By Thomas May | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine

From its very inception, the Chicago Sinfonietta was well ahead of the curve. Its longstanding commitment to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion predates by a generation the present cultural moment’s demand for social justice. 

“I first came to Chicago Sinfonietta as an admirer from afar,” says Mei-Ann Chen, the organization’s music director since 2011. It was a sense of adventurous programming that initially captivated her, the Taiwan-born conductor recalls during a recent phone interview. 

Chen is referring to a 2006 New York Times article about a concert that premiered David N. Baker’s Concertino for Cellular Phones and Symphony Orchestra. “I thought to myself, that really is brave! Little did I know that I would later find myself on the podium guest-conducting the Chicago Sinfonietta in a concert of music from East and West.”

When she was serving as assistant conductor with the Baltimore Symphony, Chen says she regularly consulted the Sinfonietta’s “African Heritage Symphonic Series” recordings (Cedille) led by the ensemble’s founder, Paul Freeman; she regarded them as the authoritative source when searching for African American repertoire. 

The breadth and intensity of Freeman’s achievements are indeed astonishing. Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1936, Freeman set about showing how to dismantle the pernicious effects of systemic racism in a field that had too long preferred to regard itself as immune from them. His sustained commitment to supporting hitherto marginalized groups was inextricable from the conductor’s drive to expand the repertoire and to enhance the conventional concert experience with bold programming.

Chicago Sinfonietta with Regina Carter
Chicago Sinfonietta with Regina Carter. Chris Ocken Photography

Freeman’s brave gamble was that an American orchestra guided by these principles could flourish—above all by reflecting and celebrating the diversity of the community that it serves. Despite some setbacks along the way, the Chicago Sinfonietta remains an inspiring model for classical-music ensembles that are heeding the cultural imperative to embrace inclusivity.

Freeman traced his inspiration to create the Chicago Sinfonietta back to a chance encounter at the Atlanta airport with Martin Luther King, Jr.—mere weeks before the latter’s assassination in 1968. After the young conductor explained that he was in town for a guest gig with the Atlanta Symphony, he later recollected, MLK remarked: “The last bastion of elitism…  glory hallelujah!” Chicago beckoned because of the city’s vibrant diversity and the need for a mid-size orchestra to represent audiences outside the concertgoing mainstream. 

The Sinfonietta, which runs on an annual budget of $2.3 million, has achieved levels of diversity that still sound utopian within the larger context of classical music in the United States. Of the 63 regular members of the orchestra, more than 35 percent are musicians of color and more than 45 percent are women, according to figures cited by Chicago Sinfonietta management. For context, according to the latest figures from the League of American Orchestras (from 2014), the average figure nationwide for orchestra members is only 1.8 percent African American and 2.5 percent Latinx. 

And it doesn’t stop with the orchestra. The board, associate board, and staff overall comprise 58, 73, and 36 percent people of color, respectively. The audience averages 46 percent people of color (which can be broken down to 37 percent African American, 5 percent Latino, and 4 percent Asian). It is a diverse audience watching a diverse ensemble with diverse leadership.

Since accepting the music-director role directly from Freeman a decade ago, Chen has not only reaffirmed but expanded the original vision that inspired her predecessor, who died in 2015. “This mission to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion has been the great joy of my career,” she says. “It’s an honor to be involved with this wonderfully creative work that was started by Maestro Freeman.” 

The orchestra’s season finale concert, which will be livestreamed on June 5, is the latest testament to this shared vision. Titled FUSION: Stronger, Together and spotlighting the orchestra’s strings, it continues Chicago Sinfonietta’s unique policy of presenting a commissioned world premiere by a composer of color in each concert. This evening will mark the premiere of La Lección Tres by the Grammy Award–winning composer and bassist Victor Wooten. 

The prominence of women composers on the program (50 percent of the bill) accentuates another aspect of the quest for diversity that Chen has made a signature of her tenure as the second music director in the Chicago Sinfonietta’s history. “Freeman’s last concert passing the baton to me, in 2010, consisted of all women composers,” she recalls. For the ensemble’s 30th anniversary, Chen led Project W, a year-long initiative promoting diversity and gender equity. (The FUSION concert will be available online for 48 hours following the virtual premiere.)


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Victor Wooten playing electric bass with the Chicago Sinfonietta
Victor Wooten plays The Bass Whisperer, written in collaboration with Conni Ellisor. Chris Ocken Photography

Project Inclusion 

“These opportunities are still very rare,” says double bassist Christian Dillingham, who began playing with the Sinfonietta in 2007, just a year after moving to Chicago upon completing graduate studies. “Although they are beginning to be addressed, these issues [of inclusivity] are still a big problem if you look at orchestras around the world. It’s amazing to me to think Freeman had this vision and was able to create a sustainable orchestra.” 

Freeman initially handpicked Sinfonietta players, explains Chen. But in 2008, the organization launched Project Inclusion to nurture talent with a more systemic, multi-tiered approach. The program began with paid fellowships for promising instrumentalists in early career pursuing orchestral or chamber music; four to six fellows each year are mentored by Sinfonietta musicians, acquiring hands-on skills to navigate a life devoted to music.

It was as a Project Inclusion fellow that Dillingham began his association with the Chicago Sinfonietta. He moved on to become a regular member of the ensemble; he also performs regularly in jazz and chamber settings. “This was the first orchestra I had ever played in where I could look around and see other people who look like me,” he recalls. “Prior to that, it would be maybe one or two people of color at the most besides me.” Dillingham believes the program is so effective with the Sinfonietta because “it really immerses the musicians in the orchestra.”

