Five Questions with President Jeff Alexander
President of the
"Of course if you look at the staff, or the orchestra, or the board you would say, “Come on. It’s not diverse enough.” That clearly was the case and it’s still the case. It’s definitely an issue; what I didn’t observe is that the state of the organization was overtly and intentionally keeping people out."
President Jeff Alexander
by artist Olga Nabatova
By Emily Trace
President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association since 2015, Jeff Alexander is well-known for navigating difficult situations calmly and receptively—a skill that one the world’s most renowned orchestras needed to steer safely through 2020’s myriad of challenges.
Alexander sat down with myself and smART Magazine editor Michael Zarathus-Cook to reflect on the lessons he’s learned over the last year, his vision of the CSO’s future, and how 2020 clarified its mission while highlighting the organization’s ability to bring comfort to those sheltering at home.
He also weighs in on the development of CSOtv, a streaming platform that brings music to listeners across the globe via a socially distanced orchestra. He discusses the pros and cons of blind auditioning, currently a high-profile debate in the industry, and how the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative has begun to provide mentorship and training opportunities to young musicians of colour.
What kind of programming has the CSO been developing over the past year?
When the pandemic hit we all had to shut down so quickly on March 12, a day we’ll never forget. In Chicago, the mayor announced a ban on public gatherings and the governor extended that to 60 days.We turned to our musicians and asked what they would like to do, because of course they love playing together in ensembles and orchestras. They were eager to help the organization and the community, so it evolved pretty quickly though May and June. Most of our activity involved members of our orchestra recording videos from home: they were short, really quite endearing, and musically excellent. The viewership was wonderful; some were getting viewers in the multi-millions from around the world.
As we started thinking about the fall and the fact that we were not going to be able to present live performances, CSOtv was born in discussions with the senior management team and the marketing department. There were also discussions going on on a national level with the American Federation of Musicians, since orchestra member’s contracts are written for normal circumstances. So CSOtv was a good collaboration with our orchestra members and their union.
Normally we would have 80-100 people on stage, but we measured our stage and how many people we could fit while keeping everybody 6 feet apart. We came up with 45 musicians—about half the orchestra. So we planned some chamber music programs that only needed 10-15 musicians and some that only needed 45. A lot of baroque and early classical. The first four or five weeks of programs were strictly chamber music: octets, quartets, septets, etc.
We decided not to do live streams for a couple of reasons: we didn’t have the technical equipment and also felt that it would put too much pressure on everyone involved. We are fortunate that we have a wonderful photographer/videographer on retainer who’s been with the orchestra for over twenty years. And of course, our Music Director Riccardo Muti participated in finalizing the programs as did Vice President Cristina Rocca, and off we went.
Simultaneously, we wanted to make sure we were producing some educational programs as well, and we just launched the third one a couple of weeks ago. These are wonderful short videos that are available for free to the general public.
The question of blind auditions was hotly debated around September when that NY Times article came out arguing for an end to the practice of blind auditions for the sake of conscious diversity.
That was an interesting and controversial article; in the case of the CSO—and I think this is true of most orchestras, not all, but most—blind auditions had been our tradition going back forty or fifty years to correct the lack of gender diversity. And we don’t screen resumes; everyone who applies is invited to audition. Now… not everybody attends; let’s say 200 people send in their resume; we then send the list of repertoire that’s going to be asked of them during the audition and that usually reduces the number.
We have preliminary auditions all behind a screen, so anyone who performs has the opportunity to be successful. Then we do a semi-final round where a very large pool has been narrowed down to ten, still done behind a screen. Typically, a final round has maybe three people left. Then, the screen’s been coming down at the end. And one could say that gives you the opportunity to discriminate in the final three, but the rationale behind taking the screens down has always been that when hiring someone to play in the orchestra, it’s important to see how they hold their instrument; if they’re a string player, the bow arm is very important. And also sometimes in the final round, especially for winds or brass, we might have the finalists play duets with a member of the orchestra just to see if the sound blends.
