The Classical Music Critic Of The New York Times Thinks That Symphony Orchestras Should Choose Members According To Race, Gender, And “Other Factors” That Have Nothing To Do With Music

Just what we need: another area of society where progressives are clamoring for illegal discrimination.

Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times senior classical music critic, argues in an essay whose thesis would have been laughed out of the paper just a few years ago—you know, before the dawn of the Great Stupid—that…

“…ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable….now more than ever, the spectacle of a lone Black musician on a huge, packed stage at Lincoln Center is unbearably depressing. Slow and steady change is no longer fast enough.”

Orchestras now have blind auditions, with those seeking employment playing behind a screen. In the epitome of results-based reasoning, Tommasini believes that auditions must allow unscreened auditions so “diversity” can be achieved, and ensembles “reflect the communities they serve.” In other words, quotas. In other words, hiring lesser musicians because they are the “right” color or gender. This, in an institution that has only one goal and aspiration: to play beautiful music as well as possible. The clear meaning of Tommasini’s conclusion is that it is more important that an ensemble be made up of the right kind of people than it be able to serve the function for which it was created. It is better to have a worse orchestra that ticks off the right EEOC boxes than to have one that sounds good.

Oddly, nobody has ever made this argument regarding, say, NBA basketball teams. Hop-hop music groups. Heart surgery teams. In fact, if I had to pick the perfect example of a field in which requiring racial and gender diversity is self-evidently bats, a symphony orchestra might be it.

“If the musicians onstage are going to better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” the critic says, “the audition process has to be altered to take into fuller account artists’ backgrounds and experiences. Removing the screen is a crucial step.”

It’s a step to having a worse orchestra. Nobody should care if an orchestra “reflects the diversity” of a community. They should care about how the assembled musicians sound when you close your eyes, and be proud of an ensemble that represents the community well by playing superbly. Is there any aficionado of classical music who would say, after a stirring rendition of Brahms, “Yes, it was very beautiful, but there are too many Asians in the string section, and I didn’t see a single wheelchair”?

The writer doesn’t even come near a coherent justification for using racial discrimination and gender bias to pick an orchestra. This is the best he can come up with:

“Blind auditions are based on an appealing premise of pure meritocracy: An orchestra should be built from the very best players, period. But ask anyone in the field, and you’ll learn that over the past century of increasingly professionalized training, there has come to be remarkably little difference between players at the top tier. There is an athletic component to playing an instrument, and as with sprinters, gymnasts and tennis pros, the basic level of technical skill among American instrumentalists has steadily risen. A typical orchestral audition might end up attracting dozens of people who are essentially indistinguishable in their musicianship and technique. It’s like an elite college facing a sea of applicants with straight A’s and perfect test scores. Such a school can move past those marks, embrace diversity as a social virtue and assemble a freshman class that advances other values along with academic achievement. For orchestras, the qualities of an ideal player might well include talent as an educator, interest in unusual repertoire or willingness to program innovative chamber events as well as pure musicianship. American orchestras should be able to foster these values, and a diverse complement of musicians, rather than passively waiting for representation to emerge from behind the audition screen.”

That’s pathetic. In any highly specialized competitive field, the margins of superiority among competitors are filament thin, but they still exist, and expert evaluators can make the distinctions. Tommasini is saying that it’s difficult making the calls based on musical ability, so let’s just base it on something irrelevant, like race. And if a white musician with superior skills doesn’t get hired, so what? Most people won’t notice, but they sure can notice his skin color!

“Such a school can move past those marks, embrace diversity as a social virtue and assemble a freshman class that advances other values along with academic achievement.” To “embrace diversity as a social virtue and assemble a freshman class that advances other values along with academic achievement” is a euphemism for “discriminate against whites and Asian-Americans,” which I believe is illegal, definitely is unethical, and may soon be struck down as unconstitutional. Even if we accept the critic’s logic regarding colleges and universities, those institutions have a far broader purpose than symphony orchestras, which have exactly one: to sound as good as possible, not to look “right.”

He says, “For orchestras, the qualities of an ideal player might well include talent as an educator, interest in unusual repertoire or willingness to program innovative chamber events as well as pure musicianship.” Nonsense: if those qualities make the musician play better, then it will be evident in the blind audition. If the musician possesses all of those qualities plus a sparking personality, they only become relevant after the player’s superior instrumental abilities have been demonstrated. And to state the obvious only because its obviousness is being frequently obscured, being a certain race or gender isn’t a “quality” that should matter when it comes to making beautiful music.

