The Minnesota Orchestra is committed to using music to communicate and bridge cultures, guided by our three core values: Listen, Respect, Collaborate. We seek to create, develop and nurture connections that allow the Minnesota Orchestra to authentically contribute to making the Twin Cities a more equitable community. As Board, staff and musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, we are currently focused with great priority on anti-racism and actively working to disrupt our own role in systemic racism.
A fundamental step in moving toward a more just society is to recognize the inequities that are built into our social systems and the role that we have played in sustaining them. We are committed to recognizing inequities in our organization, industry and community, and to advancing the change that must happen.
We also acknowledge the pain felt throughout our home city of Minneapolis and beyond. We see the historical and ongoing injustices in the arts, housing, economic opportunity, education, health care, law enforcement, incarceration rates and other disparities that have especially impacted AMELIA (African, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, Asian)* people in the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota. We are grateful to those who have been speaking out against injustice and inequity and we join them in this effort.
Music is at the heart of the orchestral experience, and the Minnesota Orchestra is intentionally building concert programs to feature more works by AMELIA composers and performances by AMELIA artists, exploring music both contemporary and historic. We acknowledge the abundance of musical voices that have been overlooked, and we are committed to learning, programming and centering these voices as we move forward.
Anti-Racist Learning Projects and Cohort
In the 2020-21 season, the Minnesota Orchestra initiated a series of three concurrent Anti-Racist Learning Projects, intended to serve as important steps on the Minnesota Orchestra’s path to reduce its reliance on and reproduction of white privilege. The organization-wide projects focus on three topic areas: increasing literacy and critical thinking about anti-racism; growing the Orchestra’s engagement with AMELIA composers and diversifying our artistic programming and musical literacy; and shifting communications and marketing messages to identify and challenge dominant white racial frames.
These projects established a foundation for ongoing discovery, discussion and work across the organization. In the 2022-23 season, an Anti-Racism Learning Cohort—comprising board, staff and musicians—launched a year-long investigation of the ways in which the orchestral industry participates in systemic racism and an exploration of how to effectively disrupt that participation in both large- and small-scale ways. In the 2023-24 season, these learnings and insights will be shared more broadly across the organization.
Minnesota Orchestra Fellowship
In 2017, the Minnesota Orchestra began a two-year residency program intended to enhance opportunities for emerging African American, Latin American and Native American professional orchestral musicians early in their careers and to encourage greater diversity in the orchestral field. Following competitive auditions, the 2023-24 Fellowships were earned by to clarinetist Olivia Hamilton and trombonist Felix Regalado. The program is supported by Margee and Will Bracken and Rosemary and David Good.
A Brief History: Working Towards Racial Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Following the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic tour to Cuba in 2015, a group of staff members and musicians began meeting as an ad hoc diversity committee, which quickly expanded to include several Board members, in an initiative supported by the Orchestra’s then-President and CEO Kevin Smith and then-Assistant Conductor Roderick Cox. The Orchestra also joined the Twin Cities Large Cultural Organizations Forum (TCLCOF), a consortium in Minnesota formed in response to public concerns about Minnesota’s arts programming and committed to “fostering ethnic, cultural and racial diversity and inclusion within our organizations and with the audiences we serve.”
In 2017, following a nationwide audition, the Minnesota Orchestra named Myles Blakemore, trombone, and Jason Tanksley, tuba, as the first recipients of the Rosemary and David Good Fellowship, a two-year program intended to reduce the disparity gap for African American, Latin American and Native American professional orchestral musicians early in their careers and to encourage greater diversity in the orchestral field. In addition to Tanksley, who now serves as tuba instructor at St. Olaf College and a regular substitute with the Minnesota Orchestra, and Blakemore, a trombonist in the United States Navy Band and a lecturer at Howard University, previous Fellows include: Emilio Rutllant, now flute and piccolo player with the Pittsburgh Opera; and Kai Rocke, a bassoonist with the Oregon Symphony. Bass trombonist Lovrick Gary III and cellist Esther Seitz concluded their Fellowships in August 2023; Seitz is now a member of the Dallas Opera Orchestra.
In 2018, the Orchestra began participating in the Sphinx Orchestral Partner Auditions and joined the National Alliance for Audition Support at the time of its foundation, supporting the goal of job placement for musicians of color in American orchestras.
