By Quinn Mason
We’re well aware of some of the problems in the classical music profession but how often do we ask ourselves, “What steps are we taking to fix them?”
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra is stepping up to the plate. Last week, they hosted their Women in Classical Music Symposium, which was several days of panels relating to the inclusion of women in the profession, along with workshops and networking events designed around the idea of mentorship, which is extremely important in the field.
The vast majority of the participants were young and fully professional women from all across the United States, although there were some guests — students from the local arts high school of both sexes, for example — who listened to some of the panels. As far as those who fully participated in most of the week’s activities, including the networking events and workshops, I was pretty much the only male.
Believe it or not, being one of the only (if not the only) male participants didn’t feel weird at all. I know that I am passionate about the topic of diversity and representation in classical music as I am going into the field as a minority myself, and I intend to spend my life working in this profession. It’s only natural that I would like for everyone, myself included, to have equal opportunities and to feel comfortable and confident doing what they love to do. Thus, I attended this conference to not only learn about what is being done now, but to learn about the steps I would need to take in the future. I definitely felt like I belonged there.
Of course, throughout the conference, I did get some people asking me why I was there (a young African American male at a women’s conference). My answer was simple: “Ask not why I am here. Ask instead: why aren’t there more people like me here?”
The overall atmosphere at the conference was friendly, warm and welcome. All of the participants and panelists were great to talk to, very knowledgeable and willing to share their time with everyone.
The conference was preceded by a concert on Monday, November 5 called Full STEAM ahead, which featured an all-women orchestra with the podium shared by two of the DSO’s staff conductors, assistant conductor Katharina Wincor and new principal guest conductor Gemma New. This concert served as New’s unofficial debut; her real debut concert was November 8. The all-women orchestra was a bit like looking at an alternate reality, when one keeps in mind that major orchestras in the past were made up of all male members at some point.
Each day, there was a panel discussion dealing with some prevalent issues in classical music, mostly pertaining to women in the field, such as how to encourage the next generation, career development, education and career paths, and self-entrepreneurship. The panelists and moderators were distinguished women in the field (with the exception of two which had men mixed in). The resulting conversations were insightful, informative and thought-provoking. Each panel was about an hour and a half, and was packed with information. However, one thing that I really wish was discussed was the recent increase of underrepresented composers in orchestral programming. As I sat listening to each one, I couldn’t help but wonder why something like this hadn’t been done sooner.
Among some of the featured panelists were Dawn Upshaw, the world-famous soprano who was honored with the DSO’s first Award of Excellence, Laura Colgate, who is a co-founder of the Boulanger initiative, Gemma New, Alecia Lawyer, founder and artistic director of the Houston based River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO), Zenetta Drew, the executive director of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Maria Schleuning, artistic director of the Dallas based Voices of Change, and Mark Volpe, president and CEO of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
There were also some workshops, including a mentorship speed dating session which was interesting since there were more mentees than mentors. As a result, it ended up being a ‘getting to know you’ conversation with about 6 or so random people. Among the people I interacted with were two of the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute conductors (which was happening at the same time as the symposium), some upcoming arts administrators, a young violinist from the local arts high school and a professional organist. I had a really interesting time trying to talk to people since I had lost my voice that day, but I had meaningful conversations with these people and will continue to follow their work enthusiastically.
The last session, a workshop on social media for artists, happened on the last day. It was an enjoyable and relevant experience that taught us a lot about how and when to post on social media, how to use hashtags correctly and having a pleasant social media presence. Not many people showed up to this one, and I really wish more did, as these skills can be applied and used in so many situations.
Another interesting experience was getting to know the young New Zealand composer Salina Fisher, who was in town for the Dallas Symphony’s performance of her composition, ‘Rainphase’. We met by accident when we were both headed to a reception on the first day, and quickly became the best of friends. An emerging voice in contemporary music, Salina is one to keep track of!
I am grateful to the DSO for having the will to host something extremely relevant in today’s times, something that needs to be talked about and addressed more directly by more organizations. I’d like to express my sincere and heartfelt gratitude to the president and CEO of the DSO, Kim Noltemy (pictured) for bringing the symposium to life and for inviting me to take part. I am really curious in seeing what next year’s symposium holds!