Forging a New Path

by CSO Staff

In American orchestras, most orchestra musicians are white. This lack of diversity on stage represents, perhaps, the single greatest challenge that exists in the classical arts. The problem isn’t necessarily a scarcity in available musicians of color, but deficiencies in the existing pathways to the professional level. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CSO/CCM) Diversity Fellowship is forging a new path by eliminating barriers to professional experiences, educational opportunities and access to funding.

“The lack of diversity on stage is a systemic issue that requires a systemic approach,” explained President & CEO of the CSO Jonathan Martin. “We recognize this, and the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship, while serving to open doors for the Fellows, has also catalyzed the development of deeper DE&I strategies and programs at the CSO.”
“Representation and visibility matter,” said Harold Brown, The Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. “In addition to being outstandingly talented musicians, the people on stage need to reflect the people in our community. When we see ourselves on stage, then we can see ourselves in the audience, our children can see themselves as future musicians, we see ourselves on the Board, we see ourselves as subscribers and donors. Diversity on stage does not just benefit the Orchestra, it benefits the whole organization and community.”

One of the first programs of its type, the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship was created in 2015 to amplify and support string players from populations historically underrepresented in American orchestras. Fellows receive a specialized two-year graduate degree-level education that offers traditional conservatory training through CCM alongside professional development and mainstage performance opportunities with the CSO. Each Fellow receives full-tuition scholarship support, a $10,000 per year graduate stipend, and a one-time Graduate School Dean’s Excellence Award of $3,000. Each Fellow also receives compensation of $8,000 per season while performing with the CSO. To date, 28 musicians have participated in the Fellowship program.

“Learning what it feels like to sit in a professional orchestra, to critically listen and contribute to the total sound of the ensemble, cannot be replicated. It is lived experience that prepares our Fellows for their next steps, and we are dedicated to providing that experience for future cohorts,” said Carol Dary Dunevant, CSO Director of Learning, who manages the Fellowship program.

Luis Arturo Celis Avila, Diversity Fellowship alumnus and new CSO bassist.

“I applied to 11 different colleges, and this was the only one I applied to that provided education and professional experience,” recalls Luis Arturo Celis Avila, a bassist and 2021–22 Diversity Fellow. “The professional experience we receive with the Fellowship is incomparable. We are simply ahead when we graduate because we have performed with the CSO.”

Since the Fellowship’s inception, 11 Diversity Fellows have won auditions with orchestras in the United States. For the current 2022–23 season, Emilio Carlo, Luis Arturo Celis Avila and Dan Wang won positions with the CSO; Denielle Wilson with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; and Magdiell Antequera with Artis-Naples.

Success isn’t only measured by those Fellows who win orchestral musician positions. Fellows have also pursued careers offstage in administrative and education positions.

“The network I developed through the Fellowship program workshops led me to my first job after graduation,” said Alexis Shambley, a violinist and 2018–20 Diversity Fellow. “I became a teaching artist at MyCincinnati, a free music program in Price Hill for students beginning in third grade. Now I have branched into orchestral administration as a member of the CSO marketing department.”

Blake-Anthony Johnson (2016–17) and Ian Saunders (2017–19) have also transitioned into administrative and education roles, respectively. Johnson currently serves as the President and CEO of the Chicago Sinfonietta, becoming the first African American executive to guide a nationally renowned orchestra. His work focuses on providing access and public service to all people through community and education-based initiatives. Saunders recently joined the String Training Education Program (STEP) as its artistic director after serving as the Dean of artistic and social change at the Longy School of Music. In his new role, he aims to expand education efforts in the development of young musicians.

“We recognize that professional careers can evolve in many different ways,” said Martin. “We are proud of each and every one of our Diversity Fellows for their musicianship and dedication to accelerating change in the industry, on and off the stage.”


“It is our honor to support the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship program. We have a great passion for music and music’s ability to transform lives, and we can see the transformation through the Diversity Fellowship program.” —Scott Weiss and Dr. Charla Weiss

The successes of the Fellowship have not gone unnoticed by the industry nor the Cincinnati community.

From the program’s inception, The Mellon Foundation has been the lead funder and partner for the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship and has recently renewed its commitment to funding the program through 2026. Beginning with the 2022–23 season, Scott Weiss and Dr. Charla Weiss, CSO Board Member and Chair of CSO Board’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, will join The Mellon Foundation to support the program in ways that complement the foundation’s grant.

Dr. Charla Weiss
Dr. Charla Weiss speaking at the 2022 Artist’s Circle donor event. Credit: Claudia Hershner

The Weisses believe in the mission of the Orchestra and they want to break down the barriers that hold back audiences and musicians alike. Their goal is to have “an Orchestra for everyone.”

“It is our honor to support the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship program,” said Dr. Charla Weiss. “We have a great passion for music and music’s ability to transform lives, and we can see the transformation through the Diversity Fellowship program. We are thrilled to play a part in helping orchestras reflect the people and vibrancy of the communities in which they serve.”