Report card

Back in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, American arts organizations hustled to send out proclamations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the musical world, pressure had been building for some time to program more living, nonmale, and nonwhite composers.

In 2016, for example, volunteers at the State University of New York at Fredonia began to create a database of women composers. This eventually led the university in 2019 to establish the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD), where Rob Deemer of Fredonia is director and Cory Meals of the University of Houston is head of analytical activities. See the Composer Database.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, soprano Gabriella di Laccio founded Donne, Women in Music at about the same time. Donne maintains a database of about 5,000 women composers from medieval times to the present day.

Donne and ICD both issue periodic reports on the state of diversity in orchestra programming. The 2024 Donne report covers 111 orchestras in 30 countries for the 2023–2024 season, while the 2023 ICD report covers the years 2016–2023 and 189 orchestras in the United States.

It’s important to keep in mind in reviewing the reports that they use somewhat different definitions and cover different countries and years. Nonetheless, they paint similar — and dismal — pictures of the current orchestral repertory in the United States, Europe, the Americas, and Asia.

Music stands
Credit: Sheila Miguez

The repertory continues to be dominated by deceased white men. The Donne report found that 78.4 percent of works in 2023–2024 were by historical (deceased) white men, with 30.6 percent coming from the top 10 (canon) composers, whose names are surely familiar: Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Antonín Dvořák, Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gustav Mahler, and Jean Sibelius. The ICD report found that 75.1 percent of repertory comes from white men, both living and deceased, and 77.4 percent from deceased composers.

It’s easier and less expensive to program familiar repertory. The works are in the public domain, orchestras might own the parts, the players know the works (which then need less rehearsal time), and the music is familiar to audiences, who perhaps are assumed to be more conservative than they really are.

It’s true that over time there has been some improvement. For the 2016–2017 season, ICD found that works by white male composers constituted 96 percent of the repertory, works by everyone else 4 percent. The change to 75.1 percent and 24.4 percent is surely significant, though the report does not go into how many minutes on the program the composers in each category received. A big work like Gabriella Smith’s Breathing Forests takes 28 minutes, far more than, for example, Grażyna Bacewicz’s six-minute Overture.

A scene from Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels’s Omar in its 2023 production at SF Opera | Credit: Cory Weaver

How are local institutions doing with expanding the repertory? San Francisco Opera had three operas by women in the 2022–2023 and 2023–2024 seasons; two of those were by women of color (and one of these was created with a male collaborator of color). In addition, there was a new opera by a living man.

That’s 25 percent new operas over two seasons, which is exceptional among large opera companies. Next season has no operas by women or people of color, but the six-opera season does include one opera by a living white male composer. The company has also announced commissions to a living white woman and a living Asian man.

At the San Francisco Symphony, the coming year does not look good. Of 82 works to be performed, four are by living white women, two are by living Latina women, eight are by living white men, one is by a living Black man, and one is by a living Asian man. That’s roughly 80 percent by dead white men.

The Oakland Symphony schedule currently has 14 works programmed, six of which are by deceased white men — less than 50 percent! — and one is by a deceased Black woman. The remaining seven works are by three living Black men, two living Black women, and one living white woman.

The Berkeley Symphony has 14 works programmed on its four orchestral concerts. Eight are by deceased men (57 percent); the living composers are a white man, a white woman, a Black man, a Middle Eastern American woman, and a living Asian man.