Musicians from Protestra perform, photo credit: Protestra

Lee Bynum was one of about 300 people in the audience at the 2015 concert, “The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights,” Bynum, a nonprofit leader and artist, says it’s an experience he will cherish for the rest of his life.

The concert, organized by arts administrator and clarinetist, Eun Lee, was a direct response to the killing of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police. Held at Centennial Memorial Temple in New York, the performance featured music by activist composer Leonard Bernstein and William Grant Still, considered the “dean” of African American composers, and speeches by activists including Garner’s daughter, Erica. Proceeds from ticket sales went to the Center for Constitutional Rights, Justice League NYC, and the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice.

From the artists on stage, to people in the audience, Bynum says the concert was one of the most diverse he’d experienced in his 20 years of living in New York.

“Being able to attend that concert with my husband, who is a Black man singing in the opera … we saw this was making right a lot of what was off in terms of classical music organizations making any kind of overtures toward equity.”

Volunteer musicians in the 88-member orchestra also experienced the electric energy of the concert, says Lee. Typically gigging musicians disappear immediately after a show, but on that night artists including talented students and professionals who played in the New York Philharmonic and Broadway pits, packed into a nearby bar. Many asked Lee when they could perform in another activist concert.

“At that time in New York, there were really very few, if no avenues for people in the classical music industry to engage on these kinds of topics,” says Lee, who is co-founder and executive director of The Dream Unfinished.

Building on that momentum, Lee organized a 2016 benefit concert centering Black women composers called, “Sing Her Name,” in alignment with the #SayHerName movement raising awareness around the impact of police violence on Black women. Bynum joined The Dream Unfinished Board after its first concert. After incorporating as a nonprofit a few years later, the orchestra tackled other social issues including climate change, immigration, and voting rights.

The Dream Unfinished is one of numerous grassroots, activist orchestras that have emerged in recent years across the country. Their existence is a form of resistance against mainstream classical institutions that have been slow to change and diversify. (In 2021, the Metropolitan Opera presented an opera by a Black composer for the first time in 138 years.) Through benefit concerts, workshops and platforming emerging artists of color, these groups represent alternatives to the paradigm of classical music and are setting the example of what an inclusive classical industry could look like.

After former President Trump issued a Muslim travel ban in 2017, Michelle Rofrano, a freelance conductor, channeled her anger and the frustration she noticed from the musician community into an ad hoc protest concert. Held in Highland Park, New Jersey, the “#NoBan” concert emphasized music themed around immigration and acceptance. Ticket sales went to refugee aid organizations, Rofrano says. “It was nice to use our art to take a stand rather than ranting on social media and feeling like we couldn’t do anything.”

Rofrano channeled the momentum from that 2017 concert into creating Protestra, a nonprofit orchestra dedicated to raising awareness around social justice issues. About 30 volunteer musicians help to organize concerts and other programming for the orchestra.

In 2020, the group staged “A Concert for Black Lives.” The virtual performance featured works by Florence Price, William Grant Still, Tyson Davis, with proceeds going to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Black Classical Music Educators. Another 2020 concert honored the life of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In March, Protestra staged a concert for women’s history month featuring works for chamber ensembles written by women composers including Barbara Strozzi and Chiquinha Gonzaga, among others.

“As performers, we have an incredible platform,” Rofrano says. “The style of classical music where people buy a ticket to sit there in silence listening to you for an hour, 90 minutes, two hours. Actively wanting to listen to you perform, ultimately what you have to say through your instrument. That’s a perfect opportunity to talk about what you care about and advocate for change.”

In addition to benefit concerts, Protestra uses its Instagram account to educate nearly 7,000 followers on issues in the industry and how to advocate for change. Their composer feature series highlights women and composers of color. Another social media series educates on the cost barriers associated with pursuing a career as a professional classical performer.

For musicians, being involved in these activist spaces can be one of the rare opportunities to embrace the complexities of their identities in classical music — not separating “our moral compass and the things we care about from our performance,” Rofrano says.

Jay Julio, a multi-instrumentalist and first generation Filipinx-American, created Sound Off: Music for Bail in 2020. The organization, which is now on hiatus from live performances, uses classical music as a tool to break the silence around the prison-industrial complex. Growing up in Uniondale, New York, members of Julio’s family were involved in the carceral system.

“One thing that we’re expected not to talk about oftentimes is the painful experiences of our background,” Julio says. “Oftentimes it doesn’t line up with a lot of what donors want to hear, especially donors to classical music tend to be very conservative.”

The Sound Off collective of musicians and activists combines performances with presentations by experts in the U.S. prison-industrial complex and formerly incarcerated people, to raise money for bail funds across the U.S.

“There’s this whole thing of how important Western classical music is as a representation of the highest art form,” Julio says. “To be an artist on stage in classical music is a very privileged position. People who wouldn’t listen to very qualified people who speak better on the topic than myself listen to us because we play classical music.”

As the activist orchestras grow and work to expand their budgets, they hope their work will continue to push the industry culture forward.

Rofrano would love to see other orchestras copy Protestra to normalize inclusion in classical music.

“Please steal our ideas, she says. “It would be a more inclusive and progressive industry.”

When The Dream Unfinished launched in 2015, there was still reluctance around programming composers of color, Lee says. But the group has always operated ahead of the curve.

The Dream Unfinished has premiered and commissioned three works by composers of color including Courtney Bryan and Jessie Montgomery. They’ve led trainings and workshops on activism in the arts with established organizations. And they’ve seen how classical music can create tangible positive change. Partnering with DemocracyNYC, the group sent out a violist to play near voter registration booths in 2020. In the two hours of the violist performance, the booths experienced a significant increase in foot traffic.

“Even for the very moving concerts we did in 2015 and 2016, at the end of the day, a person came, bought a ticket, sat down, and left. They did not fix police brutality,” Lee says. “Whereas the musician being positioned where he was that day actually got more people registered to vote.”

As Lee and Bynum look toward the group’s future, The Dream Unfinished will continue hosting theme-based concerts, but they will also look toward innovative programming.

“The landscape is very full of [concerts] right now. So in addition to that … how we can get to that next level where the music is actually doing the thing.”