Music for all, &c.

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On blind auditions, Trader Joe’s, Donald Trump, Brooks Koepka, WFB, and more

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE C ries for racial justice ring out in every quarter, including classical music. Recently, some people have called for an end to blind auditions. That is, they want to pull down the screen behind which musicians audition for orchestras.

That screen has been very important to many people over the years. For example, it has helped women and Asians fill American orchestras.

In the old days, when people tended to dress up for auditions — even blind auditions — orchestras put down runners — strips of carpet — so that listeners would not hear the click of heels, as an auditioner approached her seat.

Starting in the 1990s, I observed something. (You don’t mind a little frank racial-ethnic talk, do you?) In the string sections of American orchestras, gray and white heads tended to be Jewish, and black heads (younger people) tended to be Asian.

The president of one of our top conservatories told me something about his school: The teachers tended to be Jewish, their students, Asian. The Asians were the new Jews, and thank goodness: Music would be perpetuated.

Today, I am reliably told, music schools are seeing increases in black and Hispanic students — which means that, in due course, these players will appear in orchestras.

I have a memory from my home state, Michigan, in the late 1980s. In fact, I wrote about it in a piece for the May 19, 1996, issue of The Weekly Standard.

Two state legislators threatened to block $2.5 million in funds for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra unless it breached its policy of blind auditions and hired a black musician. They also threatened a boycott.

The orchestra’s management convened an emergency meeting and quickly capitulated. Within days, it hired a black bassist without benefit of competition, blind or otherwise.

A comment appeared in the press, from the executive director of the orchestra: “The Detroit Symphony was in a weakened financial situation. If we had not hired a black musician, it would have meant immediate bankruptcy.” The bassist said — in a poignant statement — “I would rather have auditioned like everybody else.”

Does anyone think of the stigma attaching to a person who is hired without a blind audition? That is one thing (of many) to be thought of.

I tremendously admire James DePreist, the late conductor. He was the nephew of Marian Anderson, the great contralto, the “Lady from Philadelphia.” DePreist was confined to a wheelchair, having contracted polio when he was in his twenties.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra was interested in having him as its music director. But it became clear to him that they were interested in his race. (DePreist was black.) He withdrew his name from consideration, saying, “It is impossible for me to go to Detroit, because of the atmosphere. People mean well, but you fight for years to make race irrelevant, and now they are making race an issue.”

One last point, before I leave this interesting and multi-faceted topic. A friend of mine — a musician — was telling me that all the studies show there is one sure predictor of classical-music attendance: Did the person study an instrument when young?

That’s the ballgame, it seems to me: music education. It makes life better — richer, more interesting, more beautiful — in multiple ways.

• Stick with music for a moment. Leon Fleisher, the great pianist, died on Sunday. To read his obit in the New York Times, go here. In 1964, when Fleisher was in his mid-thirties, calamity struck: He lost the use of his right hand. He did not regain it, in anything like consistent fashion, until 30 years later.

I interviewed Fleisher in 2003 and wrote about him, here. It was so moving to talk with him. So moving. What a brilliant, complicated, inspiring man. I have re-read that piece and am, frankly, moved again.

For when you have time . . .

• A little more music? The Salzburg Festival, over in Austria, has begun. Americans are unable to travel there. But others are, including a French friend of mine. He reports that people are taking extra care not to cough — not to cough in the concert halls.

I had to chuckle over that.

• Readers may recall that I met Trader Joe once — Joe Coulombe, the founder of the Trader Joe’s grocery-store chain. He and his wife attended a talk of mine. It was in Austria, in fact, about music.

I had some words in Impromptus here.

Lately, Trader Joe’s has been in the news. They have long given whimsical names to their foreign-food products: “Trader José’s,” for instance, and “Trader Giotto’s.” “Arabian Joe’s” and “Trader Joe San.”

In recent days, the wokistas have gotten cross about this and circulated a petition. They demanded that Trader Joe’s remove the names.

At first, it seemed the company would capitulate. But then — mirabile dictu — they stood up.

“We want to be clear,” they said: “we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions.”

Have a further taste:

“Recently we have heard from many customers reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended — as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing.”

Way to go, Trader Joe. Excellent.

• While we’re talking about trade: Last week, President Trump tweeted, “By the way, Bernie’s people love me on Trade!” (“Bernie” refers to Bernie Sanders, the socialist politician from Vermont.) Yes, they do. And this fact should make all American conservatives — certainly pre-Trump ones — gulp.

• Did you see this story in the New York Times?

The American ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, told multiple colleagues in February 2018 that President Trump had asked him to see if the British government could help steer the world-famous and lucrative British Open golf tournament to the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland . . .

Trump has flatly denied the story. Which do you credit? The story or the denial?

A colleague of mine made a wry point: Even the president’s defenders don’t say, “You know, that just doesn’t sound like Trump . . .”

• Stick with golf. (Is that what we were talking about?) “Brooks Koepka went all-in for a win on the 18th hole at the St. Jude Invitational, and wound up with a double-bogey that cost him $455,000.” That is a headline over this article.

Koepka could have played it safe, or safer. But he had laced up his shoes in order to win the tournament. And he did his damndest to do it.

I admire him for it, a great deal. He can make up that half-million dollars next weekend. Or the next . . .

• Yascha Mounk, the political scientist and writer, tweeted this:

One reason why progressives should worry that so many Americans — including many on the left — say they don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions: In the long-run, it is very hard to shame people into supporting your politics.

You’ve got to hear them out and win them over.

I’ve been thinking about Bill Buckley lately — more than I usually do. He was very good at persuasion. Very good at it. I should know, as one of his (countless) persuadees. I hope that we will never give up persuasion. Never give up trying to persuade.

Enjoyable as ownin’, drinkin’ (tears), and dunkin’ may be.

• A little language? Some publications capitalize the first word of a complete sentence after a colon. For example, “Persuasion is refreshing: You should try it sometime.” Some publications do not capitalize: “Persuasion is refreshing: you should try it sometime.”

(I write regularly for two publications — National Review and The New Criterion — that do it the two different ways. NR capitalizes, TNC does not.)

What is never permissible — what is always wrong — is to capitalize the first word of a fragment after a colon: “You should try it sometime: This thing we call ‘persuasion.’” And I see that all the time.

• In a forthcoming piece for NR, on the composer Krzysztof Penderecki, I write, “By the time he was finished, he had a great corpus of works, comprising four operas, eight symphonies, a dozen or so concertos, chamber music — the gamut.” A colleague of mine wrote me to say, “Thank you for using ‘comprise’ correctly!”

As I told her, she is in very good company. Many years ago, Martin Bernheimer, the late, great critic — whose use of English was precise and masterly — wrote me to say the very same.

• My favorite thing on the Internet lately? Right here. It’s NSFW, in that it drops F-bombs — but I love it. Must have watched it five times, with almost weeping pleasure.

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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