The Potential in Accountability: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra introduces a new audience to classical music

Posted by Patrice Worthy, Apr 19, 2015 0 comments

Looking around during performances at the Atlanta Symphony Hall, it is clear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) struggles with a lack of diversity on stage and in their audience. The problems facing the 70-year old symphony are not unique. In fact, symphonies nationwide are tackling the issue of diversity with Blacks and Latinos making up less than 4% of national symphony musicians. The New York Philharmonic hired its first African-American principal musician in 2013 and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has only one Black member who was hired more than a decade ago.

What makes the ASO unique from other orchestras is it’s home to a city that was the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement and continues to maintain a rich African-American heritage. The ASO continues to strive for inclusion within the community, but faces challenges. Currently, the organization maintains the Talent Development Program, an initiative for minority students aspiring to be classical musicians. The TDP provides instruments to students and pays for college audition costs including travel expenses, which are often pricey. But even with the TDP, a lack of African-American representation among staff and orchestra members persist. In June of 2014, ASO named Joseph Young, an African-American conductor, as assistant conductor to the symphony - increasing its African-American members to two, in a city that is predominantly Black.

Ahmad Mayes, manager of community programs, says the administration could no longer deny the ASO was not a reflection of the Atlanta community.

"The evidence was plain in front of us," Mayes says. "There is a lack in connecting with the Black community. We can't deny what we see every day at work, which is a lack of diversity."

In December of 2014, ASO announced the launch of a new Artist-in-Residence program designed to engage Atlanta's African-American community. Adding diversity to the stage is no easy fix, but there is a sense of urgency within the ASO administration that resulted in a revolutionary act of accountability. The ASO Artist-in-Residence program aims to introduce ASO patrons to African-American classical musicians and build on the city's growing legacy of music.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is housed in the Woodruff Arts Center, along with the High Museum of Art and the Alliance Theatre. Both the High Museum of Art and the Alliance Theatre have developed programming to specifically engage the Black community making the organizations weekend destinations for those traditionally unaffiliated with the arts. The deliberate decision to make members of the Black community feel welcome has resulted in an increase in ticket sales and community participation.

The ASO annually performs with the Morehouse Glee Club at the ASO Holiday Concert and “King Celebration.” Just last summer the symphony performed Aida starring Gordon Hawkins and world-renowned Soprano Latonia Moore, who are both African-American. Engaging the Black community by casting Blacks in lead roles is a bit of an anomaly for the symphony and the administration faces hurdles developing consistent programming that reflects Atlanta. The 2014-2015 Artist-in-Residence, renowned tenor Russell Thomas, who is African-American, has performed twice. His first performance was held at the Porter Sanford III Arts & Community Center located on Atlanta's Southeast side, a predominantly African-American area. His second performance was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the former church home of Martin Luther King Jr. According to Mayes the second performance attracted double the amount of people as the first performance, giving traction to the newly established program. Mayes hopes Thomas’ presence will be a catalyst for building and maintaining a relationship with the African-American community of Atlanta.

Though diversity on stage is a much needed addition, enticing the African-American community, or any community, to sit through two hours of century old music is a difficult task. The ASO can look at the programming presented by the High Museum of Art, which hosts events with V-103, a popular hip-hop and R&B radio station; or the Alliance Theatre, which consistently presents works by African -American playwrights. Reflecting the community is more than having an African-American on stage. It's about presenting pieces composed by African -Americans in conjunction with bold collaborations.

To date, Atlanta is home to Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Future, Maybach Music Group, and Clifford ‘T.I.’ Harris who are all major forces in the hip-hop industry. The opportunities to produce revolutionary work and performances are limitless. For example, T.I.'s album “King,” produced by DJ Toomp, is made up entirely of classical music when presented without the lyrics and bass. DJ Toomp took a creative risk to make “King” T.I.'s most memorable and best selling album to date. But what if the ASO took creative license to perform the album live with T.I.? An event combining the Atlanta hip-hop sound with the ASO has the potential to cultivate interest where there previously was none.

The plethora of African-American musicians using orchestral accompaniment in their work, such as R&B artist Janelle Monáe, is a sign revolutionary collaborations are possible. In fact, the 1970’s Smokey Robinson, a popular R&B singer, consistently performed with orchestral accompaniment. Barry White who wrote classics such as “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” formed the Love Unlimited Orchestra, a 40 piece string orchestra, that went on to produce chart topping hits. Fast forward to the new millenium, and rappers such as Kanye West, Wyclef Jean, and Jay-Z have utilized the talents of Miri Ben-Ari, an Israeli violinist whose style is a blend of hip-hop and classical music, to enhance their sound.

The ASO is among the leaders of a national trend among symphonies to take accountability for diversity in their audience and staff. This simple step allows them to engage an audience that has been consistently left out of the symphonic conversation. By recognizing the disconnect and working to build a relationship with the African-American community, the ASO has the potential to propel the Atlanta music scene into the future. The ASO possesses the resources to create a new sound while upholding a high standard of excellence. Welcoming African-American musicians onto the ASO stage opens doors for creative engagement. The risk is worth contributing to the legacy of music and progress that makes Atlanta great.

Interested in joining the conversation? Meet us in Chicago for the Arts Leadership Precon during Annual Convention 2015!

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