A New Era at the Minnesota Orchestra

Photos by Aaron Job

The 1997 Time magazine cover featuring Ellen DeGeneres and the instantly famous words “Yep, I’m Gay” changed the course of countless lives and organizations. One of those organizations? The Minnesota Orchestra.

Back in the pre-marriage-equality ’90s, the Orchestra’s arms weren’t exactly wide open to the queer community, both inside and outside of the organization. A major sign of this: health benefits for queer members of the orchestra weren’t equal to those of married musicians.

Minnesota Orchestra violinist Deborah Serafini was the only “out” musician in the orchestra at the time. Inspired by the Time cover and DeGeneres’ decision to have her sitcom character come out as a lesbian on her show “Ellen,” Serafini decided to speak out, too. She was profiled in a Star Tribune article expressing her inability to bring her full heart to her job given the discrimination and moral judgment placed on her as the orchestra’s only out musician. She said: “I could light up my seat or I can occupy my seat. I occupy my seat and that’s a waste.”

Serafini’s courage to speak out resulted in the orchestra changing its discriminatory benefits policy in 1998. Since then, the ensemble has welcomed a growing roster of LGBTQ-identifying musicians into its ranks—an initiative the orchestra’s new president and CEO, Michelle Miller Burns, is dedicated to continuing.

Burns began her tenure at Minnesota Orchestra on September 1, 2018, after serving as the executive vice president for institutional advancement and, later, interim president and CEO at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Burns says that in addition to Minnesota Orchestra’s artistic accomplishments and reputation, she was attracted to its culture of collaboration and inclusion. As the leader of the orchestra, Burns says she’s committed to finding new ways to make Orchestra Hall feel comfortable for everyone—from concert-goers to the musicians.

One manifestation of the Minnesota Orchestra’s inclusion efforts is a special “Inside the Classics” concert on June 1 during the lead-up to Twin Cities Pride. Entitled “Love That Dare Not Speak,” the performance celebrates the legacy of queer composers and gives a nod to the artists who have undeniably contributed to classical music’s rich landscape.

Sam Bergman

Gay violist Sam Bergman, who programmed the concert with conductor Sarah Hicks, arrived at the Minnesota Orchestra in 2000 and says he has seen a huge shift in the last 18 years regarding the way LGBTQ individuals are
spoken about.

“The willingness in the broader culture to actually entertain the concept of LGBTQ people as something other than an intrusion on their space is completely different,” Bergman says. “A concert like this is not just about celebrating the composers but also about celebrating a community that’s been able to come together.”

Several other initiatives have also expanded the orchestra’s inclusion efforts and outreach, including a fellowship program for musicians of color, a tour to South Africa, and Common Chords, a series of approximately 25 events hosted at locations throughout North Minneapolis in January 2019. However, obstacles remain for the orchestra to truly embrace certain marginalized communities. One is the quite noticeable lack of representation of African American and Latinx musicians among the orchestra’s ranks.

Burns stresses that to solve large problems in a new environment, collaboration is key. “If we could stitch together the best of all these organizations that we have in the Twin Cities, we could create that continuum of musical experience, exposure, and learning for children of all ages starting really young and going all the way through the collegiate level,” says Burns, outlining a possible solution to nurture talent from a young age in order to feed into the major symphony orchestra ecosystem. “Because of the tremendous resources we have in arts and culture and social services, I feel like the Twin Cities is such a perfect place to execute on that.”