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St. Louis Symphony’s Diversity Efforts Boosted By $200,000 In Grants

Malena Smith, a graduate fellow with St. Louis Symphony's In Unison program, performs with orchestra members at New Sunny Mount Missionary Church last year. [7/19/21]
Bob Olimpio
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Malena Smith, a graduate fellow with St. Louis Symphony's In Unison program, performs with orchestra members at New Sunny Mount Missionary Church last year.

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is stepping up its efforts to reach out to Black audiences and musicians.

The organization will use $160,000 from the Bayer Fund to support a cluster of programs called IN UNISON. They include the orchestra’s IN UNISON Chorus, which focuses on works by Black composers, and Peer To Peer, a mentorship program for young African American musicians.

The League of American Orchestras is contributing $19,500 to related efforts. The money is earmarked for anti-bias training for the organization’s personnel and an ongoing review of practices that would increase diversity among the organization’s patrons, musicians and other employees.

“How do we recruit? How do we form the talent of the St. Louis Symphony — whether it’s on the board, whether it’s on staff, among our volunteers, in our orchestra, in our choruses,” said President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard. “And how do we serve the community?”

A growing partnership with the Black church

The roots of IN UNISON stretch to 1992, when the orchestra formed the chorus in partnership with a handful of Black churches, whose members populated the group. The network of churches has since grown to 33.

Orchestra musicians play chamber recitals in churches throughout the year. Last month a string quartet, brass quintet and members of the IN UNISON Chorus performed in celebration of Juneteenth at Washington Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church in the Midtown neighborhood of St. Louis.

Education programs under the In Unison umbrella include six scholarships for African American college students studying music in St. Louis, and the Peer to Peer program, in which four Black musicians in middle school and high school are paired with members of the SLSO Youth Orchestra.

The duos meet regularly for coaching, to attend SLSO performances and occasionally play with orchestra musicians. The organization received a one-time donation to expand the program to 16 student pairings for the 2020-2021 season.

The programs and partnerships give orchestra leaders a chance to solicit suggestions from Black St. Louisans, Vice President and General Manager Erik Finley said.

“We can’t do it on our own. We don’t know enough,” Finley said “We have to really listen to our churches, listen to our partners, listen to all of the diverse corners of our community.”

IN UNISON Chorus rehearsing at Powell Hall. Charter member Gwendolyn Wesley, lower left. 2/22/19
File photo/Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the In Unison Chorus rehearse at Powell Hall.

From onstage to the office

St. Louis Symphony created a committee on its board of trustees to explore diversity, equity and inclusion in 2016, Bernard said. A separate task force made up of orchestra members and administrative staff formed during the 2020-21 season. Musicians, administrative staff and board members have participated in an initial anti-bias training.

The orchestra has made strides in terms of gender parity. In 2014, Bernard said, it became the first major symphony orchestra in the U.S. to feature a majority of female musicians. But there is a pronounced lack of racial diversity among the organization’s leadership, which is not unusual among the largest arts organizations in St. Louis. Bernard, Music Director
Stéphane Denève, board chair Steven L. Finerty and 39 of 44 total board members are white.

“The work will never be done. This is an evolution. It’s an investment in the future, forever. In five years we’ll look back and in 10 years we’ll look back, and some things will take more time than others,” Bernard said. “It’s about, how do you continue to stimulate the flow of ideas that doesn't just come from me or my music director or board, but the people who come from St. Louis.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.