So the critic defaults to statistics, as if lack of “diversity” in all fields prove injustice:

“American orchestras remain among the nation’s least racially diverse institutions, especially in regard to Black and Latino artists. In a 2014 study, only 1.8 percent of the players in top ensembles were Black; just 2.5 percent were Latino. At the time of the Philharmonic’s 1969 discrimination case, it had one Black player, the first it ever hired: Sanford Allen, a violinist. Today, in a city that is a quarter Black, just one out of 106 full-time players is Black: Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet.”

Call me crazy, but somehow I suspect that if African American families didn’t tend to raise their children to the strains of hip-hop, rap, soul and jazz, instead of filling their homes with Beethoven, Schubert, Gershwin and Grieg, the pool of black symphony orchestra candidates might be just a little bigger.

I’m only guessing, or course.

You know what other arts institutions arenotably non-diverse? Broadway musical productions. More than 50% of all performers, especially dancers, are gay. That certainly doesn’t represent the city or state of New York. Why aren’t the Times theater critics arguing for audition processes that give an edge to actors who have sex the old fashioned way, even if the quality of the productions is a little (or a lot) worse?

They aren’t arguing that because it would be idiotic—just like what Tommasini is arguing.

23 thoughts on “The Classical Music Critic Of The New York Times Thinks That Symphony Orchestras Should Choose Members According To Race, Gender, And “Other Factors” That Have Nothing To Do With Music

  1. “Orchestras now have blind auditions, with those seeking employment playing behind a screen.”

    I seen this on the old Jack Benny show, Jascha Heifetz playing behind the curtain for Jack.

  2. To help focus the discussion, here’s the current violin section of the New York Philharmonic:

    Frank Huang – Concertmaster, The Charles E. Culpeper Chair
    Sheryl Staples – Principal Associate Concertmaster, The Elizabeth G. Beinecke Chair
    Michelle Kim – Assistant Concertmaster, The William Petschek Family Chair
    Quan Ge
    Hae-Young Ham – The Mr. and Mrs. Timothy M. George Chair
    Lisa GiHae Kim
    Kuan Cheng Lu
    Kerry McDermott
    Su Hyun Park
    Anna Rabinova
    Fiona Simon – The Shirley Bacot Shamel Chair
    Sharon Yamada
    Elizabeth Zeltser – The William and Elfriede Ulrich Chair
    Yulia Ziskel – The Friends and Patrons Chair
    Qianqian Li – Principal
    Lisa Kim – Associate Principal, In Memory of Laura Mitchell
    Soohyun Kwon – The Joan and Joel I. Picket Chair
    Duoming Ba
    Hannah Choi
    Marilyn Dubow – The Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr. Chair
    Dasol Jeong
    Hyunju Lee
    Kyung Ji Min
    Joo Young Oh
    Marié Schwalbach
    Na Sun – The Gary W. Parr Chair
    Jin Suk Yu
    Andi Zhang

  3. I have some friends – staunch Leftists – that have made the “orchestra diversity” argument on numerous occasions, lamenting how this organization or that organization doesn’t have enough minority representation. And I almost always respond the same way…with a question. “So are you saying that organized activities should be diverse, having a balanced representation of whites and minorities?” They no longer even answer the question, because they know how it ends. They answer “yes” and then I follow-up with, “So should basketball, football, and baseball, which are the country’s highest-paying sports, be diverse as well, having a balanced representation of whites and minorities? Since those sports, overall, have a vast over-representation of minorities, which players should be fired so lesser-qualified whites can be brought in to balance things out?”

    Hey, Anthony Tommasini. Do you want to see an actual, verifiable, legitimate racist? Go look in your mirror.

    • Joel, unfortunately the perfect logic of this retort just doesn’t hunt. The unstated justification for this “diversity is wonderful” thing is that discrimination against white people or people dominating a field is justified to make up for past discrimination against black people. Not many people are willing to come right out and say it but this is the underlying and very, very central tenet of critical race theory and BLM. The only antidote for discrimination against blacks is is discrimination against whites. Plain and simple. But it’s not often said out loud, certainly not by white, useful idiots. Unless you’re talking to a racialist professional, you won’t hear that response. There will just be silence or huminahumining.

