Reflections on diversity

Cheltenham Music Festival's Meurig Bowen on his strategy for inclusion

Reflections on diversity
Chineke! Orchestra

On Wednesday (19 October), BBC Radio 3 held its first ever Diversity and Inclusion in Composition conference at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Among the conference's various aims was to address why black and ethnic minority (BAME) musicians are so under-represented in the UK's concert halls, and ask what can be done about it. Meurig Bowen, who has been artistic director of the Cheltenham Music Festival since 2008, was one of those attending the conference. Here are his reflections…

Diversify the Decision-Makers… Spread the word about unconscious bias… Maximise the visibility of role models… Urgently explore the BAME back catalogue… Know that deep, long-lasting change will only come from changes in top-down institutional thinking - as well as from early-years education upwards…

These are some of the headline messages and actions that I took away from this thoughtfully constructed, many-voiced and compact conference at the Royal Northern College of Music. Its focus was on composition, but of course the inter-related issues of audiences, performers and education flowed into the discussions through the day. There will be more such gatherings and discussions, but this one felt particularly important, tide-turning and liberating. Its galvanising spirit will yield action and change.

One thing a conference like this does is encourage you to audit what you’ve done about it yourself, in your own organisation – and, of course, what you haven’t done (yet). If it were a school report, I’d give myself a B or a B minus, and an inevitable ‘must try harder, must do better’. (In my day, you didn’t get lower than a C).

In my nine years to date at Cheltenham, we’ve had the composer, kora player and cellist Tunde Jegede as a featured artist over three years (education projects combined with mainstage concerts and collaborations). Composer Hannah Kendall, likewise, was embedded in our education work for two years, and we commissioned an orchestral work from her – Shard, premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and conductor Martyn Brabbins – in a third year. We had Rosemary Nalden’s remarkable Soweto String Ensemble in residence for a week in 2014. Daniel Kidane was an outstanding member of our first Composer Academy in 2013 (though it was his talent that got him through a highly competitive selection process, not the colour of his skin). Likewise, James Wilson was an equally striking participant in the Academy’s third year. The Carducci Quartet premiered a work by David Önaç in 2013, then a PhD student, now on the teaching staff at the University of Birmingham. London Music Masters’ wise and inspirational director Rob Adediran joined my advisory group two years ago. And priority has been increasingly given in offering and taking education projects to schools beyond Cheltenham where there is greater ethnic diversity. That place is called Gloucester, eight miles down the road: curiously, Cheltenham’s own demographic harks back to a 1950s-style middle England.

So, not a shamefully blank record to date, but ultimately piecemeal and not enough to shout about. In next year’s Cheltenham Music Festival, we are going to do more, and do better. The best part of two days – one sixth of the festival – will have a BAME focus. With a fair fundraising wind (because at this stage of a festival-planning year, much hangs in the balance), we will welcome the Chineke! orchestra, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his pianist sister Isata, 17-year-old Cheltenham pianist Adam Heron and debates curated by London Music Masters. A commission for Chineke! is under discussion.

All of this I look forward to with relish – it will not be presented as ‘the right thing to do’, but because such content will hugely enrich the programme and audience experience. Performances by Chineke!, the Kanneh-Masons and Heron in the recent past have greatly moved and excited me. As Rob Adediran says: ‘When you broaden the talent pool, you find more talent. You allow fresh ideas and new stories to be expressed. The art gets better, and more interesting.’

My thinking on this precedes the excellent Radio 3/RNCM conference by a few months, but it has definitely been sharpened up by the Manchester event. Chi-Chi Nwanoku’s ‘direct action’ in forming Chineke! can inspire and embolden us all. Interventions are OK, because interventions are needed. As Sound and Music’s Susanna Eastburn said in her eloquent presentation, ‘incremental change’ is too slow; it isn’t enough.

Another thing that is now very clear to me: a one-off BAME focus in something as intrinsically ‘pop-up’ as a festival isn’t enough either. I need to re-set my programming compass for all the remaining years I have the privilege of artistic responsibility. Ways of thinking and decision-making processes need to be adjusted, not only to accommodate direct interventions but to combat the unconscious bias we all have, as identified in Aesha Zafar’s hugely illuminating presentation.

I have no doubt that setting such a new course with that altered artistic compass will be stimulating, rewarding and full of discovery, but it will be challenging too. Being an artistic gatekeeper involves, as that label suggests, tough choices and decisions. For every artist or composer we choose to be in a festival programme or concert season, there are umpteen more whom we have necessarily had to choose not to be in that year. There are many talented and artistically committed individuals, some without the thickest of skins, whom I have undoubtedly disappointed and upset over the years through a choice I have made. That always weighs heavily on me. In all walks of life - artistic programming, the job market, team selection – there have to be winners and losers.

I am wholly comfortable with the direct action approach that will emerge in Cheltenham from next year onwards, as I have been previously with priorities given to women composers. As Susanna Eastburn put it, there will be ‘joyful embrace’ more than any sense of duty. But because we artistic planners inevitably have limitations of programming slots and budgets, any shift of artistic priorities will mean ‘market conditions’ toughen up elsewhere: opportunities may lessen for others. Here, in part, is the complexity of the ‘affirmative action’ debate.

This is why Radio 3’s gender and diversity commitments are so important. With 168 programming hours a week, 52 weeks a year, the world’s greatest classical music radio station has far wider scope to make an instant, deep impact than a 50-concert, 100-programmed hours festival like mine. That’s not me making excuses in advance – I am going to do my very best to make a difference. It simply means that while I won’t be able to programme them all straight away, we can look forward soon to hearing much more from the likes of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Florence Price and Ulysses Kay, and of many other ‘back catalogue’ BAME composers - whose current obscurity cannot be judged in the usual justly/unjustly-neglected category because theirs was not a level playing field. It is up to all of us currently privileged with artistic influence to ensure that this can never be said of Price and Kay’s successors, alive and composing now.


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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