By Laurence Vittes
When the Los Angeles Philharmonic returned to work on September 21, it was joined by violinist Sydney Adedamola and violist Jarrett Threadgill, the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen L.A. Phil Resident Fellows, a training program now in its third year for early-career symphonic musicians from or serving historically underrepresented populations. Its goal, says Daniel Song, vice president of Philharmonic and production, is to create “a critical mass of superb musicians from underrepresented populations to take auditions and be successful in them. The orchestra wants to be connected to the community, it needs to serve the community, and in order to do those things the orchestras should reflect the community. We want this orchestra to reflect Los Angeles.”
Adedamola and Threadgill will play orchestral, chamber-music, and educational concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and in community settings. They will receive mentorship and lessons from L.A. Phil musicians, and assistance with audition preparation.
“We provide financial support for taking auditions,” says Song, “providing them with time off, flights, hotels, logistical support, plus lessons and audition-prep courses that address not just the music they play but the physical and psychological aspects of taking auditions.”
Adedamola and Threadgill will join the Phil’s current cohort of three Resident Fellows, each of whom serves up to three years: violinist Gabriela Peña-Kim, who joined in 2019, and bassist Michael Fuller and percussionist Wesley Sumpter from the year before. They are inspired by the success of former Fellows violist Andrew Francois, now with the St. Louis Symphony, and violinist Eduardo Rios, the new first assistant concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony.
For Threadgill, who grew up in Southern California, performing with the L.A. Phil has been a dream since he began playing the viola. “I’ve also been enamored with Gustavo Dudamel since took over as music director in 2009,” the former principal violist of the Canton Symphony admitted. “His musical intuition is incredible and I can’t wait to work with him.”
For Boston-born Adedamola, who had been playing in the Seattle Symphony, the Fellows program is “a dream come true, an invaluable experience to prepare myself for a tenured position in a major professional orchestra”—including the L.A. Phil if an opening in the violin section comes up during her fellowship. Another appealing benefit of the program: If there’s an opening in a Fellow’s instrument and the player is “in good standing,” he or she automatically draws a bye in the opening audition rounds and goes right to the semi-finals.
It’s all part of an approach that many North American orchestras are taking, which Peña-Kim describes as “educating and influencing the world outside of the typical classical-music bubble. With the commissioning of new works of music, having both a composing and a conducting fellowship, and taking the lead in giving women and people of diverse racial backgrounds opportunities to be heard and seen—this alone was very exciting on top of playing with an incredible orchestra.”
Fuller heard about the Fellows program during his third season with the New World Symphony. “Prior to auditioning in L.A., I had taken roughly 13–15 auditions, so when I learned that I might perform with the L.A. Phil, my motivation and work ethic surged. I had always admired Gustavo Dudamel’s artistry from afar. He was trending beyond social media. I felt like I could really relate to the way he expressed himself musically.”
It has been more than a job in a symphony for Fuller. “Being African American and Queer, constantly performing in beautiful venues around the world filled with people who look different than myself . . . When I am performing onstage with the L.A. Phil, I know that I belong.”
Before he started the Fellowship, Francois knew he had the chops. What the L.A. Phil gave him was “the confidence and knowledge I needed to believe that I belonged in an orchestra. My first concert was a semi-staged production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I was too amazed by the music and the dancing to be nervous, not to mention that how kind and warm the section was as soon as I got there. They didn’t really give me a chance to be uncomfortable! This unmasking of how an orchestra like the L.A. Phil works helped me relax when it came to auditioning and imagining myself playing with groups at that level on a permanent basis.”
Threadgill emphasized the insights he gained into what audition panels expect as one of the most valuable assets of playing and working with a professional orchestra. “This is especially true,” he says, “if you are asked to complete a trial or tenure period. The audition process is a difficult process and speaking to other orchestra members who have successfully navigated that process can only benefit you in creating your own formula for success.”
Mentor, mentor, mentor
The mentorship element of the program holds special appeal for each of the five Fellows, all of whom hope to serve as mentors themselves. “If I could be that person for someone,” said Adedamola, “what an incredible thing that would be.”
Having a mentor, Peña-Kim explained, “has the ability make or break a musician. [It’s so important to have] people that can help, guide, and inspire you to develop drive, teach you to have a good work ethic, and show you how to have passion for what you do. Just showing you the ropes, to help you emotionally, can be your rock, and the love and support you get pushes you beyond your own mental and exterior barriers. Sometimes you just need someone who isn’t related to you to push you, to give you harsh truths—and also give you their full support.”
For Fuller, having a mentor is having a role model “who genuinely cares about your well-being, your future, and your success. She or he feels devoted to showing you the ropes and making sure that when the time is right, you will be able to succeed on your own. Having had the right amount of experience, and knowing how to avoid some of the traps, helps the mentee to build on the career that the mentor had.”
With all the positive news echoed by similar programs and related initiatives at other orchestras, including those in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Louisville, Minneapolis, Montréal, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, San Francisco, and Washington DC, I asked Song how long it will take to change the face of American orchestras. “I don’t know how long the process will take,” he said, “or how we’ll know when we’ve achieved our goal. I don’t know if this work will ever stop.”
When the L.A. Phil announced the new Fellows this year, the organization called the program central to its purpose of “creating a pathway toward the more diverse and inclusive orchestras of tomorrow.” With a year under her belt and striding confidently on that pathway to the future, Peña-Kim says proudly that the Phil is known as “something to be excited about in classical music. We bring music to the world, and now more than ever it’s important that we bring this to people that are in living in a world of uncertainty. Bring our music to people who need catharsis and relief, give people hope and joy.”