How can we increase diversity in classical music?

Jeremy Pound attends Radio 3's Diversity and Inclusion in Composition conference in Manchester


How many times have you heard the works of Ignatius Sancho, George Walker or Chevalier de Saint-Georges performed in the past 12 months? Or how about, say, Daniel Kildane, Priti Paintall or Raymond Yiu? If you have, you are in the minority of concert-goers, as none of them get much of a look-in.

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What links the above six is that they are all black and minority ethnic (BAME) composers. The first three are from years past, the latter three very much alive and kicking. That their names are all relatively unfamiliar to most of us was the driving force behind yesterday's Diversity and Inclusion in Composition conference, organised by Radio 3 and partners at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Why do BAME composers get consistently overlooked and, more importantly, what can be done to change that?

The figures, presented to the conference by Vick Bain, CEO of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) speak for themselves: while 14 per cent of Britain's population are BAME, the per cent of commissions by BAME composers of the total entered for the British Composer Awards last year was less than half that. The percentage of works by BAME composers of the total performed in British concert halls last year was not given, but one suspects it would be pretty similar, if not worse.

It does not make good reading, but this was not a conference of finger-wagging and pointing. In a superbly enlightening presentation, Aesha Zafar, head of talent development at BBC North, explained to us how nearly all of us are innately inclined to have some sort of racial bias, however hard we tell us ourselves that we don't. It's a bias, in short, that leads us to make all sorts of subconscious assumptions about someone's abilities, gravitas and so on. What we need to do is not beat ourselves up about it, but learn to consciously counteract it.

A valuable historical perspective, meanwhile, was added by composer and conductor  Dr Shirley J Thompson who, accompanied by a carousel of BAME composers dating back to the 18th century (including those three names above), explained that there is a wealth of music by BAME composers which, stashed away in archives and forgotten over the years, is well worth reinvestigating and performing. For an enlightened concert programmer, it could provide a wealth of  interesting 'new' historical repertoire.

With various perspectives presented by an array of speakers – not least composers Eleanor Alberga, Errollyn Wallen, Jeffrey Mumford and, speaking passionately from within the audience, Hannah Kendall – the day also included break-out groups and discussion sessions, one of which will be broadcast on Music Matters on Saturday (22 October). Overall, the message, summed up by Alan Davey, controller of Radio 3, was a positive one – championing music by BAME composers can only have considerable benefits for Britain's cultural scene, so let's go ahead and do it.

As he looked around the hall, it will not have escaped Davey's notice that he was speaking to many of classical music's movers and shakers – the sort of people that really can make a difference. Another unavoidable observation, however, is that said movers and shakers are in the great majority, yes, white. As Hannah Kendall said in her speech, this is 'an industry-wide issue; it has to cut right through from top to bottom'. Nicely put.

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Coverage of the Diversity and Inclusion in Composition conference will be included in Music Matters on Radio 3 on Saturday at 12.15pm