Area musicians call on BSO to diversify programming

Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons leading the BSO. Photo: Marco Borggreve
Marco Borggreve/File photo
Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons leading the BSO.

A group of more than 60 area musicians is urging the Boston Symphony Orchestra to expand its programming beyond a white male canon to feature more works by female composers and people of color.

In an open letter, the group pointed out that though the symphony touts its diverse programming, the 2017-18 season “showcases neither diversity nor innovation.” Of the 73 pieces scheduled to be performed at Symphony Hall, only one is by a woman, the group noted.

“The remaining 72 pieces are all written by white men,” wrote the signatories, including performers in local ensembles and academics from Boston-area institutions including Harvard University and Berklee College of Music. The BSO “should demonstrate a commitment to equity by showcasing musical talent that is too often marginalized.”


Shaw Pong Liu, a Boston-area violinist and composer who signed the letter, said the BSO is out of step. “At a time when racism is a critical topic nationally and locally, the BSO is disturbingly wedded to their brand of elite, European white male music, and a home stage concert hall whose audience looks nothing like the community in which they perform,” Liu told the Globe via e-mail.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In response to the musicians’ October letter, the BSO issued a five-page letter of its own, acknowledging the group’s concerns, defending the symphony’s commitment to diversity, and inviting representatives of the group to a meeting that took place Monday.

“When looking at the issue of representation of women composers in programming, it is important to consider the many different avenues of opportunity the BSO offers in addition to its concerts in Symphony Hall,” wrote BSO leadership.

The letter included an exhaustive list of female composers whose work the BSO has featured at Symphony Hall, Tanglewood, and elsewhere since 2008. The majority of the concerts were at Tanglewood Music Center, a summer academy for advanced musical students, and at the Festival of Contemporary Music, performed almost entirely by TMC fellows.

“Over the past 10-15 years, there has been a focused approach to increasing the number of women composers represented at the TMC and in the FCM,” wrote BSO leadership, which noted that about one-third of the composers presented at last season’s festival were women.


The BSO said that while it has made strides in the past decade to present more works by women composers, it continues to struggle to add compositions by people of color at Symphony Hall and beyond.

“Though an important effort has been made to include more people of color in the BSO’s programming, the orchestra has not yet had the same results that we’ve achieved with increasing representation by women composers,” wrote BSO leadership. “It will take a significant amount of time to achieve this result, but we are determined to achieve a similar outcome.”

The BSO is not alone in presenting a preponderance of works by white male composers. An analysis by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra found that during the 2016-17 season, works by female composers made up just 1.3 percent of all music performed by 85 American orchestras (down from 1.7 percent the previous season). Data from that study indicate that at the high end, several orchestras presented at least four women composers during the season.

Ian Phillips-McLaren
This season, the sole woman composer in the BSO’s Symphony Hall season is Arlene Sierra, a former Tanglewood Fellow.

In contrast, the nonprofit Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy found that 14 of the country’s “21 top orchestras” did not program a single work by a female composer during the 2016-17 season. The BSO presented just one work by a female composer at Symphony Hall that season: a triple concerto by Sofia Gubaidulina. This season, the sole woman composer in the BSO’s Symphony Hall season is Arlene Sierra, a former Tanglewood Fellow — a concert that took place in October.

The musicians’ initiative comes as the BSO has taken steps to diversify its audience. Last September, the symphony launched “BSO in Residence,” an engagement program aimed at strengthening ties with surrounding communities. Other outreach programs include “Symphony for Our City,” which pairs the BSO with various nonprofits, and “Onstage at Symphony,” a program that lets amateur musicians perform at Symphony Hall.


An orchestra spokeswoman said BSO managing director Mark Volpe, Tanglewood director Anthony Fogg, and other administrators attended Monday’s meeting with the group. She described the conversation as “productive,” but declined to provide further detail.

J. Andrés Ballesteros, a Boston-area composer on the faculty of the Boston Arts Academy, who organized the letter, said he was “very pleased” with how the conversation went. “The BSO has been very receptive so far,” he said after the meeting.

In their letter, Ballesteros and his fellow signatories ask the BSO to make significant programming changes. Among their recommendations: The BSO should add at least five additional works by women or minorities to the 2017-18 season, and at least 20 percent of the 2018-19 season should comprise works by women or people of color.

The group also included a sizable list of female and minority composers for the BSO to consider going forward, and some canonical works the symphony might play a little less often. “As exciting as it might be to hear the BSO perform Beethoven’s Fifth, it would mark the 55th performance since 2000 and the 21st just this decade,” they wrote. “Would it not be more exciting to open up new, rarely-explored venues?”

In its response, the BSO said that while it was committed to presenting works from all eras by diverse composers, marketing surveys indicate that BSO audiences want to hear works from the canon, “specifically the universal master works composed between 1600 and the mid-1900s.”

The BSO said such a dramatic change would be “significantly challenging.’’

“It would be impossible to completely change the balance between contemporary music and music from the canon without alienating significant portions of our audience and affecting the BSO’s well-being,” the BSO said.

A BSO spokeswoman said that Fogg oversees programming for the Symphony Hall and Tanglewood seasons, but that music director Andris Nelsons has final approval on all BSO programming decisions. Nelsons, the highest-profile figure at the BSO, did not attend the meeting.

Ballesteros, who teaches music history and theory, acknowledged the recommendations he proposed in the letter were somewhat aspirational.

“I want them to become talking points — not just for the BSO, but for a number of institutions around town,” Ballesteros said.

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay