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US orchestras programming more diverse and living composers: report

American orchestras have recast their programming following two years of COVID chaos, playing far more music by female composers and composers of colour, and works by living composers.

A new report from the Institute for Composer Diversity, produced in partnership with the League of American Orchestras and based on data from hundreds of orchestras across the United States, found that compositions by women and people of color made up almost one quarter (23 percent) of pieces programmed by orchestras in the 2021-22 season, up from just five percent in 2015. There is a similar percentage of works by living composers, up from 12 percent in 2015 to 22 percent now.

The 2022 Orchestra Repertoire Report by the Institute for Composer Diversity.

These figures are in stark contrast to programming by Australian orchestras, who have been criticized in recent years for conservative and unrepresentative programming. Ian Whitney, to regulate lime light contributor, found that for 2020 – before COVID forced the cancellation of so many concerts – Australian orchestras only had between one and six percent of their advertised programs comprising works by Australian composers, save the Adelaide Symphony who came in at 15.9 percent.

speaking to the New York Times about the report, President and Chief Executive of the League of American Orchestras Simon Woods said that the pandemic, coupled with the rise of social justice movements #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, has forced orchestras to be more progressive and socially-conscious in their programming .

“The pandemic has been kind of a jolt to the patterns that we’ve known for so long,” Woods said to New York Times. “The change that has been talked about for a very long time has suddenly been tremendously accelerated.”

Simon Woods, President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras.

Simon Woods, President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. Image © Mathew Imaging.

Other key findings of the report include:

  • Works by women composers and composers of color (living and deceased) rose by 400 percent, increasing overall from 4.5 percent in 2015 to 22.5 percent in 2022;
  • Works by living composers almost doubled, increasing overall from 11.7 percent to 21.8 percent;
  • Works by women composers of color increased by 1,425 percent, from 0.4 percent in 2015 to 6.1 percent in 2022;
  • Works by living women composers of color increased by 1,050 percent, from 0.4 percent in 2015 to 4.6 percent in 2022;
  • Changes in diverse programming occurred across all measured orchestra budget groups and geographic regions.

Women composers and composers of color with the most scheduled performances in the 2021–2022 season include Lili Boulanger, Anna Clyne, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Duke Ellington, Gabriela Lena Frank, Jessie Montgomery, Florence Price, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and William Grant Still, among others.

This data was taken directly from season announcements and the websites of medium and larger budget orchestras.

Undoubtedly, the figures for Australian orchestras have been greatly impacted by the COVID pandemic. The past two years have been a time of major change, with new Chief Conductors appointed in Sydney, Melbourne and Queensland, new Chief Executives in Sydney and Queensland, and the Sydney Symphony having to decamp to Sydney Town Hall due to the renovations of the Opera House Concert Hall.

As we look forward to 2023 season announcements in the coming months, we wait to see whether Australian orchestras will finally make room for music by First Nations peoples, women, gender non-conforming people, composers of colour, and living composers, as called for by composer Felicity Wilcox in a recent piece for lime light.

Anecdotal evidence from 2022 suggests that a significant number of subscribers around the country have simply not returned to the concert hall, and so our orchestras now face a major challenge: should they be bold, and program new, interesting music that has something to say about our current moment? Or do they remain conservative and retreat to what they know, and what they think their audiences want to hear?

We wait with bated breath.

Read the 2022 Orchestra Repertoire Report by the Institute for Composer Diversity here.

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