Boulder Phil works to balance outreach with tradition

“Diversity” and “symphony orchestra” might not be an obvious pairing, but many symphony orchestras have recognized the need to attract a younger and more diverse audience — including the Boulder Philharmonic.

“We’re in an industry that’s very hidebound and traditional,” said Katie Lehman, executive director of the Boulder Phil. “We always say we love Tchaikovsky and Beethoven; we stand on the shoulders of giants. At the same time, we recognize (their music was created at a time) in the history of culture that excluded so many people.

”Thus, the mission of the Phil and other orchestras is to bring the richness and complexity of master composers of the past to a new audience while building on that tradition in a way that incorporates diversity.

The effort involves both organization and programming. An important step is attracting a more diverse board, an effort currently under way at the Boulder Phil.

Then there’s hiring. About 10 years ago, orchestras began conducting blind auditions for musicians, Lehman said. That means making musicians heard, not seen, when they audition for a job, removing the potential of implicit bias toward white male musicians.

As for programming, creating a dynamic season requires combining traditional pieces, what Lehman calls an orchestra’s “war horses,” with more innovative performances. Some of the latter can be accomplished through collaboration with other arts groups.

Lehman cited a collaboration, fostered by Boulder Phil Conductor Michael Butterman, that featured the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble from Denver, which choreographed and performed a piece to accompany “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams. Robinson interpreted the piece by portraying an imprisoned black man being offered hope by his mother, sister and a woman carrying his child.

Audience members had different reactions, Lehman said.

“A lot of people were moved to tears. They said it gave the piece new meaning,” she said. “Others found it jarring. (They said) they never saw the music that way.”

The Phil also pushed the envelope with the last concert in its 2018-19 season. The concert included Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony, which captures the composer’s vision of America that includes Native American and African American sounds. Peter Boyer’s “Dream of America,” based on the Ellis Island Oral History Project, was part of the performance as well.

The Boulder Phil also worked with local immigration organizations and the Motus Theater to bring to life the stories of newer immigrants with “UndocuMonologues.” The program particularly resonated with many of the orchestra’s musicians, who are immigrants.

“It was a very meaningful experience for us,” Lehman said.

The Phil is reaching out to young people in an innovative way in addition to its concerto competition, which involves classically trained young people.

“We’re talking about having a different kind of concert,” Lehman said, explaining that it would involve asking kids to submit their own musical material. “They can record it on their phones. They can be singing or tapping on the bottom of a gallon bucket."

Professionals would choose the material and work with the young person who submitted it to make it performance-worthy.

“The hope is to find ways to open as many doors as possible to kids who have passion, talents and interests,” she said.

by Cindy Sutter