Onstage: Thinking Outside the Pit

CSO is reaching out to more diverse audiences

Apr 20, 2005 at 2:06 pm

African-American artist Gilbert Young painted Erich Kunzel conducting the Cincinnati Popsduring a 2004 concert

Benign neglect is how the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has responded to the cultural richness and diversity in this city. That's changing, according to CSO President Steven Monder. Why now?

"It's the right thing to do," Monder says. "I think we'll be a better orchestra if we really embrace and incorporate diversity."

Beginning with the adoption of a diversity and inclusion policy, the volunteers collaborated with staff, musicians and everyone throughout the organization to implement the policy belief. "By standing together and working together in our differences we can achieve more," the policy states.

A volunteer Multicultural Awareness Council was established in 1990. An inclusion policy in 2002 set the stage for the creation of a staff position. Kathy Finley, manager of diversity and community outreach, points to the success of the community-focused activities.

"We can do so much for the under-represented and under-served communities here," Finley says. "In the program 'Classical Roots: Linking Cultures Through Music,' we celebrate the contributions of African-American and Latino composers, some that aren't traditionally performed by national orchestras. They're almost unheard now, and the orchestra is trying to bring those works to the public."

These free community concerts are presented through partnerships with local churches. At Music Hall, the CSO and the Cincinnati Pops present audiences with a "cross-cultural sampling of artists and composers" via the Open Door Series. The final concerts from that series for 2004-2005 feature Korean American violinist Sarah Chang on Friday and Saturday.

Moving outside the local community, the CSO collaborates with the Detroit-based Sphinx Competition to provide minority high school juniors and seniors an opportunity to compete nationally for scholarships, prizes and performance opportunities.

Musical programs are an expected focus for the CSO. However, they aren't limited to traditional activities. Their commitment to diversity extends beyond the instruments.

"A goal I have is to connect the visual arts with the performing arts," says Finley. "We have been engaging local artists to use their works. For two seasons now we've put their works on the cover of our brochures."

Finley established a partnership with Project ArtReach to bring the visual artistry of African-American painter Gilbert Young to the stage in 2004 for the Concert in the Gardens by the Pops.

"He set up an easel off to the side and was facing the orchestra so everyone could see him while he was working," says conductor Erich Kunzel. "Essentially in two hours he did this painting. It was exciting. Here I am waving my stick and wiggling my ass and doing my thing, then there's this amazing painting."

Young, a native Cincinnatian, was delighted by the opportunity to bring together the largely disconnected art forms.

"The visual artist gets very little recognition. Ours is a performance too, but it's not loud enough to catch your visual ear," says Young.

While he counts the experience as a highlight in his career, Young's involvement with the CSO isn't limited to that evening. A portion of the sale of the proceeds from the print of the painting will go to support a music scholarship fund.

"To be able to come back to Cincinnati and share the stage for even just a moment with Erich Kunzel was a great honor and recognition of change in our society," says Young, who will present the painting to Kunzel at a May 13 concert kicking off the Golden Age of Cinema series.

The CSO is reviewing its supplier programs and attended a recent business expo of minority-owned businesses hosted by the Playhouse in the Park. Regular training for staff and volunteers continues, and everyone is building a strong sense of awareness of inclusion to continually expand their efforts.

The goal — to garner more written feedback like that received from a recent concert: "Da bomb, off the hook, bangin', hard core, off da chain, insane in the membrane."

SARAH CHANG performs with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Music Hall on Friday and Saturday evening.