By Sam McDonald

A new fellowship intended to boost diversity in the world of symphonic music is off to a rousing start, participants and organizers say.

Last month, Old Dominion University’s Barry Art Museum hosted a celebration for the first set of musicians to complete the Virginia Symphony Orchestra African American Fellowship Program, a collaboration with ODU.

“The first year of the program has been a great success,” said Helen Martell, director of education and staff conductor for the symphony. “Not only did the fellows gain from this program, but hundreds of school children and community members benefitted from their music coaching and interactive chamber music performances.”

Through the fellowship program, four early career orchestral string musicians are chosen to spend a year playing with the VSO, engaging in public school residencies, and giving educational performances.

Three of the program’s initial four fellows participated in the program with help from ODU: violinist Omari Imhotep Abdul-Alim and double bassists Avery Robinson and Zacherie Small. A fourth fellow, Emmanual Losa, played with the symphony but did not participate in outreach programs.

For Abdul-Alim, Robinson, and Small, ODU provided housing, helped them participate in a Graduate Certificate Program, and arranged for the players to connect and perform with university music students.

The fellows regularly rehearsed and performed with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, contributing to more than 100 events throughout the year. That included concerts with stars ranging from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to electric bassist Victor Wooten.

Fellows also performed chamber music for elementary school students in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Chesapeake.

Virginia Symphony Orchestra African American Fellowship Program musicians performed for public school students in Hampton Roads. Photo courtesy of Virginia Symphony Orchestra

Virginia Symphony Orchestra African American Fellowship Program musicians performed for public school students in Hampton Roads. Photo courtesy of Virginia Symphony Orchestra

“The fellows have become intrinsic members of our community and have made all of us far better through our shared world,” said Emily Ondracek-Peterson, executive director of ODU’s Diehn School of Music. “They have been inspirational for our students as they see them go from rehearsals on campus to performances with the VSO to teaching and performing at schools throughout the Hampton Roads community.”

Paul Sanho Kim, orchestra director and strings coordinator at ODU, said he remembered playing with the Greater Richmond Youth Symphony Orchestra when he was a middle school student. Most of the musicians were white, but a few Asian students were part of the orchestra.

“My experience seeing, hearing, and playing with other people who looked like me helped shape my perceptions of what is a normal thing to do for people who looked like me,” Kim recalled. “So, it is of personal significance to me to be involved with institutions that not only give lip service to the value of diversity, but who take active steps to promote that diversity and to level the playing field.”

Martell said the idea for the African American Fellowship Program emerged in 2016 as the symphony sought to broaden its relevance and impact. The symphony launched a “Music for Everyone” initiative to train musicians, staff and leaders on equity, diversity, and inclusion concepts. The organization made plans to strengthen its accessibility on multiple fronts.

“Many staff and musicians continue to take leadership roles in the fellowship program and our other equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and we are grateful that these efforts are supported so whole-heartedly throughout our organization,” Martell said.

At the Barry Art Museum celebration, Kim gave the fellows a warm sendoff.

“Thank you for being a great model and mentor for the music students at ODU, and for showing younger kids all over Hampton Roads that they, too, can be professional musicians when they grow up.”