Classical Music Culture & Collaborations: Allegro Vivace Panel Recap

Lessons from 2018 & Goals for 2019

On Tuesday, December 18, The Network for Arts Administrators of Color (NAAC) Boston hosted Allegro Vivace: Advancing Leaders of Color in Classical Music, a panel featuring Lina Gonzalez-Granados, Founder & Artistic Director of Unitas Ensemble; Ashleigh Gordon, Executive & Artistic Director of Castle of our Skins; Laury Gutiérrez, Executive & Artistic Director of La Donna Musicale/RUMBARROCO; and Miguel Rodriguez, Founder & President of Athlone Artists and former Executive Director of Boston Baroque. The panel was moderated by Yoshi Campbell, Marketing & Audience Development Director at Coro Allegro.

As the U.S. population continues to become more culturally diverse, historically white arts organizations are more motivated than ever to expand their work to include more POC stakeholders. Classical music groups in particular have had difficulty in engaging audiences of color. Inspired by conversations with both white and POC staff members of local classical music organizations, our panelists and moderator dove head-first into a discussion on how to engage musicians, administrators, and audiences of color; and how to encourage historically white institutions to expand their horizons and be more welcoming to all.


The discussion took place on the set of Breath & Imagination at Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

The discussion began with an analysis of the current classical music landscape, and the realities and perceptions about both the industry and the genre as a whole. While European classical music is taught and widely known, all cultures have classical music traditions. Ashleigh and Lina, who both program culturally specific classical music seasons, noted the importance of expanding the canon, so that great pieces by composers of color are seen as equal to the masterworks of composers like Mozart, Bach, and Haydn.

Reaching into new communities and building trust is a long process, which all of our panelists acknowledged. Miguel advocated for a restoration of music education in public schools. How much easier would it be to encourage people to attend the symphony if they had fond memories of playing instruments in school and an existing appreciation of the art form? Many non-profit music organizations use a lot of resources to establish education programs, and compete for the same limited grant funds, when ideally, the government would ensure that all schoolchildren have equal access to the arts.

Education programs at Castle of our Skins and Boston Baroque (as at many organizations) have, however, served as important entry points for both students and the families into a sometimes intimidating genre. “Meet the audience where they are,” Laury advised, noting that traditionally white institutions can seem unapproachable to audiences of color. Our panelists all agreed that classical music cannot live solely in historic downtown venues, but belongs in every neighborhood in and around the city. They suggested that orchestras and choirs travel and visit venues outside of their own; even if it’s just a few T stops away, going to where the desired audience is can be a meaningful and welcoming gesture.

Panelists pose after the conversation.

Panelists pose after the conversation.

Before reaching out though, our panelists unanimously advised making equity, diversity, and inclusion a core part of one’s organization. For those interested in working in and entertaining communities outside their own, Ashleigh said: “I encourage you to self-reflect. Why are you interested in this work? Why is your team interested in this work? Do EDI training if you can, to unpack those questions.” Self-reflection, both on an individual and organizational level, can provide important clarity to one’s vision for the future.

“I like Brahms as much as I like the Backstreet Boys. I like Queen, just as I like salsa. I am extremely complex, and I try to reflect that through my programming.” — Lina Gonzalez-Granados, on embracing cultural diversity in music

Three of our panelists, as well as our moderator, also noted that their work is mission-driven, as equity and diversity are written into the very bones of their organizations. Even so, as discussions in the public sphere advance, cultural shifts need to happen inside arts organizations so that they can keep up. Change is never easy, but our panelists recommend revisiting organizational mission and structure with an open mind. Yoshi shared anecdotes about how Coro Allegro moved to be more inclusive to all on the gender spectrum by introducing all-gender bathrooms and dividing music arrangements by voice part instead of sex. Ashleigh, too, spoke of Castle of our Skins’ origin as a organization committed to celebrating African-American artistry, until she and her co-founder found that too limiting. They then broadened the mission to celebrate all black artistry, so that they could perform works from the canon of the whole African diaspora.

The panel audience responds during the Q & A session.

The panel audience responds during the Q & A session.

In looking to the future and making resolutions for 2019, our panelists advised cross-pollination for a more holistic classical music experience for all. Lina said that Unitas Ensemble will be pursuing more collaborations with arts organizations of all sizes and disciplines, in an effort to co-exist and fully integrate into the performing arts community. Laury advocated for visibility, and continuing to support and promote events that feature artists of color. Miguel looked forward to his new venture supporting a roster of 20 singers of all cultural backgrounds and telling their stories to the world. Finally, Ashleigh suggested grabbing coffee or lunch with artists you admire, and asking them how you can best support them, besides showing up to their performances.

As the audience engaged with our panelists and moderator both in the Q & A session and the following reception, it became clear that the whole room was behind them, and eager to advance the voices and missions of the organizations represented. See for yourself in the video below:

Allegro Vivace: Advancing Leaders of Color in the Arts from ArtsBoston on Vimeo.

Audrey Seraphin is the Membership and Capacity Building Manager at ArtsBoston. She is a member of the Front Porch Arts Collective and a proud graduate of the Theatre Studies program at Emerson College.       twitter-4-512 @audreyseraphin

All photos courtesy of Cesar Ziegler.

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