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Spotlight on Aurelia “Candie” Simmons


Meghan Berneking

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For this Spotlight we feature patron and volunteer Aurelia “Candie” Simmons. In coming months we’ll continue to spotlight other patrons, musicians or leaders within the CSO and Pops community.

A native Cincinnatian, Aurelia “Candie” Simmons’ career as Business Operation Manager for IBM had her living in several other places before she moved back to the Queen City. When she moved back to Cincinnati, a “Basic Black” series at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra piqued her interest, along with the group behind it—the founding members of the Multicultural Awareness Council (MAC). She started coming to concerts as was invited to join MAC. In 1999 she became the chair, and ever since has played a decisive leadership role in developing and executing the CSO’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.

“With MAC, I love the idea that we have the opportunity to focus on increasing the diversity in the audience,” she said. Two of MAC’s initiatives that remain closest to Mrs. Simmons’ heart are Nouveau Chamber Players and Classical Roots. “When we first started Classical Roots it was such a small group of people. Even before we went out to churches, it really kicked off in [Music Hall’s] Corbett Tower. After those sessions we really felt we needed to get out to the community since we hadn’t really reached the masses. So that’s when we went to churches, and it became a buzz. And when someone comes to your church and inspires you with a different form of music you hadn’t heard before, you want to hear more about it.” Classical Roots is now an annual event that sells out Springer Auditorium in Music Hall.

While Classical Roots has helped expand the CSO’s audiences, Mrs. Simmons also sees Nouveau Chamber Players (an ensemble of African-American high school string students) as a unique opportunity to help diversify the musicians as well. “I get so emotional when I see those young people and how they’re growing up and going to college,” she said. Nouveau Chamber Players also offers Mrs. Simmons the unique opportunity to partner two organizations she loves, as The Queen City Chapter of the Links, Inc. sponsors the program through its national “Classics Through the Ages” program.

Mrs. Simmons was also instrumental in establishing the Norman E. Johns Chair in the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra. The award (named in honor of current CSO cellist) is given each year to a talented minority student, and covers the full cost of tuition for the CSYO. The CSO recently launched a campaign to endow this chair, and many founding members of MAC are now getting re-involved to ensure the success of the endowment. The new CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship is a significant step in the right direction, said Mrs. Simmons, ensuring African-American and other minority student musicians have the necessary support not only through high school, but into graduate school and beyond.

“The project that I am most proud of was the development of the CSO’s diversity initiative,” said Mrs. Simmons. “In the early 2000s, I was asked to participate as chair of MAC. From that committee we came up with a diversity plan.” The diversity initiative resulted, among other things, the placement of a full-time Community Engagement and Diversity Manager on the CSO’s staff to help carry out the goals placed by the committee. “I will always be proud of being part of that initiative. Prior to that, it was a goal without teeth, but then we started working on a real plan and it really took off.”

While there have been countless concert performances that stand out in Mrs. Simmons’ memory, two in particular was a performance of a work by African-American composer William Grant Still (during which his daughter participated in the pre-concert Classical Conversation), and Louis Langrée’s inaugural concert in November 2013 with Dr. Maya Angelou. “That was unbelievable. [Louis] being there, the Orchestra, her being there, the visual effect—I got goosebumps. That was such an experience, I don’t know how to explain that. It would be really hard to top that.”

Though she “retired” in 1996, the term is relative, as her volunteerism CV extends to organizations and special projects in every corner of city. While she’s lent her leadership skills and passion to dozens of organizations over the years, she’s currently involved with Lighthouse Youth Services, the Queen City Chapter of the Links, Inc., the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, and is an active alumnus of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She also led the volunteerism charge for the MLB All-Star Game in the summer of 2015.

While her busy volunteerism schedule may seem daunting, Mrs. Simmons doesn’t see it as such. “As a child, I was always asked to help out, so I never thought of it as volunteering, and my whole family is like that,” she said. Inspired by her faith and her family (she and her husband have a blended family of two children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren—“I’m inspired by their inspiration,” she said), giving back to the community comes naturally to Mrs. Simmons. “As I get older I learn that some people write big checks, and we need those desperately, but we also need people who can just get in and do. And I suppose I’m one of those. I really believe I’m filling in my gap—you’re born and you die and what you do in between is what people remember. I want my time here to make a difference.”