Orchestra fellowship promotes diversity

The Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship aims to improve representation in American orchestras. (Left to right) Ayrton Pisco, Sydney Adedamola, Bradley Parrimore and Juan-Salvador Carrasco are the first four musicians to receive the fellowship. (Photo from USC News)

A new two-year fellowship called the Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship aims to diversify American orchestras. The fellowship was created by the USC Thornton School of Music, Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The four recipients had their first performance as a quartet Tuesday at Newman Recital Hall.

The program’s goal is to provide training and support to musicians from underrepresented backgrounds in orchestra, including Latinx, black and Native people. Black people and Latinos each account for less than 3 percent of professional orchestras, according to the League of American Orchestras.

To increase diversity in these ensembles, the program offers underrepresented students performance training with faculty members at Thornton, a chance to rehearse and perform with LACO and the opportunity to mentor young musicians from the local community involved in ICYOLA.

“We’re doing everything we can to be sure they’re going into the profession, but then they are also acting as role models for students of color in this pipeline in ICYOLA,” Thornton Dean Robert Cutietta said.

Despite initial concerns that students wouldn’t apply for the program, many applicants who auditioned in January. The very first fellowship class includes violinist Sydney Adedamola, violinist Ayrton Pisco, violist Bradley Parrimore and cellist Juan-Salvador Carrasco.

“It’s great to see how dedicated they are because they had a concert earlier in the week, and then this [Visions & Voices Event Tuesday night], and then they continued to rehearse for their next thing after their concert last night so they’re working super hard,” LACO Director of Marketing Justus Zimmerman said. “It’s exciting to see them see the opportunity for all it’s worth and run with it.”

Fellowship recipients receive housing, utilities, travel funds to attend auditions and a full scholarship to attend Thornton’s Graduate Certificate program. The program receives funding through a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which seeks to strengthen the importance of the humanities and arts to the well-being of societies.

“White players for a long time have been prepared by their upbringing and their professional network and a lot of players/musicians of color don’t have access to those same networks or same socializing,” Zimmerman said. “The goal is to make sure that when they go out for auditions, they win them and are prepared and on a level playing field by the time they get there.”

The idea for the program was conceived last year when Cutietta met with leaders from ICYOLA and LACO. After brainstorming ways to diversify orchestras, they came up with the idea of requesting funding to support students who needed help transitioning from college to their professional careers.

“Sometimes you’re just around a table and you know you’ve hit it,” Cutietta said. “This was such a perfect combination that, for the first time, I left that meeting and said ‘We’ll get funding for this, no doubt.’”

Cutietta said the program only has enough funding for two to three more years — its  founders will have to demonstrate its success in order to receive more funding. Cutietta said that to them, success will be measured by the students who secure permanent jobs in professional orchestras. He also hopes the younger mentees will follow a similar path by pursuing a career in classical music.

“I appreciate [the fellowship’s] efforts to remain practical because often in the arts, leading a life as a musician, a lot of the feedback you get is about being the best musician you can be and it’s really focused on that,” Carrasco said. “That’s great because that should be a main priority but it’s really nice to have a presence in your life saying, ‘OK, but we actually want to support you getting a job and being able to make a living and having a life in this field, in the context of the real world.’”