Orchestras keep saying they want more diversity. Now, they’re putting some money behind that wish — about $2 million of it.
On Wednesday morning, the Sphinx Organization, the League of American Orchestras and the New World Symphony announced the establishment of a National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS), whose specific goal is to help prepare more black and Latino musicians to enter and succeed in auditions for orchestras.
NAAS will offer a combination of mentoring, audition preparation through master classes at the New World Symphony, stipends for travel and professional development, and audition previews for orchestras. It is supported by a $1.8 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The 700-member orchestras of the League of American Orchestras will also, according to a League statement, “provide funding, mentoring, and guidance.”
Diversity has been a buzzword in the orchestra world for several years. In 2016, less than 2 percent of American orchestra players were African American, and 85 percent were Caucasian. At the just-concluded SHIFT festival, promoting creativity and new ways of thinking, the glaring whiteness of the people onstage was a stumbling block to more than one audience member new to the field.
Small wonder that it’s been a challenge attracting talented young black players to such an evidently unwelcoming field, although individual initiatives have been attempting to change the trend. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s ORCHkids program has energetically supported its young members through high school, taking a cadre of them to the Interlochen Arts Academy every summer. And the Sphinx Organization, the lead partner in this new initiative, has been working since its inception to increase and promote diversity in the arts through a wide range of programs, including competitions, funding and outreach.
NAAS, however, represents the first industry-wide attempt seriously to address a gap that is increasingly seen as a major barrier to classical music establishing its relevance to 20th-century audiences, with serious collaboration between the leading players in the field. It will take many years to see concrete results — the years it takes for young artists to make their way through the training and auditioning process and, one hopes, into orchestras. But it moves beyond lip service and devotes some money and resources to trying to figure out a solution to a problem that badly needs solving.