Michael Morgan
Michael Morgan | Credit: Alexander Lim

Opening-night programs tend to make a statement. That is particularly true this year, as America’s orchestras welcome back audiences after the pandemic shutdown. Consider what three major American symphonies are playing to kick off their 2021–2022 seasons.

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct music by two Hispanic composers, Alberto Ginastera and Silverstre Revueltas, plus songs by a Black American composer from outside the classical mainstream, jazz great Wayne Shorter.

Chicago Symphony Music Director Riccardo Muti will conduct works by two Black composers, Florence Price and Joseph Bologne, aka Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

The New York Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden will conduct music by a contemporary female composer, Anna Clyne, and a Black American, George Walker.

George Walker
Composer George Walker 

It would be easy to dismiss these performances as tokenism, and in the past that charge may have been fair. But not this year. For orchestras all around America, this coming season will feature more works by women and composers of color than ever before. What’s more, many are embracing diversity as an essential part of their new identity.

“Global disasters cause cultural shifts,” noted pianist Lara Downes, a biracial artist who has championed works by diverse composers. “They offer an opportunity to reinvent and reimagine.

“I’m having the most inspired and inspiring conversations with institutions and presenters that I have ever had. I feel that, within the industry, there is an honest desire to change.”

Rob Deemer
Rob Deemer

That sentiment was widely expressed in revised or amended mission statements issued in the wake of last summer’s social-justice protests. To determine the degree to which they have been followed up with real changes, we turned to Rob Deemer, who is head of composition at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

With his colleague Humay Gasimzade, he has created a one-of-a-kind database — see the Institute for Composer Diversity — that tracks the growing diversity of offerings by America’s orchestras. They compiled information taken from the season announcements of more than 100 professional ensembles large and small, noting the number of compositions by women, and the number written by composers of color.

Deemer restricted this data, which begins with the 2019–2020 season and continues to the present day, to mainstage subscription series rather than new-music concerts or other special events. Using numbers from a similar project undertaken a few years ago by the Baltimore Symphony, he was able to track trends in representation from the middle of the last decade to the upcoming season.

For the 2015–2016, 2016–2017 and 2017–2018 seasons, the numbers were quite static. On average, 2% of works performed were written by women, and 3% by composers of color. By 2019–2020, those numbers had inched upward, with 6% of works by women and 8% by composers of color.

For the upcoming season, this slow-moving climb suddenly turned into a sprint. Works scheduled for performance by women comprise 12%, and nearly 17% are by composers of color.

Humay Gasimzade
Humay Gasimzade

After taking overlap between those two groups into account, that means nearly 23% of the works that mainstream symphony audiences in the U.S. will hear over the next season will not be by white men. For some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious orchestras, that percentage is even higher.

“Obviously, there have been a lot of changes in our society in the past year, and that’s reflected in the numbers,” Deemer said. “When you look at the composers of color who are most performed in the coming season, you’re looking at Jessie Montgomery, Florence Price, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and George Walker — who are all Black. There’s obviously a specific intent [to play music by African-Americans], and I think that reflects what’s going on in our world.”

While there is some variation from one orchestra to another, the trajectory is quite consistent. For the aforementioned Chicago Symphony, the combined total of pieces by women and composers of color was just under 3% in 2015–2016; just over 7% in 2019–2020; and a striking 33.3% for 2021–2022.

For the Los Angeles Philharmonic, those figures have risen from 1% six seasons ago to 9.7% two seasons ago to an astonishing 41% this coming year. The San Francisco Symphony’s numbers are similar, with 32.7% of its scheduled works for 2021–2022 falling into the diverse-creators category.

Composer Florence Price
Composer Florence Price

Before traditionalists begin to freak out, it’s worth noting that even with this shift, more than three-quarters of the works performed by America’s orchestras in the coming year will be by white men. Beethoven is hardly being canceled: Muti’s aforementioned opening concert concludes with the “Eroica” Symphony, while van Zweden’s features his Fourth Piano Concerto.

