The Mississippi Symphony Orchestra wants to be in tune with diversity on its board of directors, on stage and among its audience members.
About a year ago, leaders of the orchestra, which is the state’s largest performing arts organization, established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee to make advance these efforts.
The commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion came on the heels of the League of American Orchestras acknowledging and taking responsibility for systemic discrimination in 2020 and pledging to advance the work in diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-racism efforts.
“It was an appropriate response after what was happening in this country following the death of George Floyd,” said Delores Bolden-Stamps, MSO board member and chair of the MSO DEI committee. “The League of American Orchestras has taken a bold stand on the issues by encouraging moving the needle.”
Across the country, symphony orchestras, dance companies, theaters and other arts organizations are experiencing a transformation brought about by the social justice movement following the death of George Floyd, said Crafton Beck, music director and CEO. orchestra of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s a huge thing,” he said.
Because the Mississippi Symphony is “fiscally strong, if not fiscally stronger than it has ever been” and has a talented management team both at the board level and at the executive level, it is able to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, Beck said.
The MSO DEI Committee, as one would expect, is diverse in the gender, race and ethnicity of its members and is committed to continuing conversations about more diverse programming, community outreach and related issues, Bolden-Stamps said.
“We’re here for the long haul,” Bolden-Stamps said. “The reality of the situation is that we need to diversify our audience and our musicians, and we need to better reflect our community, not just on the (MSO) board, but at all levels. This will not happen overnight but will require continuous effort.
Members of the MSO DEI Committee include MSO Board Members Russell Morrison, Mani Hairston, John Spann, Monica Harrigill and Nancy Branton as well as MSO Musician and Director of Education Alex Encians and MSO Musician Darcie Bishop. Leadership also includes Beck and Jenny Mann, President and Executive Director.
Spann, 31, is one of the youngest members of MSO’s DEI committee.
“I am happy and excited to be part of this committee because I have the privilege of working on ways that will bring the symphony to all walks of life who may not necessarily know the symphony,” he said. . “Being a young black man from Mississippi, I want to help break stereotypes.”
Spann, who played percussion instruments in the Mississippi Youth Orchestra from grade seven through high school, said he appreciates efforts to expand the symphony’s reach in the community so it isn’t seen as irrelevant. only for “rich and affluent white people. ”
“At the end of the day, we want as many people as possible to hear the music,” he said. “When you’re able to market to diverse backgrounds, you expand the audience and they buy tickets and tell their friends and the efforts are compounded.”
Spann praised the leadership of the OSM, including Jack Allin, who chairs the board of directors, and Nora Frances McRae, outgoing president, as well as Beck.
These days, it’s much easier for an orchestra to move beyond traditionally performed classical repertoire because the works of a new generation of people of color are more available than they once were, said Beck, who as music director strives to creatively assemble programs featuring traditional works. juxtaposed with those the public may not know.
Last April, the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra performed “The Piano Concerto in One Movement” by Florence Price, an African-American composer recognized as a major musical artist of the Great Migration, on the same program as “I got Rhythm Variations” by George Gershwin.
In January, the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra plans to perform “Black American Symphony” by Nicholas Payton, a Grammy Award-winning musician and composer who performed at the 2022 Township Jazz Festival in Ridgeland, on the same program as “New World Symphony”, composed by Antonin Dvořák in 1893.
Across the country, orchestras have struggled to hire musicians of diverse races because they haven’t had educational opportunities, Beck said. This is changing as several national organizations strive to provide educational opportunities for anyone with talent, he said.
The Mississippi Symphony Orchestra is owned by the American Federation of Musicians and, by contract, must advertise nationally when it schedules auditions and must conduct them behind a screen.
Musicians typically audition behind a screen for two rounds of auditions and aren’t seen until round three, Beck said. “It forces you to just talk about performance capability,” he said.
The MSO is further along in its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts than many orchestras, Beck and Bolden-Stamps said.
The MSO has been providing students in Jackson Public Schools and Hinds County Schools with string instrument lessons for nearly 60 years, Beck said, and it has expanded its reach.
The symphony performs at half a dozen venues around the city in addition to its performances at Thalia Mara Hall in downtown Jackson, he said, and is well known across the state.
“We’re going to do a concert at Cade Chapel (Missionary Baptist Church),” Beck said. “We are now speaking to the Reverend (Reginald M.) Buckley.”
Diversity, equity and inclusion are important because they are about the survival of the orchestra, Beck said. “If we don’t, if we keep playing Beethoven and Brahms, we’re going to become marginalized.”