University of Arizona music major Dorthea Stephenson has a passion for making standard classical music repertoire more inclusive for all.
Stephenson is one of five Arizona Arts students selected for the inaugural JustArts Fellows cohort. She will illuminate the music of BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) composers who have historically gone unrecognized. Her project “Beyond Europe” will give them an equal chance to be heard and experienced.
Stephenson, a senior from Phoenix, first started her musical exploration playing violin at the age of 8. When she was 13, she switched her focus to viola — “the best musical decision of my life!” — because she finds playing viola more enjoyable. She’s now pursuing a BFA in viola performance degree at the Fred Fox School of Music where she studies with Dr. Molly Gebrian.
She studies at the W.A. Franke Honors College, where she is a recipient of the Garcia Scholarship, an award given to Honors students who exhibit academic excellence and a desire to pursue community service. She is also a member of the Black Excellence Scholar program that seeks to support and empower Black and African American Franke Honors students. This fall she received a scholarship from the NAACP-Tucson Branch at the 2022 Freedom Fund Banquet.
JustArts Fellow looks ‘Beyond Europe’ for classical composers
It is no secret that within the classical music world, the standard musical repertoire tends to be Eurocentric. String players who seek a career in classical music will be expected to perform these select pieces at some point in their career, whether it be for recitals, concerts or auditions.
“The status quo is sort of being pressured to play standard repertoire,” said Stephenson. “In order to get into a good graduate school, you have to know all the standard rep, so students feel a pressure not to prioritize anything outside of the standard repertoire.”
For BIPOC students, another layer of frustration is added on top due to the lack of representation among these pieces.
“I feel like by not seeing pieces that represent parts of me or other people who are BIPOC makes us feel invisible,” she said.
Her goal is to help break down those exclusive barriers by inspiring students to get more involved in playing music by underrepresented composers. For the first phase of her project she worked on the Underrepresented Composers Database. This database, on the American Viola Society website, catalogs viola music by underrepresented composers. It was created by Dorthea and a team of other musicians, led by Dr. Gebrian. Stephenson hopes to meet with the ensemble directors at the school to discuss more inclusive options for programming shows.
As an advocate for underrepresented voices in classical music, Dorthea is pushing past barriers that have hindered marginalized artist’s abilities to be seen and heard. She is an inspiration to the next generation of classical musicians who no longer want to be limited by non inclusive repertoire standards.
“I hope that my project inspires directors to program more repertoire by BIPOC composers, and I hope to inspire students to do the same.”
Check out these pieces and further resources by underrepresented composers suggested by Dorthea!
“Sonoran Storm” by Nokotula Ngwenyama
“The Ecstasy of Love” by H. Leslie Adams
Radhe Radhe: “Rites of Holi” by Vijay Iyer
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