The New Jersey Symphony is trying to diversify the kind of conductor audiences see on the orchestra podium through 2028 and they just got a big infusion of cash to make someone’s dream a musical reality.
In the next few months, conductors will be flown to town to audition with the Newark-based orchestra. “We have a committee of musicians who will take the large pool of applicants, they’ll whittle that down to five people,” said Erin Norton, the vice president of artistic planning at the New Jersey Symphony.
Ultimately, a conductor from a historically underrepresented population will serve as a cover conductor for the 2023-24 season. Thanks to the $1.5 million donation from Stewart and Judith Colton, the program will continue to be funded for the next five years. “When we went back to the Coltons to talk about renewing the funding, we wanted to kind of add this conductor opportunity into it, and we’re so thrilled they saw the same opportunity we did,” Norton said. “This ability to bring young conductors into the fold, give them the support and the experience they need to forge a career path forward.”
As NPR wrote in 2014 in reporting on a 2014 study from the League of American Orchestras, “Less than 2% of musicians in American orchestras are African American … Only 4.3% of conductors are black, and composers remain predominantly white as well.”
Additionally, a 2016 report indicated that, though female musicians increasingly account for orchestral musicians – roughly 47% – they still account for a disproportionately low number of conductors at about 20%, according to findings. “When we were developing the conductor fellowship, we were looking at the language around eligibility,” Norton said. “We ended up keeping the language fairly open; we’ve been saying it’s open to all conductors from underrepresented backgrounds on the podium.
She added that gender diversity, including more women and non-binary conductors, and people with disabilities are included in the program. “We’re trying to keep it open because it’s such an insular field, that we want to make sure we don’t accidentally exclude anyone in the language.”
As with many things nowadays, demographics are key in blind and cold call auditions, with a focus on musicians of color. The Colton Fellowship established the musician aspect of the program in 2019. The fellowship’s inaugural fellow was cellist Laura Andrade who went on to join the chamber music ensemble Sybarite 5. “As a leading arts organization in New Jersey, it is our duty to champion inclusivity in the arts,” said Xian Zhang, Music Director of the Symphony. “The Colton Fellowship strengthen our commitment to showcasing diverse voices on our stage.”