort. There needs to be a program for more than just one individual.”
‘My job … is to inspire and lead’
According to its 2020 work group report, the BSO has received more than $17 million in total government funding over the past five years and more than $10 million from the state alone.
The BSO is the highest-funded arts institution in the state. It plays for a metro region whose population is more than 60% Black or African American, and regularly markets itself as service-minded and community-focused.
In addition to having only one Black instrumentalist in its roster, a review of main stage programming by The Sun for the available BSO Sessions (Oct. 14 — Jan. 27) found that 25% of the pieces programmed were written or arranged by composers of color and 19.1% by women. (An all-Jessie Montgomery program accounted for 8.8% of these pieces.)
Since the summer, the BSO has made progress on some of its promises. It has added two more people of color to the board of directors, an increase from two out of 26 total members. And it added Rush and Parker to the artistic team.
Rush says it’s “a lot of responsibility … to represent the Black community, but then also to inspire younger minority musicians, specifically those who look like me.”
“That’s what I believe my job is now,” he continued. “Yes, it’s to lead music, but more importantly I think it’s to inspire and lead those younger generations. Hopefully we’ll get even more Black conductors in this world.”
Wordsmith, for his part, will both collaborate with the orchestra on artistic projects and serve as an adviser on DEI work, as well as education and inclusion programs.
According to vice president and chief advancement officer Allison Burr-Livingstone, the BSO is in the process of hiring a senior director of human resources and inclusion. Previously, according to Kjome, the BSO’s chief financial officer, Sarah Beckwith, handled human resource functions.
The BSO’s newly announced five-year contract with its players indicates additional opportunities to significantly increase the number of full-time musicians of color in their roster: There are currently 10 open positions in the orchestra.
“A full revaluation of orchestral hiring procedures is an important next step, as are national partnerships such as our work with Sphinx,” Kjome said in written comments.
“The reality is that the BSO, and the orchestral field at large, did not get to this place overnight, and it will take time to realize change.”
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at email@example.com.
This article has been updated. Photo captions on an earlier version misspelled Jonathan Rush’s name. Tonya McBride Robles' title was outdated; she is now the BSO's vice president and chief operating officer. A review of programming for the available BSO Sessions (Oct. 14 - Jan. 27) was outdated; an updated analysis found that 25% of the pieces programmed were written or arranged by composers of color and 19.1% by women. (An all-Jessie Montgomery program accounted for 8.8% of these pieces.)