By Nadeem Badshah
EFFORTS to make classical music more diverse have not gone far enough, according to industry experts.
The director of the English National Opera (ENO), Martyn Brabbins, has admitted attracting talent from BAME backgrounds will be hard but believes opera groups, music schools and teachers should ensure everybody had the opportunity to “experience the magic of music”.
The ENO has launched a scheme to recruit five BAME string musicians for its orchestra on 12-month fellowships. Similar programmes have seen four Chorus Fellows from ethnic minority backgrounds recruited as well as the offering of Director Observerships and “blind auditions” for permanent positions.
Jay Visvadeva, a music promoter and CEO of Sama Arts Network, told Eastern Eye: “There some serious issues facing the diversity policy which has become part of everyday topical activity but without much concrete results.
“It is also a ‘tick box’ exercise for those are involved in the arts, but no one has dared go deeper into making it work.
“There are still many barriers to overcome after so many years of so-called implementation of diversity policies across the board.
“The arts have not progressed as too many BAME artists find it a hurdle to be part of the mainstream artistic activities.
“Although some occasional token approaches have been made but these are short lived.”
Research by King’s College London in 2015 found that in 17 British orchestras only 1.7 per cent of their members were from a BAME background.
In January, Arts Council England (ACE) announced major funding for two diverse classical ensembles, the Chineke! Orchestra and Pegasus Opera Company.
An ACE spokeswoman told Eastern Eye: “It’s fair to say that the workforce of the majority of England’s orchestras and other classical music ensembles is not fully reflective of the diverse society in which we live.
“They [new funding] are an important addition to the funding we already provide to organisations who support classical musicians with disabilities such as the ParaOrchestra and BSO Resound.
“However, the Arts Council also wants to play its part in helping us all understand more about the diversity of the classical music sector. We feel there is much more to do.
“So we will soon be announcing a major research project that aims to help paint a true picture of the diversity of the classical music sector, with the ambition of implementing some real change to address this reality.”
Ten per cent of the ENO’s audience during the 2018/19 season was of BAME origin.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist who performed at Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding in 2018, has called for more investment in music education to tackle the lack of diversity in classical music.
The 20-year-old musician, who recently became the first cellist to reach the top 10 in the UK album chart, said: “I’ve benefited from having so much music education.
“And the thought that lots of people won’t have something even close to that same level is a real shame.
“Diversity needs to start way, way before people are auditioning. If actual education is not invested in and supported, then nothing will change.”
John Shortell, from the Musicians’ Union (MU), said it is delighted the ENO are tackling the issue of diversity in orchestras head-on.
He added: “It’s essential that orchestras reflect our diverse society and positive action initiatives, such as ENO’s, are a vital first step in making orchestras more representative and help level the playing field for BAME musicians.”
Brabbins, ENO’s music director, said: “Here at ENO we are committed to contributing to the development of a more diverse classical music industry.
“We strongly believe by introducing the ENO Orchestra Fellowship for BAME String Players we will make an important and much-needed difference to the opera industry, and further our belief that opera should be open to everybody.”
Meanwhile, Arts Council England said they want to create a nation with better access to culture in every “village, town and city” by 2030.
Its new strategy includes more emphasis on supporting people individually and at every stage of their life, championing a wider range of culture, and increasing spending and support for libraries. It also aspires to give communities more opportunity to design and develop the culture on offer.