Chicago Sinfonietta preaches "gospel of symphonic diversity"

— Paul Freeman calls it "preaching the gospel of symphonic diversity."

The musical director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, Freeman sees the midsize orchestra he helped start in 1987 as more than a chance to pursue musical excellence. For him, it's also a means to extend the reach of classical music beyond the stereotype of white musicians playing music by white men to white audiences.

He decided to work to bring musicians of different ethnicities into the orchestra. "That became a social mission to work with diversity. Now, generally we have 25 or 35 percent or so people of color in the orchestra," he said.

Freeman said the orchestra's makeup is mirrored in its audience.

"Many of the regular orchestras certainly try for community outreach, but often it's done in a vacuum," he said. "In order to have an organization of diversity of any kind, you have to have diversity throughout the organization. In the case of the orchestra, it starts on the stage, on the board, the friends groups and hence the audience. It's all interrelated."

Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, said the Sinfonietta probably puts a higher priority on diversity than other orchestras do, although he said others are making efforts.

"One that is close is the Detroit Symphony, which has had a long history of focus on African-American contributions to the arts," McAuliffe said.

Diverse composers

The Sinfonietta also tries to perform works by different composers. In January, it released the third CD in its African Heritage series, which features 20th-century composers of African descent, on Cedille Records.

"I thought with our program of diversity, it would be an ideal series to bring here," Freeman said.

He led a nine-album series of recordings of black composers in the 1970s on the Columbia label and wanted to update the performances and sound quality, as well as highlight the work of black composers who have arrived since the series was recorded.

"He's such a groundbreaker in terms of bringing out this repertoire. There is wonderful music by composers who aren't dead white males," said James Ginsburg, the head of Cedille. "When people hear them they say, 'Why haven't I heard this before?"'

The series includes works by William Grant Still, who wrote the theme for the 1939 New York World's Fair but was allowed onto the fairgrounds only during certain hours because he was black. It also has lesser-known composers such as Michael Abels and William Banfield.

Laura Fairfield, who plays second horn in the Sinfonietta and calls herself its "token Norwegian," says Freeman's vision has been reflected in the audience.

"We've seen the audience grow in terms of numbers, and just familiarity with the whole orchestra setting. In the early years there'd be a lot of clapping between movements," she said. "We'd think, 'You know, this may be the first time these people have heard this music,' and that's exciting. If they clap between movements obviously they've enjoyed it."

It's the music that counts

Her husband, John, plays first horn. While he applauds the orchestra's ethnic makeup, he said that as a player, it's the music that counts, and the Sinfonietta makes good music.

The music press seems to agree -- the Sinfonietta's concerts and recordings consistently receive good reviews.

Freeman, who keeps a home in British Columbia and an apartment in Chicago, is also the music director of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and frequently travels to Prague. When he started with that orchestra, it had no female performers. Also, the audiences are almost entirely white.

"One day I'm standing at the podium in Chicago and I see this beautiful sea of mixed faces when I turn to bow to the audience, and the next I'm in Europe and I'm lucky if there's one," he said.

Back in Chicago, Laura Fairfield said Freeman's vision has sustained the Sinfonietta since its founding.

"Without vision, there is no future, there is no hope. His vision for diversity -- having men and women, the ethnic variety -- that is central to his ideas concerning the orchestra," she said. "At a time when people say 'Oh, the orchestra is dying,' it's not in Chicago, at least in this little orchestra."


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