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In 99th year, Portland Symphony Orchestra makes concert season its most inclusive one yet

The Portland Symphony Orchestra prepares for a rehearsal in Merrill Auditorium.
Nick Song
Maine Public
The Portland Symphony Orchestra prepares for rehearsal in Merrill Auditorium. After almost a century of performances, the 2023-2024 season is the first after the PSO adopted an EDI statement in June.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra is a revered staple in Maine's arts and culture, putting on events like their annual Magic of Christmas concert series. In the midst of their 99th season, the PSO is working to diversify its repertoire and become a more inclusive space for audiences and musicians alike.

"When we talk about broadening our circles, it's with the intent of having a greater opportunity to hire that much more of a diverse range of candidates," said McKenzie Blanchard, the PSO's inaugural Director of Learning and Community Impact. "The broader our circles can be, the more inclusive our orchestra can be, [and] the stronger we will be."

This past June, the Portland Symphony Orchestra adopted an EDI statement committing the organization to fostering an equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment. Later that summer brought Blanchard on to help drive the initiative. One of the more immediate actions taken by the orchestra can be seen in the programming for this season.

"We've in the past couple years included a lot more of diverse composers — when it comes to race as well as it comes to gender, or both," said Eckart Preu, the Music Director for the PSO. Besides conducting the orchestra during performances, Preu is in charge of selecting what musical pieces will be played.

"Most of the music of our core repertoire was composed 150-200 years ago in Europe," said Preu. "Now we are in America in the 21st century. It is the responsibility of the orchestra and the ratio of all artistic organizations to keep up with the times."

In fact, the PSO's dedicated a number of their concerts this season to celebrating communities historically excluded from orchestral music. The "Kings of Soul" concert in October celebrated 70s soul music and featured guest vocalists of color. "Rise Up", a classical concert exploring queer voices and LGBTQ+ identity, is scheduled during Pride Month next June.

Notably in May, the PSO will stage a children's concert entitled "Carnival of the Animals: Remix" featuring a new arrangement on the Camille Saint-Saëns composition. Preu says the piece will showcase different cultures and styles of music from around the world.

"For instance [when we are] in Africa, we have an African drumming group. Then we are in China, [and] we have an erhu player — which is kind of a Chinese violin," said Preu. "We take the animals as a starting point, visit different countries, and really introduce different cultures [and] different musical styles to the children. Really [making] the composition a multicultural collaboration."

As for the diversity amongst the musicians within the PSO's ranks, the solution isn't nearly as immediate.

"We have meetings, but nothing's happened yet about that," said Luis Ibáñez, a violinist for the PSO and of the two musicians on the orchestra's EDI committee. Ibanez says he's one of the few people of color amongst the orchestra's 84 chairs.

"In the orchestra, there are two Latins: me and somebody else [who is] Peruvian," said Ibáñez. "There are some Asians, but there [are] no black musicians."

The PSO is far from the only orchestra dealing with these issues. According to a recent report put out by the League of American Orchestras, white musicians account for 80% of all musical chairs in the United States. Black musicians in contrast make up less than 2.5%.

That's not to say the PSO is powerless. Carolyn Nishon, Executive Director of the PSO, says the orchestra works with the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS) to recruit musicians from underrepresented communities.

"[The NAAS provides] a combination of mentoring, audition preparation, and financial support to bring as many people to the audition room as possible," said Nishon. "It is hard enough as it is to win an audition, but then you think of all of the other systemic pressures that could stop an individual from even traveling to the location of an audition."

Additionally, the PSO says they share internal data with the League of American Orchestra's Inclusive Stages program to better understand the barriers faced by underrepresented musicians across the industry.

Dismantling the barriers to entry requires a lot of time and effort. But PSO violist Harold Liebermann says diversifying the orchestral world is in the best interests of those who truly love music: not just to add what hasn’t been there, but to save what may be lost.

"You can exclude anyone you like from your life," said Liebermann, "but the consequences are you lose out on that richness. You can still stick to white guys, but you lose so much good music. I can exclude any person of color, and I lose all the best music and so many of the best players."

Nick Song is Maine Public's inaugural Emerging Voices Fellowship Reporter.

Originally from Southern California, Nick got his start in radio when he served as the programming director for his high school's radio station. He graduated with a degree in Journalism and History from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University -- where he was Co-News Director for WNUR 89.3 FM, the campus station.