Two or three years ago when we last had our collective bargaining negotiations, the musicians suggested that we change the audition regulations so that we leave the screens up even during the final round. To prevent discrimination of course, but also sometimes someone’s student is in the final round, or a spouse, or a friend, and it’s better just to keep the screens up until the end. Post-pandemic, I think we will be leaning more towards leaving the screens up.
How did artistic leadership react to 2020 and what was the atmosphere like? Did that change the mission and the sense of urgency felt within the organization around DEI?
I’ve been with the CSO for six years and when I came to the organization it was clear to me that it was a very open and embracing organization. Of course if you look at the staff, or the orchestra, or the board you would say, “Come on. It’s not diverse enough.” That clearly was the case and it’s still the case.
Do you foresee CSOtv becoming a permanent installation post-pandemic for the folks who can’t make it to the auditorium?
We’d have to get funding for it since the costs currently outweigh the revenue; we charge about $15 per episode, and depending on the episode we’ll have anywhere from a couple hundred to several thousand people watch it. But yes, I think, going forward we will continue to have some kind of online video presence. Right now, it’s wonderful because it’s keeping our musicians active and keeping us in front of our subscribers. And the CSOtv episodes have already been viewed by people in over twenty countries around the world and in most of the fifty states, so there’s a much broader geographical exposure even though it’s a fewer number of people. One of our main responsibilities as a performing arts organization is to give people pleasure, and joy, and comfort. It doesn’t make any sense from a financial standpoint, but it makes sense with our mission.
How has the CSO responded to the massive reckoning with racial representation happening across sectors that began in 2020? Do you see the CSO’s African American Network and Latino Network playing a more involved role moving forwards, perhaps in programming, recruitment, educational access for young musicians of colour, or how the CSO can evaluate its own culture of inclusivity?
About a year ago we were taking a look at our board governance document which outlines the responsibilities of our Board of Trustees, and it had not been refreshed for several years. We observed that there’s very little that speaks to diversity, equity and inclusion. So we said, let’s fix that. We added a requirement that the Trustees would make certain there was a focus on DEI by mandating that the administration reports annually on what progress has been made. Over last summer and into the fall, we established five framework groups, each with a different focus on DEI: one for music and musicians, education of course, Trustee recruitment and retention, administration recruitment and retention, etc. The members of the framework groups are a cross section of trustees, the orchestra, the chorus, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and the administration. So these five groups are working on plans for how we can advance DEI within the organization.
It’s definitely an issue; what I didn’t observe is that the state of the organization was overtly and intentionally keeping people out. And certainly, though there are a number of African American trustees, LatinX trustees, Asian trustees, the numbers were not big enough and we’re working on that, same for the administration. It’s not easy; it's never easy. But we’ll see improvements because of 2020. It’s opened our eyes even further; prompted us to ask, “Can’t you see what your organization looks like? Don’t you think it should look different?” And we all agree that it should look different. I’ve come up against no resistance and in fact, quite the contrary, I feel a warm embrace of the activities we’re undertaking right now.
On the side of the orchestra, where we feel we can be helpful, is in the education of young musicians. Because it is hard to win an audition into a symphony orchestra and it’s really hard to win an audition into the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—or Cleveland, or Boston, or New York, or Toronto and Vancouver. So we’re focusing on a program we co-founded a couple years ago called the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative in partnership with six other local performing arts organizations, funded by the Mellon Foundation. The program serves many young musicians from underrepresented backgrounds in general, including musicians of color.
The goal is that every year we’ll identify fifty young musicians of colour selected through an audition process—not blind, of course—and then they’re mentored by professional musicians. They’re coached, they take private lessons, they take part in mock auditions, all to prepare them for the life of a professional musician. And we were so proud at the end of the first year that all seven graduating seniors in the program were successful in winning auditions with conservatories.
What happened in 2020 put an incredible focus on the lack of diversity in our organizations and incredible focus on how people of colour have been treated in the United States. It’s been there since the beginning. There’s an interesting line between not overtly excluding people of colour from the organization and overtly welcoming them.