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Musicians of Rochester serves as a portrait of musical life in and around the greater Rochester, New York region.

Racial Equity and the RPO: A Thread

Composer William Grant Still
Composer William Grant Still

Among the many lessons we’ve learned this past year is this: most of us will never take live music for granted again. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra used the time off from live concerts during the pandemic to reevaluate its leadership role in a community frayed by racial strife.  

Here’s a little perspective.

Ninety years ago, in 1931, Rochester’s orchestra made history when it played the “Afro-American Symphony" by composer William Grant Still. It was the first time in the U.S. that a leading orchestra played a major work by a Black composer, and it was a smashing success.

But since then, a lot has changed.

The population of Rochester was 98% white then. Black and Hispanic people make up the majority now, and the city has deep and troubling concentrations of poverty and economic segregation. Yet, the city’s orchestra has remained an essentially white institution with a stated desire to reflect the people it serves.

Andreas Delfs
Credit Credit Jacob Walsh / CITY
Andreas Delfs

New leadership signals the possibility of a new direction.

Recently, Andreas Delfs was named the newest Music Director of the RPO. In an interview posted on social media he said, “The problem is not that we don't hire enough people that come from an ethnic minority or from a social different background, but that the choice of players we have is already limited at the conservatory level.”

With his white, flowing hair and deep-set eyes, the native of Germany looks a little like Beethoven. He’s an experienced conductor. According to a statement from the RPO, he was chosen from a pool of 43 prospective candidates, 16 of which were female and/or Latino, Asian, or African American.

RPO Trumpeter Herb Smith
Credit provided
RPO Trumpeter Herb Smith

Delfs said he recognizes that having only one Black player, trumpeter Herb Smith, presents a long-term challenge for the orchestra.

“An orchestra, like a sports team, is based on excellence,” Delfs said. “We cannot suddenly change that. The problem is not that we don't hire, in the orchestra world, enough people from minority ethnicities and different socio-economic backgrounds, but there are simply not enough in the final rounds of those kind of auditions. We need to stay, like any sports team - any baseball and basketball team - we need to stay a competitive group where the artistic excellence is the only borderline that decides whether people come in or not.”

That borderline is difficult to cross. According to the most recent study by the League of American Orchestras, Black musicians represented 1.8% of the nation’s orchestra players in 2014, a figure that had not budged in 12 years. The New York Philharmonic has had only three Black musicians in its history.

Lee Koonce
Credit Gateways Music Festival
Lee Koonce

But the dichotomy between excellence and diversity seems hollow to Lee Koonce, president & artistic director of Gateways Music Festival, an organization based in Rochester that fosters concerts featuring professional classical musicians of African descent. Koonce said the sports analogy works another way.

“Look at the make-up of the NBA,” he said. “The number of Black men is directly correlated to the number of Black boys who are playing basketball. There are millions of them. Millions. And we see the very same thing in music. The number of Asian musicians in orchestras – which is wonderful and amazing – is directly correlated to the number of Asian musicians around the world.”

Koonce and Delfs agree that creating a pipeline of talented young musicians is key to creating racial equity in institutions like the RPO. That means getting more instruments into the hands of young kids and following up with serious music education. Delfs says he’d like to start a mentoring program where RPO players would teach gifted students from disadvantaged families pro bono.

Guest conductor Herb Smith led the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in the orchestra's first live-streamed performance.
Guest conductor Herb Smith led the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in the orchestra's first live-streamed performance.

But there’s more work to be done before the RPO reflects the city it serves.

Koonce says the culture of an ensemble can be unwelcoming to players of color and that the so-called “blind audition” process is not really blind. 

“Orchestras are very, very proud of blind audition process, but the fact is it’s not blind, not all the way throughout,” Koonce says. “At the final stages, the screen comes up, and I can’t help but think that our biases influence the selection of players.”

Koonce would urge orchestras to change the audition process, commit to anti-racism policies, and foster young talent.

This past summer’s Black Lives Matter rallies, in response to the death of Daniel Prude after he was restrained by police, saw RPO members speaking up for racial equity.

Many musicians played at demonstrations. One violinist grew flowers and sold bouquets to raise funds for social justice causes. More recently, the RPO created an Anti-Racism Work Group (though the effort is still in its infancy), and last month, the RPO announced a new series of free, on-demand virtual chamber concerts showcasing diverse composers in partnership with the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative. Its upcoming season is loaded with works by composers of color like Jessie Montgomery. The RPO will premiere a new piano concerto by her in 2022.

Composer Jessie Montgomery
Credit Provided
Composer Jessie Montgomery

Daniel Kushner, arts editor and music critic for CITY, says these are hopeful signs.

"There's clearly an effort being made to move beyond classical music as almost exclusively all white, male endeavor,” Kushner said, adding that he’s encouraged by Delfs' expressed intentions to set up a system in which members of the RPO give lessons to local students pro bono.

After writing his preview of the RPO's 2021-22 season, Kushner said, “It’s funny. We haven’t even had the first full season with Andreas Delfs as conductor, but I’m already starting to think about the second season. That will show what kind of thread he wants to weave, what the continuity will be. That will give us a really good idea as to the direction he wants to go.”

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra
Credit RPO
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

For Rochester’s classical music lovers, seeing the orchestra playing together again on the stage of Kodak Hall after a year and a half will be an emotional moment.

Lee Koonce hopes it will also be a new beginning, a fresh conversation about mission, inclusion, and relevance.

“The conversation about race and anti-racism? Those conversations have become a lot more robust, especially over the last year," he said. "That gives me hope. I think that will be our challenge in the field, that is, how do we actually walk the talk?”

Brenda Tremblay has served as weekday morning host on WXXI Classical since 2009.