Sinfonietta's diversity mission shifts into high gear

Mei-Ann Chen
Chicago Tribune

Daring. Defiant. Different. That's how the Chicago Sinfonietta markets itself.

It's no empty assertion.

For 27 seasons the mid-sized orchestra has made it its niche mission to promote ethnic diversity among its players, staff, board and audience. It prides itself on the sometimes outrageous eclecticism of its programs. It has been a role model for groups seeking to remove the intimidation factor from classical concerts and get down with the entire community.

The Chicago Sinfonietta, which bills itself as "the nation's most diverse orchestra," can afford to crow a bit right now. Consider:

Ticket sales for the last two years have been running at an all-time high.

The ensemble's innovative mentoring programs for minority musicians and conductors are bearing fruit across the symphony orchestra landscape.

The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation recently selected the sinfonietta as one of 10 leading Chicago arts organizations receiving more than $2.5 million in grants. The Sinfonietta's grant will bolster its initiatives to enable artists of color to achieve careers in classical music, among other diversification efforts.

In short, the Chicago Sinfonietta is making very good indeed on the pioneering vision of Paul Freeman, its founder and music director emeritus.

"As we in orchestras look at the changing demographics of this country, we need to look at how we are reflecting our communities," says Jim Hirsch, the orchestra's executive director. "We can and we must create more relevance, create more of a connection to our communities, than what orchestras have experienced before."

True to his word, Hirsch has taken a leadership role within the League of American Orchestras, a national service organization, to expand the sinfonietta's seven-year-old, Chicago-centered Project Inclusion fellowship program for minority musicians and conductors nationwide.

Putting a face on those efforts is the orchestra's dynamic music director since 2011, the Taiwan-born Mei-Ann Chen.

"Not only are we using symphonic music as a vehicle for collaboration, we also are trying to create a unique concert journey that is different from what everyone else is doing in the (Chicago) market," says Chen, who recently renewed her contract through the end of the 2016-17 season.

Different indeed. The sinfonietta began its current season in September with the Chicago punk marching band Mucca Pazza trading raucous licks with the orchestra. It ended last weekend with a salute to the U.S. armed forces that included a gospel choir singing spirituals between movements of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony and a video-accompanied premiere of "Veteran's Lament," a stirring elegy by the Chicago composer and Vietnam war vet James "Kimo" Williams. Audience members were provided with postcards on which they could address greetings to service members.

Certain devices designed to shake up the classical concert format may cross the line into gimmickry (the Dvorak-cum-spirituals experiment was one example), but Chen defends their use as a means of attracting neophytes who never thought they'd love classical music.

"We try to build in diverse elements we hope will illuminate the music for everyone," she says. "We are always tweaking the programs to get the right balance between gimmicks and artistic integrity."

She must be doing something right. Ticket sales have grown by 50 percent over the last two seasons, according to Hirsch, with the biggest growth among audience members ages 29-45 – significantly younger than the standard audience demographic of most U.S. symphony orchestras.

The recent $300,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation will allow the orchestra "to focus on things that can truly drive our mission forward," Hirsch says.

"After that concert I experienced something I have never seen before in my entire career in music," the executive director says. "The kids were reciting their poems and, at one moment, the entire audience gasped. It was a remarkable moment.

"You always hope that what you put on stage has the power to transform people. Thanks to Mei-Ann, we've hit that goal more often than with most artists I know. She pulls off the impossible."

Read the rest of the review here