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At a Chicago Orchestra, Diversity Is on the Program

The Chicago Sinfonietta is an orchestra that was founded in 1987 to give classical musicians who are members of minority groups greater professional opportunities. In a field with a minuscule number of black performers, it prides itself on the racial composition of its players, staff members and board, with roughly half representing minorities.

So the orchestra’s leaders thought long and hard about the issue of race when it came to choosing a successor to Paul Freeman as music director. Mr. Freeman, who is black, started the group and is retiring after next season.

Their answer is Mei-Ann Chen, 37, a Taiwan-born conductor who has been an assistant conductor at the Atlanta and Baltimore symphonies and was recently appointed music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. She will take charge of the Sinfonietta in July 2011.

“I endorse her fully,” Mr. Freeman said in an interview. “She’s going to bring a great deal to the Sinfonietta and continue what we have started and bridge the gap with other orchestras, because she’s a rising star.”

James Hirsch, the executive director, said Ms. Chen was one of eight finalists,  including six blacks and one Hispanic candidate.

“One candidate just stood head and shoulders above everyone else, and that was Mei-Ann Chen,” Mr. Hirsch said. “She’s the person who we believe is best suited to lead us. She completely embraces the mission.”

Mr. Hirsch said it would be “antithetical to everything Paul Freeman stood for” to overrule someone “just for the color of their skin.”

Ms. Chen said she was contacted by the orchestra and invited to perform with it as a guest conductor, effectively an audition. “My chemistry with the orchestra was instant,” she said. Ms. Chen noted that she has had much experience conducting for black audiences in Baltimore, Memphis and Atlanta.

Evans Mirageas, the Atlanta Symphony’s artistic administrator, also happened to be a search consultant for the Sinfonietta and brought her to the Chicago orchestra’s attention, she said.

Ms. Chen said she was prepared to carry on Mr. Freeman’s legacy. “I embrace diversity and inclusion,” she said.

“My life story is that,” she added, pointing out that she overcame at least one big barrier, that of being a woman on the podium.

Ms. Chen also received high praise from Aaron P. Dworkin, the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, which works to increase the number of blacks and Hispanics in orchestras, music schools and classical music audiences.

“Everything I know of her is just fantastic,” Mr. Dworkin said in an interview. He and Ms. Chen were fellow graduate students at the University of Michigan.

In a later e-mail Mr. Dworkin said the choice of Ms. Chen should not be understood “as a comment on the lack of capable conductors of color” but part of a broadly understood commitment to diversity.

“Can you imagine if every orchestra in America had an artistic process which could lead to the majority of their finalist pool for an open artistic position represented by people of color?” he wrote. “What change would we see in the landscape of American orchestras?”