St. Louis Symphony’s Diversity Efforts Boosted by $ 200,000 Grants

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is stepping up its efforts to reach black audiences and musicians.

The organization will use $ 160,000 from the Bayer Fund to support a group of programs called IN UNISON. These include the orchestra AT UNION Choir, which focuses on the works of black composers, and Peer To Peer, a mentorship program for young African-American musicians.

The League of American Orchestras is contributing $ 19,500 to related efforts. The money is intended for anti-bias training of the organization’s staff and for an ongoing review of practices that would increase diversity among patrons, musicians and other employees of the organization.

“How do we recruit? How do we train the talent of the Orchester symphonique de Saint-Louis – whether it is on the board of directors, whether it is among the staff, among our volunteers, in our orchestra, in our choirs ”, declared the president and Chief Executive Officer Marie-Hélène Bernard. “And how do we serve the community? “

A growing partnership with the black church

IN UNISON’s roots go back to 1992, when the orchestra formed the choir in partnership with a handful of black churches, whose members populated the group. The network of churches has since grown to 33.

Orchestral musicians perform chamber recitals in churches throughout the year. Last month a string quartet, a brass quintet and members of the IN UNISON choir played on the occasion of June 10 at Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church in the Midtown neighborhood of St. Louis.

Education programs under the umbrella of In Unison include six scholarships for African American students studying music in St. Louis, and the Peer to Peer program, in which four black musicians in middle and high school are paired up. with members of the SLSO Youth Orchestra.

The duos meet regularly to give lessons, attend SLSO performances and occasionally perform with orchestral musicians. The organization received a one-time donation to expand the program to 16 student matches for the 2020-2021 season.

The programs and partnerships give conductors a chance to solicit suggestions from Black St. Louisans, said vice president and general manager Erik Finley.

“We can’t do it ourselves. We don’t know enough, “Finley said.” We really need to listen to our churches, to listen to our partners, to listen to all the diverse corners of our community. “

File photo / Jeremy D. Goodwin

Members of the In Unison Chorus rehearse at Powell Hall.

From the stage to the office

St. Louis Symphony created a committee within its board of directors to explore diversity, equity and inclusion in 2016, Bernard said. A separate working group made up of orchestra members and administrative staff trained during the 2020-21 season. Musicians, administrative staff and board members participated in an initial anti-bias training.

The orchestra has made progress in terms of gender parity. In 2014, Bernard said, it became the first major symphony orchestra in the United States to feature a majority of female musicians. But there is a pronounced lack of racial diversity among the leaders of the organization, which is not unusual among the larger arts organizations in St. Louis. Bernard, musical director
Stéphane Denève, chairman of the board Steven L. Finerty and 39 of the 44 board members in total are white.

“The job will never be finished. It is an evolution. It is an investment in the future, forever. In five years we’ll be looking back and in 10 years we’ll be looking back, and some things will take longer than others, ”said Bernard. “It’s about how to continue to stimulate the flow of ideas that don’t just come from me or my music director or my board of directors, but from the people who come from St. Louis.”

Follow Jérémy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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