City of Music: Cincinnati's renowned symphony orchestra becomes a voice for positive change

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the latest in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that looks at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

When Cincinnatians list the big-city amenities of their hometown, they almost invariably mention the symphony orchestra. Rightly so. The 128-year-old ensemble is internationally acclaimed, attracting musicians, soloists, composers, and conductors from around the world. The symphony and its 145-year-old home, Music Hall, are essential to Cincinnati.

But there’s a legacy that isn’t often acknowledged.  Although Music Hall hosted Black artists occasionally in its early days, it was not until the 1950s that Black hometown singers had the opportunity to share their gifts on the Springer Auditorium stage with the symphony orchestra.

Black singers were actually banned from performing in the Symphony’s May Festival chorus until 1956, and Music Hall itself was long regarded as a place for Cincinnati’s white, monied, upper crust to gather and experience the delights of the city’s symphonic orchestra.

The times, thankfully, are changing.

The CSO’s current season includes five performances by featured Black soloists, one of whom has also composed a piano concerto that will receive its world premiere at Music Hall performed by the symphony. The symphony’s efforts to diversify its repertoire is both a recognition of the wide variety of music and musicians today, but also the need for an organization that dates to the 19th century to change, grow, and attract a 21st century audience.

“The things that we're doing not only will help us in the future, but may be critical to our future, to being more affordable and accessible and attractive to a broader swath of the community,” says Harold Brown.

Two years ago, Brown was named CSO’s first chief diversity and inclusion officer, a high-level appointment, reporting directly to CEO Jonathan Martin, with a mandate to energize and implement DEI initiatives across the organization. It was thought to be one of the first such appointments at a major performing arts organization in the U.S., and was itself a sign of new thinking at Cincinnati’s most distinguished and historic arts organizations.

Shortly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020, the CSO issued a statement of intent: “In the past, we have responded to tragedy with the inspirational healing power of music, and we will continue to use that power,” it read in part. “As racism and inequity continue to plague our nation, however, it is clear that music isn’t enough. Words are not enough.”

The statement ended with an affirmation “to push for justice and equality, elevate our role as a voice for positive change, and amplify the voices who can help us realize that change.”

Brown’s hiring was part of that promise. Brown, 58, grew up in the predominantly white college town of Oxford, Ohio, was educated at Harvard, and has had a career that includes high-level appointments at Greater Cincinnati Foundation and Knowledge Works, the Cincinnati-based nonprofit that promotes progressive education policies. He is not of the classical music world, a fact that may help him see the CSO with fresh eyes.

He quotes his boss, CEO Martin: “He said we are a community service organization. We exist to serve the community, not vice versa. In the old days, it was for the community to come and bow before us. But the perspective that he's brought is we serve the community. So we need to be responsive; we need to understand our community.”

So last summer, the CSO launched an outdoor concert series, bringing the symphony to the neighborhoods of Westwood, Bond Hill, Price Hill, Evanston, and West End. Neighborhoods can also request small ensemble performances to be conducted in their communities.

The orchestra is also working on one of the most difficult aspects of promoting diversity in its ranks, building a pipeline of talented musicians of color who could perform at that elite level.

Young musicians of the National Pathways Festival orchestra played at Music Hall in March.Earlier this month, the CSO was a sponsor of the inaugural National Pathways Festival at Music Hall. The CSO and the National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network (which recently changed its name to Equity Arc) launched the festival and associated programming so arts administrators, music educators, and professional musicians could directly engage in conversations on racial equity with each other and young musicians of color. The weekend culminated in a performance with young musicians of the National Pathways Festival Orchestra playing side by side with members of the CSO in a program that included a Dvorak symphony.

Nilli Tayidi, an 18-year-old violist from Maineville, played in the Pathways Orchestra, and has also participated in a CSO program called Nouveau, which provides young musicians of color opportunities to study and perform. Now a freshman at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the programs have been crucial support for her plans for a career in music.

Nilli TayidiShe has been playing viola since the age of 7, progressing through elementary school and high school at Little Miami. The CSO programs “provided a lot of performance opportunities, solo and chamber, that I would not have had otherwise,” she says. Most important was the opportunity to meet other young musicians. “It allowed me to connect with other musicians of color,” she says. “It was great to meet other people who, I’m not going to say are exactly like me, but kind of had similar backgrounds as myself.”

Her career goals include being an orchestral musician, and in the last couple of years, she has considered conducting as a possibility too. “I love all the aspects of conducting,” she says. “Leading a group, seeing the bigger picture and fitting the pieces of the bigger puzzle together.”

All the musicians in the National Pathways Festival Orchestra participate in Pathways Programs across the nation, which provides free or low-cost, high-quality musical training and resources to pre-college students, says Paula Wilson of Equity Arc. The programs are part of the newly formed National Collective for Musical Pathways, which Equity Arc facilitates. 

The festival at Music Hall and the workshops around it are part of a long-term goal to improve the diversity of Cincinnati’s symphony orchestra, and others. “The point is to invest in pipeline strategies to increase the likelihood that musicians of color will be successful,” Brown says.

The orchestra has also diversified its programming, trying to balance traditional favorites with newer works by diverse artists and composers. So Mussorgsky’s epic “Pictures at an Exhibition” work in April will be paired with a new saxophone concerto commissioned by the CSO and written by Grammy-winning Black composer Billy Childs, and performed by a Black soloist, Steven Banks.

The goal, Brown says, is not simply to check boxes with musicians and composers of color, but to attract a broader, younger audience.

“It's a beautiful thing to go into Music Hall and see an audience that looks very much like Cincinnati, writ large, as opposed to a slice that’s getting older, whiter, and wealthier,” he says.

“We know that for our very future we have got to be relevant to the entire community, not just to 10% of it.”

With that goal in mind, Cincinnati’s renowned symphony orchestra is positioning itself to survive, and thrive, for at least another 128 years.

You can read earlier articles in The Case for Cities series here.

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.