Oct 12, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Excellence is the ultimate goal of performing arts institutions. The pursuit of the ever-elusive perfect concert or pushing music making to new heights is in large part the guiding plumb line that all parts of that organization support.

However in conversations related to how those ensembles or schools might adapt to the future, and in particular related to how those institutions might address their lack of diversity, Aaron Dworkin said that discussions of excellence are often something else entirely: a red herring.

“I've been in a number of rooms where these conversations happen with orchestras, and they say, ‘We'd love to [implement a diversity initiative] but we can't because it will affect our artistic excellence,’” Dworkin said. “I’m just waiting for the article in The New York Times that says, ‘[A] major orchestra has lost its artistic excellence because it's got too many people of color.’

“Once that happens and there's an orchestra that somehow does what they're all worried about, then let's all talk about it. But for more than 20 years, I've heard about that fear. It's not happened, and on the contrary, organizations like Sphinx have demonstrated that focusing on musicians of color brings about the opposite.”

Dworkin spoke Monday in Baltimore as part of the ongoing Dean’s Symposium series launched by Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein, which aims to explore the evolving future of classical music through a variety of lenses.

Dworkin founded the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based non-profit that develops young black and Latino classical musicians through a range of ensembles and outreach programs. He was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Prize in 2005 and served on the Obama National Arts Policy Committee. In 2015, he became the dean of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Orchestras have hoped to see more diversity in their own ranks over the past decade, but change has been slow. Across the industry there is an open debate on why that is — pool of talent, the educational pipeline, recruiting and auditioning, etc — but no real consensus on the best way to improve in the area. Audition processes are almost uniformly blind, which has been pointed to as a factor for success in narrowing the gender gap, but the percentage of black and Latino musicians in American orchestras hovers around 4 percent.

The question of “excellence” usually comes up in two ways. First, orchestras are facing tight budget challenges. If they use some of those resources on initiatives, will they have fewer resources to pursue their goal of performing top notch music? Secondly and perhaps most controversially, if you consciously try to recruit musicians of color, does that somehow work around the time-honored audition process — though even here there is debate about its effectiveness — meant to select the best of the best?

Bronstein, who was president of the St. Louis Symphony prior to becoming Dean at Peabody in 2014, said he has heard questions of excellence raised regularly in conversation two decades ago when orchestras broadened their missions to place more emphasis on things like education or outreach. Similarly, Bronstein has spoken previously about a need to expand the tools that conservatories like Peabody give their students (everything from entrepreneurship and social media savvy to improvisation) so that they can thrive in a changing marketplace, and he said he's often heard resistance to those changes couched in concerns over excellence.

“There is this notion that artistic quality [will be lessoned if you also pursue these other goals.] If you do that, you can’t have both,” Bronstein said. “It’s a little bit like what we face at schools like this one where [some say] that if you broaden and create a richer environment for our students in terms of the kinds of skill sets that you’re going to need, then it will take a singular focus off of performance instead of reinforcing it and making it stronger.”

“That is completely true and something we are facing at music schools,” Dworkin responded. “But over history, if you look at innovation [as] additive, there are very few examples where that somehow has resulted in a diminishing of what existed previously. … The arts thrive on new voices and interpretations.”

Ultimately, Dworkin said, orchestras and other arts institutions need to think about diversity as something can serve the definition of excellence outlined in their mission statement. If their goal is to perform the greatest orchestral repertoire and impact and transform all the citizens in the community in which they reside, Dworkin said they are not living up to that idea of excellence because they are not reaching their full community.

From an entirely artistic point of view, Dworkin also argued that orchestras are already facing a significant challenge, and it’s one he believes could be helped by being more open to a broader range of musicians.

“[Former Cleveland Orchestra President] Tom Morris has said this. Jesse Rosen of the League of American Orchestras has shared this. The biggest challenge of America's great orchestras is not artistic excellence. They are full of that. It is homogeneity,” Dworkin explained. “It’s that even a trained ear can [no longer listen to an orchestra] and say, ’That is the Baltimore Symphony. That’s the Philadelphia Orchestra. That’s the LA Phil.

“And there used to be a time when you could. So [people like Morris or Rosen] talk about this issue, not from a standpoint of diversity and inclusion, but just in terms of artistic integrity. [It is important to] think about how you bring into an orchestra new interpretations, these new voices, and the ability to develop a sound.”