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U.S. Orchestras Playing More Works by Women and Minorities, Report Says

American orchestras have long fallen short when it comes to performing compositions by women and people of color, sticking to a canon of music dominated by white, largely male composers.

But the protests over racial justice and gender disparities in the United States appear to have prompted some change.

Compositions by women and people of color now make up about 23 percent of the pieces performed by orchestras, up from only about 5 percent in 2015, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Institute for Composer Diversity at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

The increase comes amid a concerted effort in the performing arts to promote music by women and people of color, prompted in part by the #MeToo movement and the death of George Floyd.

“The change that has been talked about for a very long time has suddenly been tremendously accelerated,” Simon Woods, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras, which helped produce the report, said in an interview.

The coronavirus pandemic, which posed a threat to many institutions, seems to have also contributed to the change. Before the pandemic started, many ensembles took a more traditional approach to programming, planning their seasons years in advance. The virus has appeared to have led to experimentation.

“The pandemic has been kind of a jolt to the patterns that we’ve known for so long,” Woods said, allowing orchestras “to be much more responsive.”

Over all, ensembles seem to be embracing more music written by contemporary artists. This season, works by living composers made up about 22 percent of the pieces performed by orchestras, compared with 12 percent in 2015. The report was based on data from hundreds of orchestras across the United States.

Many ensembles in recent years have taken steps to nurture the composing careers of women and people of color. The New York Philharmonic, for example, in 2020 started Project 19, a multiyear initiative to commission works from 19 female composers to honor the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which brought women the right to vote.

While orchestras have shown a greater willingness to program works by living composers in recent years, several obstacles remain, including that some new music is performed only once.

The League of American Orchestras, aiming to make works by living composers a more permanent part of the orchestral landscape, announced an initiative last month to enlist 30 ensembles in the next several years to perform new pieces by six composers, all of them women.

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