The Orchestra initiated a series of diversity workshops for musicians, staff and Board members, focusing on the complexities of identity and facilitated by the YWCA’s Racial Equity Consulting Manager Alicia Sojourner, who now serves as the Racial Equity Manager for the city of St. Louis Park. In addition, a Racial Justice Learning Group was established as a recurring learning space for staff, musicians and Board members.
In 2019, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, comprising approximately equal numbers of musicians, Board and staff members, was named an official Minnesota Orchestra Board committee, charged with assisting the Orchestra in fulfilling the goals of the 2017-20 Strategic Plan. Justin Laing of Hillombo LLC was hired as a consultant to help create an organization-wide anti-racist leadership plan, with a focus on reducing the reliance on and reproduction of white privilege. A Racial Equity sub-committee, including CEO Michelle Miller Burns, was formed to begin this work.
The DEI Committee also sponsored an organization-wide conversation with Afa Dworkin, the President and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization, who is at the forefront of innovative efforts to promote diversity in the world of classical music. Together, a collaborative week-long performance festival and residency was planned at Orchestra Hall for March 2020 with the Sphinx Virtuosi, Minnesota Orchestra and Sphinx LEAD (Leaders in Excellence, Arts and Diversity). This event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but came to light in June 2022, in a special televised and livestreamed concert that featured the Sphinx Virtuosi and Minnesota Orchestra performing together, led by then-Music Director Osmo Vänskä. Collaborations with the Sphinx Virtuosi and Sphinx LEAD cohort have subsequently become a regular part of the Orchestra’s season.
In January 2020, nearly 100 musicians, Board members and full-time staff attended a racial equity workshop led by Justin Laing, to develop a common language and knowledge base that would broaden discussions around how the Minnesota Orchestra could become a more collaborative partner and active member of our diverse community.
In the weeks following, the DEI Committee facilitated a series of small group meetings to enable musicians, staff and Board members to give feedback and offer ideas for pilot projects that the Orchestra would undertake as part of a long-term racial equity plan. In August 2020, the Committee approved and commenced three Learning Projects for the 2020-21 season designed to focus carefully on efforts to reduce the Minnesota Orchestra’s reliance on and reproduction of white privilege, in order to build more mutually beneficial relationships with AMELIA individuals, organization and communities.
Subsequent organization-wide workshops occurred throughout 2020 and now continue into 2021. In November 2023, Sheri Notaro joined the Orchestra as vice president of people and culture, a new role designed to provide strategic direction and tactical support for all HR functions, as well as for diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) and anti-racism initiatives at the Orchestra. Also in Fall 2023, under the ongoing guidance of Justin Laing, the organization launched an Anti-Racism Learning Cohort—comprising board, staff and musicians—that began a year-long investigation of the ways in which the orchestral industry participates in systemic racism and an exploration of how to effectively disrupt that participation in both large- and small-scale ways. In the 2023-24 season, these learnings and insights will be shared more broadly across the Minnesota Orchestra.
In February 2022, the Orchestra performed its first-ever Lunar New Year concert, curated by Principal Bassoon Fei Xie and featuring conductor Junping Qian, Assistant Concertmaster Rui Du, pipa player Gao Hong, jing hu master Zhengang Xie and yue qin master Mei Hu. Enthusiastically embraced by the community, the concert is now an annual tradition. Similarly, the organization offered its first Juneteenth concert in June 2023, with a second annual event slated for 2024.
Additional programming highlights that were sparked through the Orchestra’s DEI/Anti-racism work include an annual Listening Project concert, designed to spotlight and record the music of historically underrepresented composers (whose music was often not performed due to systemic racism in the field), in collaboration with the African Diaspora Music Project; and the May 2023 world premiere of brea(d)th. Commissioned by the Orchestra after the murder of George Floyd, this work for chorus, orchestra and spoken word artist was written by composer Carlos Simon and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and contains equal parts tragedy, history and hope. A recording of brea(d)th was issued by Decca Classics in September 2023, significantly expanding the reach of the landmark work and preserving it for posterity.
*AMELIA = African, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, Asian.
In our organization-wide anti-racism work, following input from colleagues, we have decided to use the acronym AMELIA, a term that reflects global heritage rather than skin color, instead of BIPOC or other common acronyms. We acknowledge that any term will be unsatisfactory as it groups people together on the basis of their non-whiteness and who they are not. We recognize that this is a profoundly imperfect social arrangement.