'Drawn to opening doors': Minnesota Orchestra's leader works on anti-racism efforts

A general view
The Minnesota Orchestra is working on anti-racism efforts to create a more diverse and welcoming presence.
Courtesy of George Heinrich

The Minnesota Orchestra's season is in full swing, but behind the scenes the organization says it is addressing diversity with the help of a new leader.

When Sheri Notaro thinks about what the Minnesota Orchestra does well, she recalls an early October performance.

“It was so powerful and just so moving to be a part of that and to look out at the audience with so much diversity and so many different folks and different walks of life who really wanted to learn more about these pieces that they would never have heard about,” Notaro said.

The performance, “More to Hear: the Listening Project,” was a concert that highlighted composers from underrepresented backgrounds.

Notaro is new to the Minnesota Orchestra, but she is no stranger to diversity work.  She was a senior leader of the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan, and has held positions in human resources and diversity and inclusion programs. She started her job with the orchestra earlier this month.

A woman poses for a portrait
Sheri Notaro is the new Vice President of People and Culture at the Minnesota Orchestra.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra

“I look back on my career, and I was always drawn to this work, but it didn't have a name 25 years ago, no one called it diversity, equity inclusion. But I was always drawn to opening doors for people expanding opportunity,” Notaro said.    

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Her newly created position at the orchestra, vice president of people and culture, provides “strategic direction and tactical support” for human resources and leads anti-racism initiatives. 

“They've designated, you know, one person to try to bring all the pieces together. But there were already so many initiatives and the commitment was already there.” 

The Orchestra’s track record includes cutting ties with the Minneapolis police department after George Floyd was killed and commissioning a work about racial equality, set to debut next spring.  

Notaro also pointed to the organization's fellowship program that is geared toward mentoring musicians from underrepresented backgrounds.  

“When I was considering the role I was able to listen to some recordings of them talking about the experience, the type of mentoring that they received. So that gave me some sense of what was going on here.” 

Man conducts chorale and orchestra
Members of the Minnesota Chorale and a string quartet from the Minnesota Orchestra perform a rendition of Joel Thompson’s composition “Seven Last Words of the ” during a Rise and Remember event in honor of the life of George Floyd.
Tim Evans for MPR News

The Minnesota Orchestra isn’t the only organization with this kind of fellowship program, with similar ones in Atlanta, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Jett Walker, a professional trombone player and lecturer at Texas State University School of Music said fellowship programs are important to developing musicians.  

“Now we're actually allowing more access for these for especially underrepresented musicians, specifically, that now they have opportunities to build a resume that's competitive, they're being paid the same as their peers,” Walker said. 

Notaro says her role will be to continue to help program works that will welcome people in.  

“I am here to add and not to diminish, not to take away anything. We want to simply enhance the experience and provide these different lenses into the beauty of what music can be.”