The Chicago Sinfonietta – Taking Risks and Pushing the Envelope with Regards to Diversity and Inclusion

On a local note, in the city I call home – Chicago – On October 3rd I attended the season opening concert of the Chicago Sinfonietta. The Chicago Sinfonietta gathers diverse sounds and talents from all over the world to redefine what you expect from an orchestra. At every performance they push the envelope, they take big risks, to create completely innovative experiences that you can hear, feel and see. They are focused on building cultural connections through music, and they take diversity and inclusion to a whole new level in all aspects of what they do.

This season’s opening concert was titled Tap in, Turn up. The performance combined the staccato rhythms of tap and the percussive beat of Flamenco with the orchestra’s performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, Roberto Sierra’s Fandangos, and other beautiful pieces. As always, I was enthralled. I was enthralled with the orchestra, with guest artist Cartier Williams who is a tap master, and the Clinard Dance Theatre. You should also know that the Sinfonietta’s conductor is a female – Mei-Ann Chen. recently had a wonderful conversation with Courtney Perkins, who is the Director of Development and Operations at the Chicago Sinfonietta, in which we spoke about the organization, its history and mission, and the risks they are taking with a diverse slate of mind-blowingly talented array of musicians and artists.

Daniella: Courtney, please tell us a little about the Chicago Sinfonietta, and your role there.

Courtney: Chicago Sinfonietta is an incredible non-profit arts organization with a social mission. The Sinfonietta seeks to redefine classical music through the innovative presentation of symphonic works, including exciting and unexpected collaborations, as well as actively promoting diversity and inclusion in the field through expansive education programs and highlighting composers and guest artists of diverse backgrounds. We perform both in downtown Chicago and in Naperville.

I am the Director of Development and Operations. I focus on fundraising and relationship development, with donors, prospects, but also really on the operations side managing relationships with staff, musicians, board members and Sinfonietta stakeholders.

Daniella: At the Chicago Sinfonietta you have a very important and successful approach with regards to diversity and inclusion, and bringing up the next generation of talent. Can you tell us about that looks like, how it manifests itself?

Courtney: We were founded by Maestro Paul Freeman in 1987. He was an incredible African American conductor, the first on over fifty podiums throughout the world. Maestro Paul Freeman founded the orchestra in 1987 because he felt he could provide a space for musicians, composers, and soloists of diverse backgrounds to be heard. He wanted an orchestra that reflected the community it served and took risks in a field often bound by tradition. Through his work, Maestro Freeman founded the nation’s most diverse orchestra with over 44% musicians of diverse backgrounds. The top 200 orchestras go on stage with an average of 9% musicians of diverse backgrounds if that, and the number is even less for conductors. That diversity extends to our, board, staff, and audience as well.

We work to bring up the next generation of concert goers, musicians, conductors, and now even arts administrators of diverse backgrounds through our expansive education programs. Project Inclusion is a program I think that sums it up. Maestro Freeman formalized this program in 2008, which provides a two year fellowship for emerging professional musicians of diverse backgrounds. They play with the orchestra for every concert sequence, they receive mentorship from section leaders and other players, as well as the conductor, and they also receive help with job placement. This program then expanded to include small ensemble providing more performance opportunities, as well as providing classical music where there otherwise would be none. Last year we expanded to including conductors as well. In our first round, the conductors we worked with got placement in two top national orchestras. This fall we are expanding to include arts administrators. This work is actively changing the face of classical music and it is so rewarding.

Maestro Freeman passed away this July and we all miss him dearly. But, the legacy he has left is amazing. His work will continue to change the face of classical music for years to come.

Daniella: At every concert you have such unique and exciting guest artists that engage with the orchestra in such unusual ways. Please tell us about two of the female guest artists that you featured over the last couple of years, and their role in the performance they participated in. Please also tell us about the types of risks those artists took in their performance with the Sinfonietta, and the risks the Sinfonietta took in engaging the artists in those performances.

Courtney: Two of my favorite female artists we’ve featured in the last couple of years. Hmm…this is a tough question. There are really so many from which to choose.

I would say firstly it would be Adé Williams, a seventeen year old virtuoso violinist. Maestro Freeman invited Ade to play for us for the first time when she was just six years old. He saw incredible promise in her even then and he was right, and this really launched a series of solo opportunities for her.  Since that time Ade has grown in age and in skill, she’s a Sphinx competition winner as well as many other competitions, she founded a trio with her cousins called Sugar Strings, and now studies at the Curtis Institute. Maestro Chen invited her to perform with the Sinfonietta to do movements from Piazzolla’s Four Seasons. The risks Adé takes in her performance are the same ones I see she takes in life. She puts herself out there emotionally on stage at such a young age. Despite her age, she reaches people through her emotions. She opens up and lets the audience in, regardless of how she might be received. She has approached her career with that same risk. She dared to imagine herself as a successful soloist and performer in a field that didn’t look like her. She took the challenge and made her way through the opportunities given to her, despite how scary it might be to solo in front of a professional orchestra at six or even at seventeen. We are all so proud to see her grow and succeed and are happy to continue our relationship with Ade.

Then, I think I would have to say I absolutely loved working with Wendy Clinard, the flamenco dancer on our current season opening sequence. Maestro Chen challenged Wendy to choreograph two pieces: one where she’d solo dance to Roberto Sierra’s Fandangos, a contemporary classical piece; and one where she’d share the stage with tapper Cartier Williams. Wendy also chose to invite young dancer Marisela Tapia to join her to make a trio. The risk here is choreographing dance, and percussive dance at that, where it was not originally intended. Both pieces are about dance, but not either performed with dance or certainly not with flamenco in the case of Polovtsian Dances. Wendy choreographed these pieces so thoughtfully musically with appropriate percussion and also following the narrative of the pieces. It was beautiful to watch and when she shared the staged with young talent, in Cartier and Marisela, it was inspiring. The pairings of flamenco with this music was risky, but it paid off. The audience was challenged to reimagine the pieces as they’d never seen or heard them before—and they took that challenge and loved it!

That’s what the Sinfonietta is all about – challenging one’s expectations about what a symphonic experience should be – how it should sound, look or feel – and redefining it for our audiences. We take risks and sometimes it is really scary, but when those risks pay off, it is transformative.

Daniella: What advice do you have for women who are building their career in the non-profit arena?

Courtney: Know your worth, place value on what you bring to the table. You have something unique to your own experience, know what that is and how to embrace it. In that knowing, is your voice. Also, be open and humble. You cannot learn without that. Absorb as much as you can and take advantage of the opportunities presented to you, even when they may not feel like opportunities. I’ve always learned from both the positive and the negative and been thankful for both.

Daniella: So tell us Courtney, what is the next big risk you have planned for yourself?

Courtney: Well, Daniella, I just hit a milestone birthday this August. I turned forty and to be honest it feels great. I am at this place where I feel confident in what I know and am excited by what I view as learning possibilities. I wanted to set some really challenging goals for myself professionally, defining what success will look like for me over the next three to five years and really planning for it. Some of that will mean saying no to things I thought I wanted when I was thirty, which is scary in some ways, but also imagining things for myself I never thought I could attain and building around that. It’s an exciting time. I am ready to listen to my instincts and continue to carve my path. I am so lucky to have incredible female role models that take risks and have incredible experiences. I am excited for the journey.