For These Classical Musicians, It’s Always Been About Racial Equity


WHAT IT DOES “We call ourselves an activist orchestra,” said Eun Lee, the executive director of this New York-based ensemble, which was founded in 2014. “We use classical music as a vehicle to engage audiences on social justice issues.”

As such, said Lee Bynum, the board’s chairman, The Dream Unfinished is designed to be nimble enough to respond in real time to, for example, election season or the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of the past year. On Feb. 23, the group plans to expand into YouTube programming with an event about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and its effects on Black musicology.

LESSONS LEARNED “You can’t address a challenge that hasn’t been identified,” Bynum said. “You’re talking about deeply entrenched history, and that can’t be addressed by programming. But you do need to start with the actual identification of the reason certain audiences are not participating.”

Lee added: “Arts institutions really need to tackle anti-racist work from as many different angles as possible, and have a plan for how to tackle these angles in a way that’s strategic and sustainable.”

WHAT IT DOES In the mid-2000s, Jeri Lynne Johnson was having trouble getting work as a conductor. After one audition, she recalled, a man told her that while she was clearly talented, she — a Black woman — would be too difficult to sell to audiences. So she formed her own orchestra.

Johnson said that her ensemble, which is based in Philadelphia, has a leg up on diversity only because “we live the work.” Its community engagement is framed as “inreach” — creating as many pathways as possible to bring especially children into the world of classical music. “The goal is to facilitate the creative process,” Johnson said. “What I want to do is give people a glimpse into the feeling and the power of what that is like.”

LESSONS LEARNED “The most important that these legacy institutions need to genuinely consider is: Whom do you serve?” Johnson said. “And they need to be honest about that. If they genuinely want to serve the past and tradition and maintain that, then do that. If you decide you want to serve the present and future, that begins a cascading set of subsequent questions.”


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