Downes is encouraged by this surge in diversity, which she sees as a first step towards a larger rethinking of “how we define the art form.” Traditionally, she said, presenting institutions have taken the position that “We’re going to do the thing we do, but message about it a little bit differently so we can engage this new audience. Now I think there is an impulse to reach different communities by actually doing something different.”

Lara Downes
Lara Downes

Downes stressed that the discovery of this music can be enhanced by cultivating an understanding of how it fits into the history and lineage of the classical music tradition. Florence Price, after all, was emulating Dvořák when she took sounds from her own culture — the African-American folk tradition — and incorporated them into her classically structured works. Until such connections are made, unfamiliar music such as that of Price could be “confusing for music-lovers who are used to the status quo,” she said.

Conductor Michael Morgan, whose Oakland Symphony has long featured a mix of warhorses and works by diverse composers, shares her concern.

“A lot of orchestras are going too fast, too soon with all of this,” he said. “Orchestras are big institutions. You have to bring a lot of people along in order for whatever you’re trying to do to actually be sustained. I don’t know whether they’ve done that yet.”

For Jeff Alexander, President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, the way to bring current audiences along involves expanding the repertoire in a careful, thoughtful way. “It’s hard to re-attract people who have been turned off,” he said. “So selecting really good pieces is essential. It’s important to diversify our programming while always keeping in mind that we need our audiences to enjoy it.”

Jessie Montgomery
Jessie Montgomery is Chicago Symphony Orchestra's composer-in-residence. | Credit: Jiyang Chen

In theory, that should not be a problem. Beyond the highly accessible music of mid-20th-century masters such as Price and Still, contemporary composers like Jessie Montgomery, the CSO’s new composer-in-residence, are regularly writing emotionally expressive works. “There was a time when the aesthetic of new music was intentionally thorny and challenging,” noted Downes. “That’s not true anymore.”

Meghan Martineau, vice president of artistic planning for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is confident her audience, which has been regularly exposed to a mix of familiar and unfamiliar music for decades, is ready for this shift. She said Music Director Gustavo Dudamel believes diversity, equity, and inclusion are essential to fulfilling his fundamental goal, which is to “enhance the quality of our lives and the resilience of our communities” through music.

She points out that, when the pandemic shut everything down in March 2020, the orchestra was in the middle of its “Power to the People” festival, which included a wide range of works from within and beyond the classical world. “Sharing the platform we have with artists from diverse backgrounds and experiences will make our art form better,” she said.

“From my point of view, the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion are intrinsic to artistic growth,” agreed Matthew Spivey, interim CEO and former chief programming officer of the San Francisco Symphony. “As we become more inclusive, we become more creative.

Matt Spivey
Matthew Spivey | Credit: Terrence McCarthy 

“We’re invested in building new relationships across the community and infusing what we put on the stage with what we’ve learned from those new relationships. As you do that, the ensemble, the repertoire, the performances become increasingly more vibrant.”

Morgan points to a more practical reason why this shift in thinking is essential. “If orchestras don’t diversify, they lose contact with the cities they are in, and they’ll eventually go away,” he said. “It’s an existential threat.”

“This is an opportunity,” he added. “We have all had this past year to rethink what we’re doing. I think everyone landed on the notion that we can’t just come back and do what we did before, but we’re still not quite sure what the new thing is going to look like. We’ll see how much of this change is heartfelt, and how much of it is of this moment.”

Deemer is optimistic on that point. “In the past, orchestras were afraid that, by putting music by unfamiliar or living composers in their seasons, they would scare off their subscribers,” he said. “This coming season will prove to them that this can be done. Then it’ll be a matter of doing it every year, rather than slipping back into old habits.”

Spivey insists there is no going back. “This has to be a core part of who we are and what we do, now and in perpetuity,” he said. “It’s not a phase, it’s not a moment of learning, it’s not a fad. It is a part of connecting the community around us and creating art that is representative of the human experience.

“The orchestral canon is not a zero-sum game,” he added. “It is an ever-expanding body of repertoire that grows and evolves as we human beings grow and evolve.”

CORRECTIONS: As originally published, this story misidentified Jeff Alexander and Matthew Spivey's first names.