“The programming has always been a key part of the Sinfonietta’s inclusiveness”

Along with the musicians, “the programming has always been a key part of the Sinfonietta’s inclusiveness,” he adds. “This is another area where you don’t see representation across the board—of composers of color but also women composers—in many other orchestras.”

Like Dillingham, violinist Karla Galva first played with the Sinfonietta as a Project Inclusion fellow, joining the program when she was about 30. “The program pairs you with a mentor and gives you so many other angles to help young musicians get a footing in the field,” she says, “like master classes, preparing for auditions, learning how to speak to audiences.” Galva had previously been a member of Orchestra Iowa and became a regular member of the Sinfonietta beginning in the 2018–19 season; she also freelances for Broadway shows in Chicago and other events. 

From her perspective, Chicago Sinfonietta “charts its own path” in comparison to traditional orchestras. There’s a richness to the concert experience, she says, that is “very holistic not just for the musicians but for the audience—a holistic approach to this idea of music bringing people together. It’s worked well since that is now reflected in the makeup of the audience.”

“The Project Inclusion Freeman Fellowship program was designed to bridge the gap between obtaining a music degree from a conservatory or other institution and a professional career,” Chen explains. A fellowship in administration was added to foster the careers of decision-makers behind the scenes who have a powerful impact on the shape and ethos of an orchestra. To honor Freeman, and “as a way for me to give back,” in 2013 Chen introduced the Project Inclusion Freeman Fellowship for conductors. 

According to a 2016 report from the League of American Orchestras, the complete tally of Sinfonietta project fellows outnumbers all other similar fellowship programs in the United States combined.  

Looking ahead to the increasingly digital future, Blake-Anthony Johnson—in his inaugural season as the Chicago Sinfonietta’s CEO—has announced plans for a large-scale video series that intends to boldly expand Project Inclusion’s scope. Scheduled to launch in June, the new program involves a series of short videos through which each fellow in the instrumental program will learn to use the medium to enhance their careers. Johnson—who, like his colleague Chen (a trained violinist), began his career as a string player—played cello at the New World Symphony and last year became the first Black executive to helm an American orchestra with national stature.

Chicago Sinfonietta performs a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., "Ask Your Mama," in 2018
Chicago Sinfonietta performed a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., “Ask Your Mama,” in 2018. Chris Ocken Photography

Programming Diversity 

But diversity among the orchestra members is only one of several areas where Chicago Sinfonietta consistently promotes its core mission. The season finale program lined up for June underscores the priority given to diversity in programming. Chen speaks of the importance of offering a selection of works that allow audiences to create meaningful narratives for themselves. “We thought it would be great to include some of our favorite composers to honor their particular genres and cultures.” 

Along with the world premiere of Victor Wooten’s La Lección Tres, the program includes a suite from Astor Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires, and the work of two female composers: Gabriel Lena Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout for String Orchestra and Valerie Coleman’s Suite: Portraits of Josephine, inspired by the paradoxes of entertainer and activist Josephine Baker’s life. All of these are living composers save Piazzolla (whose 100th anniversary is celebrated this year). 

Chen attributes her success at attracting audiences with so much contemporary fare to the sense of authenticity listeners recognize when they get to know these composers. Accessibility is, at its heart, about relationships. “Take Gabriela Lena Frank. She embodies diversity in her own mix of Peruvian Chinese and Lithuanian Jewish heritage, and her music reflects all these influences.” 

Even more, the program’s flavorful combination of pieces celebrates “the principle of variety,” Chen says. “It lets people know that classical music can be fun.” The sense of liberating enjoyment isn’t limited to audiences. From the musicians’ point of view, as Galva expresses it, being part of the Sinfonietta entails being able “to do things you wouldn’t normally get to experience with a symphony orchestra”—such as a “battle of the bands” concert with the underground marching band Mucca Pazza or a puppet show concert. 

That sense of fun extends to the ways music gets talked about. During the pandemic livestreams, Chen has explored other ways to engage audiences by experimenting with the notion of “real time” program notes, communicating interesting points to consider via a running commentary bar. “We’re so used to the tradition of the program book; I think this is the next nut for orchestras to crack.”

In addition to its series of commissions, the Chicago Sinfonietta has begun to sponsor a composer residency. Chen points out that the new program is intended to forge closer relationships with composers of color and at the same time to explore new channels of communication with audiences in an effort to offset the pandemic-related cancellations of so many new works. 

The Sinfonietta has also launched an artist residency: composer Kathryn Bostic served in this role during the 2020–21 season. Her Portrait of a Peaceful Warrior was premiered last October in the opening program of the season’s online concert series. Bostic describes the brief piece as “my tribute to the common ground we all experience as community, coming together especially in this time of chaos and turbulence.”

On the topic of programming, Chen returns to the importance of forging a personal relationship with music. “The sound of the bandoneon makes me forget the reality of the world,” she says. “Piazzolla’s music helped me survive the pandemic and meant a great deal to me personally.” But the Argentine tango master, with his fluid boundaries between cultures and aesthetic expectations, also embodies a core value that goes hand in hand with diversity: the power of authenticity. 

Chen refers to Piazzolla’s period of study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris: “She said to him: ‘Why are you trying to sound like we do in Europe? Embrace your roots!’ I’m so grateful to Boulanger for having said that. In our new Zoom reality, I would like to use this program as a way to say it’s OK to embrace who we individually are. To allow others to interact with our own culture is so important—and that is what will make our civilization even stronger out of the COVID world.”