  4. Ah! The method design to inhibit race-based hiring is now decried because it inhibits race-based hiring.

    Oh, Cruel Irony!


    • No kidding. Blind auditions were brought on the scene to make sure orchestras weren’t all older (mostly German or Austrian) men! It is amazing how young and feminine world class orchestras are these days compared to only ten or fifteen years ago.

  5. It seems some are more concerned with the box the item comes in than the product itself. The forced diversity of some television and print ads often reduces my awareness and retention of what is being advertised; that’s hardly effective.

    I do look forward to the blind audition production of Porgy and Bess, however.

  6. “If the musicians onstage are going to better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve…”

    Isn’t the audience at the concert the “community” that an orchestra serves? And aren’t the vast, vast majority of the audience for classical music white and Asian? I’d say that orchestras probably reflect their “communities” just fine.

    Is this guy also complaining that white people are statistically under-represented in hip-hop? And where are all the black sumo wrestlers and Chinese mariachi bands? This is all just so fucking stupid…

      • No. No. And No. Lefties get to define “communities” and their members. After all, they’ve popularized the entire concept of various “communities.” “Community” used to just mean an area in a town. Then it became used to describe the gay and lesbian “community.” Now it’s used to describe whatever favored group they want to thrust forward. It’s one of the most abused terms going.

  7. It may be that using blind auditions has elevated the performance level of symphony orchestras. Or it may be serious overkill in an era of a supply-demand imbalance for classical musical talent. But either way, simply rolling this issue into what I know is this blog’s current obsession with – in other words, against – identity issues misses a lot that’s going on here.

    First of all, you have to admit that hiring people without knowing who they are in ANY field is kind of strange. In particular, you certainly wouldn’t use blind auditions to cast people in a show, now would you? I know I know, different genres, different requirements. Roles in theater are individual, while 30 or 40 violinists in a symphony orchestra are doing much the same thing.

    But I would argue that live classical music IS showbiz, and the sooner that people in that field realize it, the better. If the product is just “the music,” and many people assert that the overall technical performance level is higher than ever, then why is classical music struggling at all?

    Second, I think you have to remember what the main impetus of blind auditions was in the first place. While I’m oversimplifying, the essential problem was (or shortly became) the inability of women to secure places in symphony orchestras. A quick check on YouTube of recent orchestra performances now versus 30 or 40 years ago will demonstrate the resulting change. Part of Tommasini’s argument is not to let solutions to problems become so institutionalized that they run past their sell-by date while different problems fester.

    Third, you’re caricaturing Tommasini’s valid argument that different people may bring different skillsets that blind auditions by their very nature ignore and bury. Why shouldn’t certain people’s aptitude or talent for communication and outreach to younger and different audiences be a factor in hiring? In classical music, organizations from symphony orchestras on down often do a superficial form of “outreach” that I personally consider worse than doing nothing at all. Kids of all backgrounds know when they’re being patronized.

    I’ve witnessed classical musicians who thrive in this sort of environment, and those who look like they wish the ground would open up and swallow them. If an ensemble is actually called the Anywheresville Symphony Orchestra, how is consistent and comfortable engagement in the real community of Anywheresville not a valid consideration in hiring?

    Finally, I think that the usual analogy to sports is off when considering the specific issue of staffing a symphony orchestra, compared to other slots in classical music. In particular, basketball is a poor analogy because of the lopsided nature of won-lost records in that sport and the reality that superstars consistently and predictably do outshine mere stars. If we were talking about soloists performing violin and piano concertos with orchestras, then I could possibly understand the connection and the analogy. But interestingly, there seems to be far more developing diversity in those slots than in the staffing of the orchestras as a whole, so it’s valid to wonder why it doesn’t seem to be filtering down.

    I don’t know if I agree with Tommasini, and many people in the instrumental classical world – including even minority musicians – doubt his argument and say either that “blind” auditions end up not being entirely so or that it remains hard to get past the filtering that puts certain candidates and not others in the pipeline. But the assertion that at least considering what he’s saying will automatically make orchestras “worse” is cheap and unsupportable and elides other issues that classical music needs to address to grow its market. I hope this helps.

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