Equal Representation

In the July/August edition of Symphony Magazine, published by the League of American Orchestras, Susan Elliott, taking note of the recent demographics revealed in the 2010 census, asks, “Why don’t American orchestras look like America?”

This isn’t a new question but, unfortunately, one that seemingly needs to be repeated often.  I have written before about the problem about lack of diversity among classically trained musicians, and what is being done about it.  The most recent statistics from the League of American Orchestras, dating from the 2007-08 concert season, 154 orchestras reported: 1.83% African Americans, 2.42% Latinos, and 7.34% Asians.

This article, like the previous, highlights the Sphinx Organization which envisions, “a world in which classical music reflects cultural diversity and plays a role in the everyday lives of youth.”

Elliott recognized, “few would question the healthy influx of women in orchestra in the last half-century.”  While this is true, we also need to consider that the women who are now filling orchestra seats are predominately white, coming from privileged socio-economic backgrounds.  In order for classical music to thrive (not just survive), the classical music community needs to do a better job of reaching out to new and more diverse audiences.  And, as the Sphinx organization recognizes, the best place to start is with young musicians.

Elliott’s article featured Ann Hobson Pilot, principal harp at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1969 to 2009, and a pioneer for women of color in the classical music world.  She states that as a child she, “never saw anyone on stage – or in the audience – who looked like me.”

Thanks to the work of the Sphinx Organization, there are more opportunities for musicians of color to be recognized and find the support and community that are needed in order to succeed.  NPR recently featured the career of Melissa White, alumna of From The Top, and winner of the Sphinx Competition.  White reveals in the story and short video, found here, that she stopped playing for a short time before returning to her violin and attending the Curtis Institute and New England Conservatory.  She now performs with the Harlem Quartet, all the members of which are former first-prize winners of the Sphinx Competition.

It is important to recognize that the increased number of women as performers in professional ensembles does not mean that the work for equality in the concert hall is anywhere near complete.  Lack of representation continues to be a huge problem – but one that is at least beginning to be recognized.

Which only makes me think about how wonderful it would be to make classical music relevant not only to young musicians, but also wider audiences in general?  And, gee, wouldn’t it seem that getting people excited in music that extends beyond Bach, Beethoven and the boys be relevant?  How much longer until we no longer need to keep statistics on the number of women or minorities as performers, conductors, or composers heard in concert halls across the country?  When can we anticipate a day when any audience member can go to a concert and hear a diverse range of music being performed by a diverse ensemble?