Audience Diversification – Virginia Symphony Orchestra: CommUNITY
The Virginia Symphony Orchestra has established a popular tradition in its CommUNITY Play-In and Sing-Along, an “annual event that embraces our community’s cultural richness and diversity, uniting people of all ages, faiths, and backgrounds through participation in music, dance, and spoken word.” It is held at Norfolk State University, a historically Black institution. People of any skill level are invited to play and sing alongside the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Music is provided, and the three required rehearsals encourage serious commitment.
The September 2023 edition included performances by a Navy band, a military academy, the Norfolk State Chorus, and Teens With A Purpose (a national youth empowerment organization). Speakers included the mayor of Norfolk, a rabbi, an imam, a minister, a naval officer, and Music Director Eric Jacobsen. Repertory stretched from a reorchestration of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 incorporating local rap artists, to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Lift Every Voice, and Wonderful World. Television coverage shows how enthusiastic and authentic this celebration of multiple traditions is.
Director of Diversity and Engagement Nikki Thorpe works with her colleagues in Artistic Planning to recruit participants and determine repertory. She also makes sure that the VSO’s social channels highlight monthly cultural celebrations like Black History Month and Women’s History Month. “Every year we build on different cultural observances,” she says. This season they are collaborating with the Chamber for Hispanic Progress on a concert for the Latino community. Any chance that such efforts might seem tokenizing is offset, she says, by the diversity of the VSO’s year-round programming. There is an ongoing commitment. And, crucially, “we work with people that own it to celebrate with them, not try to lead it ourselves.”
Photo: Screenshot of television coverage of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s CommUNITY Play-In and Sing-Along.