The Awokening Comes for American Classical Music

The New York Times’s chief critic has launched a campaign to end the merit-based ‘blind audition’ hiring process for orchestras.

Amid the current moment of moral panic in American racial politics, any proposal, no matter how regressive or discriminatory in nature, can become a non-negotiable demand if it is sold as part of the Black Lives Matter campaign. That is the only way to understand the potential impact of a recent piece by Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times’ chief classical-music critic, that advocates the end of the merit-based system for hiring at American orchestras.

As Tommasini’s piece notes, race- and gender-based discrimination were once commonplace in the hiring process at America’s top orchestras. When two African-American musicians claimed in 1969 that the New York Philharmonic discriminated against them, the controversy forced the Philharmonic and other prestigious classical ensembles to reform the way they hired musicians. From then on, applicants auditioned behind a screen, so as to prevent those in charge from being influenced by their race or gender.

The impact of that reform was transformative. Up until then, women and non-white players were a rarity in the ranks of leading orchestras. Now they are commonplace; approximately half of the Philharmonic’s players are female and about 20 percent are Asian. But the number of African Americans remains small. Only one full-time member of the Philharmonic ensemble is black, just as was the case in 1969.

As far as Tommasini is concerned, the persistence of that disparity is proof enough that the blind-audition system, which has ensured that a spot in the big leagues of classical music is won solely on merit, should be junked. In its place, Tommasini believes a form of affirmation action for black musicians must be instituted to ensure that the Philharmonic looks more like New York.

It will take more than a single article, even by a critic as visible as Tommasini, to change a system embedded in union contracts that embattled musicians, currently furloughed and struggling to get by due to the coronavirus pandemic, will not easily give up. But no matter how unfair it might be, in the current atmosphere, once a proposal is put forward as necessary for an arts institution to prove its “anti-racist” bona fides, it would be foolish to dismiss the chances that some form of change will come.

There are two key issues with the broadside that Tommasini has fired at the nation’s orchestras. One is his dubious claim that the idea of seeking excellence in the elite realms of classical music is illusory. The other is the aspect of his position that he chooses to leave unsaid: If blind auditions are discarded, the principal losers in the outcome won’t be privileged whites but Asian musicians, whose representation at the nation’s top orchestras is already out of proportion to their percentage of the general population, and is still growing. Like affirmative-action programs at elite colleges, Tommasini’s idea would ensure that fewer Asians were hired by orchestras.

Tommasini asserts that the differences in skill between applicants to the nation’s top orchestras are minimal. The musicians who do reach such lofty heights could be forgiven for thinking he’s wrong. A critic who plays the part of leading gatekeeper and judge of classical music in the nation’s cultural capital should know better.

The whole point of integration in American institutions was to ensure that ability, rather than skin color, ethnicity, or faith, determined the right to a job. If that means that 14 of 15 players on the New York Knicks basketball team are black, then so be it. If the city’s Major League Baseball teams — the Yankees and the Mets — are disproportionately Hispanic, no one claims that they are discriminating in their employment decisions. The goal of winning necessitates hiring the best players, regardless of their identity.

While there’s no way to keep score in the competition between the nation’s top orchestras, in the blind-auditions era, the same basic idea — that talent should be the only thing that matters — has reigned supreme. In order to maintain their institutional renown — and the recording contracts, tour dates, and gate receipts that go with it —the Philharmonic and its leading rivals in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles must hire the best players and conductors, period.

The result of that imperative is that Asians have become overrepresented at the nation’s top ensembles. Due to changing tastes and cultural trends, as well as the lack of music education in schools, interest in classical music has declined precipitously among most Americans. But among Asian-Americans, it’s on the upswing. Asians are succeeding in the classical-music industry in the same way that they are dominating the merit-based competition for places at elite universities. Thus, discarding blind auditions would help one racial minority at the expense of another, while rendering talent and hard work beside the point.

Is there a way to remedy the dearth of African-American and Hispanic musicians in top classical orchestras that doesn’t involve such a Faustian bargain?

Any such effort has to involve pouring resources into music education for minority youngsters, especially those in urban areas where schools are already failing and music programs are scarce. Such efforts already exist. For example, Associate Principal Bass Joseph Conyers, one of the few black musicians in the Philadelphia Orchestra, has been active in encouraging school children to play as the conductor of a student orchestra. Similarly, a leading chamber-music organization, the Dolce Suono Ensemble, conducts a Musica in Tuas Manos program that gives Hispanic children their first exposure to classical music.

Such efforts deserve more support in the face of the broader cultural forces accelerating the decline of the art form in America. But scrapping a successful merit-based system that has actually eliminated discrimination to achieve an illusory racial parity would only make the classical-music establishment another one of those forces — another institution needlessly hell-bent on destroying itself.


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