By Laurence Vittes
At a time when concerns about diversity in classical music are leading to action, from repertoire choices to educational and orchestral programs, it is exciting to be able to report that diversity in the rank and file of our orchestras is being seriously addressed in Los Angeles and other major cities across the country.
In August the newly launched Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship (LAOF) became the West Coast’s first comprehensive post-graduate program designed to increase diversity in American orchestras by preparing participants to win auditions in professional American orchestras.
Conceived as a partnership of the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (ICYOLA), the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), and the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, the new initiative selected four Fellows, each of whom is already on the verge of winning competitions and starting a career.
Violinists Sydney Adedamola (from Boston) and Ayrton Pisco (Brasilia), violist Bradley Parrimore (Houston), and cellist Juan-Salvador Carrasco (Mexico City) have each received full-tuition scholarships for Thornton’s Graduate Certificate program, valued at approximately $140,000. This will include extensive performance and rehearsal experience, housing and utilities, approximately $25,000 in compensation (including performance fees), fully paid American Federation of Musicians Local 47 union dues, and eligibility for funds to be used for audition travel during and after the program.
In addition to private and chamber-music studies, the Fellows will perform as part of LACO’s string section at two concerts—one in January led by Peter Oundjian and one in April led by LACO’s music director designate Jaime Martín. The latter will feature a West Coast premiere by Bryce Dessner and Mozart’s Requiem. This November they make their debut as a string quartet with New York Philharmonic principal clarinetist Anthony McGill.
At the most basic level, Parrimore told me, as did his three new colleagues, “I want to come out with a stable, full-time job, happy with my work, playing in an orchestra with a little chamber music on the side, and perhaps even a principal’s chair.”
The Fellowship program is more than professional training, audition prepping, and career development. A key pillar of the Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship concept is artistic mentoring: the Fellows receive it from LACO musicians and the USC Thornton faculty. In turn, the Fellows actively mentor, teach, and guide young ICYOLA string players.
Carrasco explained, “We have rehearsals every Sunday, breaking them down into sectionals.” He made it sound like fun, as if he were a special-teams coach on a football team.
Running sectionals for the violins was “a completely new experience” for Adedamola. “I never tried to teach 25 young violinists at one time, and I’m still getting the hang of it. But in two years, I know I can develop great skills, learn what works and what doesn’t, and which teaching styles are more effective.” She brightened when she added, “I’ve just begun to pick up private students.”
Like similarly innovative, recently announced programs in Cincinnati and Detroit, each with its own unique components and alliances, the Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship addresses the fact that, according to a 2016 report on diversity issued by the League of American Orchestras, less than five percent of America’s orchestra workforce is African American, Hispanic, or Native American.
ICYOLA’s founder and conductor Charles Dickerson explained how the Fellowship initiative evolved after the orchestra itself launched in 2009, when some high school kids came to Dickerson and asked if he would work with them. “I worked with nine the first summer, then 24. After it had grown to 60, I asked the Mellon Foundation for support. They told me they’d be glad to help because diversity is a key issue for them; they suggested a fellowship program to help get young musicians of diverse backgrounds on the road to being professional and gaining entrance to American orchestras. They said get yourself some partners.”
LACO’s executive director Scott Harrison had a similar tone of pride and ownership when we discussed how the program worked. After receiving more than 30 applicants from a variety of backgrounds, two audition rounds narrowed the list down to ten. “We then brought them back for a further round and an interview,” Harrison explained, “from which we found our final four.” The auditions were juried by LACO members, USC faculty, and ICYOLA leadership; because of the Thornton master-class component the orchestral excerpts included “significant solo repertoire.”
Harrison brought up a number of points on which this initiative hopes to score. “It shows that partnerships across the LA ecosystem can accomplish a lot more together than individually. We are hoping to be part of the changing face of classical music, and we can be a more welcoming sector by opening doors to more people becoming involved. We want the Fellows themselves to be successful and prepared for leadership and change.”
The value of the program extends to professional networking and entrepreneurial training. For the first week of the program the Fellows took an intensive USC arts-administration class with incoming USC arts administrators. “Later,” said Harrison, “we’ll introduce them to the LACO staff.”
Just as I was finishing this report, news came that Sydney Adedamola had won an audition for a place in the Long Beach Symphony. “This is what it’s all about,” Harrison commented, “playing a role in helping fine young musicians make those transitions to a career.”