U.S. Orchestras Gradually Diversify but Are Slow to Hire Black Musicians

U.S. Orchestras Gradually Diversify but Are Slow to Hire Black Musicians


American orchestras, which have come under scrutiny in recent years for their lack of diversity, have made some inroads in hiring more Asian and Latino players over the past decade. But according to a new study, they have barely moved the needle in addressing the persistent dearth of Black musicians.

Over all, people of color now make up about 21 percent of orchestra players nationwide, according to a study by the League of American Orchestras, up from 14 percent in the 2013-14 season. But the study found that the share of Black players, who have long been underrepresented, barely shifted, rising to 2.4 percent from 1.8 percent.

While there were some encouraging signs — the share of women conducting, for example, nearly doubled — the report, presented at the League’s annual conference in Pittsburgh on Friday, will likely renew concerns about the slow pace of change in classical music as the field reckons with a history of exclusion.

“I have never felt so much urgency for change and seen so much sincere work for change,” said Simon Woods, the president and chief executive of the orchestra league. “But there’s no denying the fact that we, as a field, have to believe it can go faster.”

While the classical music industry has long recognized that it has a problem with diversity and has worked for years to address racial, ethnic and gender disparities, progress has been slow. Turnover is generally extremely limited at leading ensembles, where players are often tenured and can remain in their posts for decades, leaving few vacancies and making meaningful demographic change elusive.

Titus Underwood, the principal oboist at the Nashville Symphony; Lina González-Granados, resident conductor of the Los Angeles Opera; and Afa Dworkin, the president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization.Credit… Photographs by YNOT iMages, Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, Rafael Rios for The New York Times

There are profound disagreements over how to address the problem. Some players, activists and commentators have suggested that orchestras should overhaul the blind-audition process, in which musicians try out behind screens. The system was widely adopted in the 1970s to eliminate bias in hiring, and it has been credited for helping more women win posts in orchestras. Some now argue that the system should be changed, so that race and ethnicity could be considered in hiring; many in the industry oppose such a change, seeing blind auditions as the only way of ensuring fairness.

But there is widespread agreement that something needs to be done.

“Can you say that you’re an American orchestra without having any Black representation?” said Titus Underwood, the principal oboist at the Nashville Symphony, who is one of two Black players in the 83-member orchestra. “We must reflect American culture. And American culture is nothing without Black musicians being at the center.”

The report, based on data from 156 orchestras, showed some signs of progress. The number of Asian and Asian American players increased steadily nationwide — they now make up 11 percent of musicians, compared with about 9 percent a decade ago. The number of Latino players also rose — to 4.8 percent from 2.5 percent — though they remain underrepresented, given that they make up about 19 percent of the general population of the United States.

Since the nationwide protests over social injustice in 2020, orchestras have accelerated efforts to promote inclusivity. They have programmed more works by women and people of color, trying to broaden their appeal beyond a canon of music traditionally dominated by white, male composers. And they have hired more staff members from underrepresented groups (people of color now make up about 23 percent of orchestra staff, up from about 15 percent a decade earlier, the report found).

Arts leaders have focused in recent years on building the pipeline of talent at conservatories, expanding access to youth orchestra programs and providing financial assistance, coaching and other resources to musicians of color taking part in auditions through a program called the National Alliance for Audition Support, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (Players typically must pay their own way to travel to auditions, where hundreds of applicants sometimes compete for one position.) There are signs that some of those efforts are beginning to bear fruit: Since 2018, about 150 Black and Latino musicians have won auditions at American orchestras with the help of the alliance.

Afa Dworkin, the president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization, which helps manage the audition-support program, in collaboration with the league and the New World Symphony in Miami, said that the report had made clear that the industry needed to redouble efforts to support minority musicians and to eliminate bias in hiring.

“There’s really not a shortage of talent,” she said. “There are ranks and ranks of Black and Hispanic musicians who certainly are ready to perform as part of major American orchestras. And we’re not engaging nearly enough of them yet.”

The conducting field grew more diverse, including among music directors and assistant conductors. People of color now make up 32 percent of those positions, up from 16 percent a decade earlier. Jonathon Heyward will become the first Black music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this fall, and was recently named the next music director of Lincoln Center’s summer orchestra. The star maestro Gustavo Dudamel, who was born in Venezuela, will become the first Hispanic leader of the New York Philharmonic when he takes over as music and artistic director in 2026.

Women also made gains on the podium: About 24 percent of conductors are now women, the report said, nearly double the share in 2013-14. Still, they continue to be severely underrepresented in music director posts at top-tier orchestras; among the 25 largest ensembles, there is only one woman, Nathalie Stutzmann, who leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

“We are making strides, but it is incredibly challenging because the systems in classical music are not made to be individualistic,” said Lina González-Granados, the resident conductor of the Los Angeles Opera, the first Hispanic woman to hold that post. “We are just treated like monoliths. You don’t think about women of color. You don’t think about mothers. You don’t think about older women or students. Everyone is confronting many challenges and has a glass ceiling that they are breaking.”

In orchestra administration, where turnover is more frequent, change has been swifter. The report said that the number of Black employees at orchestras has increased significantly, especially since 2020, rising to about 11 percent this season, from about 5 percent a decade earlier.

Still, people of color were underrepresented in top leadership posts, the study found, making up only about 12 percent of those positions, compared with about 4 percent a decade earlier. On boards, representation improved somewhat: People of color occupy about 16 percent of board seats this season, compared with about 8 percent in the 2013-14 season.

While many artists said they were dispirited by the slow pace of progress, others said they were encouraged by recent efforts to bring attention to the disparities.

Jeri Lynne Johnson, the founder and artistic director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia, said that artists from underrepresented groups were increasingly looking for ways to mentor each other and collaborate.

“Rather than waiting for the system to make room for us, we’re creating our own opportunities,” said Johnson, who is Black. “We’re building our own network. We’re making a path for each other.”

Javier C. Hernández is a culture reporter, covering the world of classical music and dance in New York City and beyond. He joined The Times in 2008 and previously worked as a correspondent in Beijing and New York. @HernandezJavier

Source: Read Full Article