April 29, 2016

From Project Inclusion to Grant Park Orchestra

The Festival welcomes one of its newest—and youngest—musicians.

Marlea Simpson, a junior at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, jump-started her career as a professional musician when she auditioned for, and won, a position in the Grant Park Orchestra's viola section this spring, making her one of the Festival's youngest artists.

Her journey with the Orchestra, however, began in the summer of 2014 when she was accepted into the Festival's pre-professional training program, Project Inclusion, a partnership with the Chicago Sinfonietta for early career musicians, with a goal of increasing diversity among orchestral ensembles.

While in Project Inclusion, Simpson spent the summer performing throughout Chicago in chamber ensembles as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Night Out in the Parks program; introducing children from the Festival's Classical Campers program to classical music; and playing alongside professional musicians of the Grant Park Orchestra in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion throughout the Festival season.

She was later hired as the Principal Viola with the Chicago Sinfonietta, a professional orchestra dedicated to modeling and promoting diversity, inclusion, and both racial and cultural equity in the arts.

Simpson, who was contemplating a career in medicine before declaring a major in viola performance, is thrilled about her Project Inclusion experience with the Grant Park Music Festival and the Chicago Sinfonietta.

“Growing up, I didn’t really see a lot of people of color playing in professional orchestras,” Simpson said. “Being a part of Project Inclusion has really given me the chance to experience what life as a professional musician would be like, and I’m so excited to be a part of the Grant Park Orchestra.”

Originally from Allen, Texas, Simpson previously studied under Catherine Forbes at the University of Texas at Arlington and is now a student of Peter Slowik. She made her solo debut in 2012 with the Allen Philharmonic, and currently travels between Oberlin, where she plays with the Firelands Symphony Orchestra, and Chicago, where she continues to play with the Chicago Sinfonietta. 

In addition to being a professional musician and full-time student, Simpson is involved in many charity events. She recently organized a benefit concert for Meals on Wheels in which she raised nearly $1000, and has taught with Joyful Noise, a program where undergraduate students use music to reach out to inner-city children in Cleveland.

The Festival’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Carlos Kalmar has nothing but high praise for Simpson. As a judge in the final round of auditions for new musicians, he was pleased to offer Simpson a seat in the Grant Park Orchestra. “The standards are high here at the Festival, and Marlea is no exception,” Kalmar remarked. “We’re very happy to welcome her back this summer. She is a truly talented musician and has a promising career ahead of her.”