In Boston, XX Marks Anything But A Spot On The Program

There’s a fascinating article in the 12/20/2017 edition of the Boston Globe by Malcom Gay about the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) being taken to task by local musicians and academics over the institution’s lack of diversity in its 2017/18 programming.

In an open letter, the group pointed out that though the symphony touts its diverse programming, the 2017-18 season “showcases neither diversity nor innovation.” Of the 73 pieces scheduled to be performed at Symphony Hall, only one is by a woman, the group noted. “The remaining 72 pieces are all written by white men,” wrote the signatories, including performers in local ensembles and academics from Boston-area institutions including Harvard University and Berklee College of Music. The BSO “should demonstrate a commitment to equity by showcasing musical talent that is too often marginalized.”

According to Gay’s article, the BSO responded with a five-page retort that, on one hand, sympathized with the concerns but vigorously defended the orchestra’s programming choices. An excerpt from the BSO’s letter highlights the organization’s programming decisions that include women and composers of color…other than their flagship masterworks programming.

“When looking at the issue of representation of women composers in programming, it is important to consider the many different avenues of opportunity the BSO offers in addition to its concerts in Symphony Hall,” wrote BSO leadership.

The letter goes on to declare that while the institution acknowledges the need to increase diversity, it’s going to take a lot of time so don’t hold your breath for substantive change anytime soon (emphasis added).

“Though an important effort has been made to include more people of color in the BSO’s programming, the orchestra has not yet had the same results that we’ve achieved with increasing representation by women composers,” wrote BSO leadership. “It will take a significant amount of time to achieve this result, but we are determined to achieve a similar outcome.”

This begs the question “why?”

The BSO is among the most influential and best funded institutions in the world. It’s a world class orchestra known far and wide as a destination ensemble for musicians and administrators. If not the BSO, then who? If not now, when? What is preventing them from leading by example?

Granted, the BSO isn’t the only group that deserves scrutiny. The same can be said for any institution among their tight-knit group of peers.

What’s worth pointing out in the article is when the BSO met with the group responsible for the letter, the orchestra’s primary artistic decision maker, music director Andris Nelsons, did not attend (in person or via teleconference).

A BSO spokeswoman said…that music director Andris Nelsons has final approval on all BSO programming decisions. Nelsons, the highest-profile figure at the BSO, did not attend the meeting.

Undoubtedly, improving the ratio of works outside of the usual dead white guy suspects is not without its challenges. Creating a market is never simple.

But in the end, how successful do you think Apple’s first-generation iPhone would have been if Steve Jobs wasn’t involved with planning and promoting the product?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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