Politics & Policy

Buffalo Philharmonic: No White or Asian Conductors Need Apply

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The orchestra has taken to addressing old racism by using the tool of racism itself.

For decades, orchestras have worked to address racial imbalances in their ranks by creating new pipelines for young artists. They have built outreach-and-engagement departments bringing classical music to young people who were rarely exposed to it, developed music programs in public schools, and mentored young, diverse musicians. These efforts are now bearing fruit, as many of these young artists continue to land coveted orchestra jobs.

Along with much of our society over the past year and a half, however, orchestras have begun to replace the goal of ensuring “equal opportunity” with “equity.” Wracked with guilt over racial exclusion in classical music in the distant past, many are adopting the strategy of redressing old racism with new racism. In so doing, they risk transforming some of our greatest artistic institutions from unifying meritocracies of mutual respect and artistic excellence into musically mediocre social battlefields.

One such example has been the attack on the “blind audition” process. In blind auditions, orchestras evaluate prospective players by listening to them behind a screen, allowing the judges to select musicians without respect to race, gender, or other nonmusical characteristics. Recently, this audition innovation — which was widely credited with reducing gender bias in orchestra hiring — has come under attack at some of the nation’s top orchestras, on the grounds that it has resulted in the hiring of too few non-Asian musicians of color.

Equally dangerous — and less discussed — is mounting discrimination in the employment of artistic leaders. This is occurring not just during candidate selection but as early as the job-posting phase. It is evident in most conducting postings, particularly for assistant-conductor positions (i.e., the first leg up the ladder for young conductors), which now contain some variation of the phrase: “Members of underrepresented groups in classical music, particularly members of [racial group x, y, z], are encouraged to apply.”

Orchestras for which such language is not exclusionary enough have turned to the use of “fellowships” — preprofessional apprenticeship or mentorship opportunities earmarked for certain racial or gender groups, particularly women or minorities. By describing these opportunities as “fellowships,” not jobs, they are able to circumvent antidiscrimination laws. But orchestras are now extending this strategy to include traditional jobs, as well.

Perhaps the most egregious example yet comes in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s (BPO) recently announced posting for a “Conductor Diversity Fellow,” a position whose responsibilities — if one reads the job description carefully — are virtually identical to those of an assistant conductor in peer orchestras, but for one key difference: that the posting explicitly solicits applications only from those who “self-identify as members of historically underrepresented groups in American orchestras, including but not limited to African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander descent.”

Two major races are conspicuously left off that list of “underrepresented groups,” and the subtext is clear: No whites or Asians need apply.

The BPO’s posting is one of the most brazen attempts by an American orchestra to expunge classical music’s history of racism by using the tool of racism. It also might be the first to clearly contravene federal equal-employment-opportunity rules, which state that no job posting can discourage an applicant to apply because of his or her race. But without any apparent backlash forthcoming from orchestra members, board members, or audiences, this is unlikely to be the last.

How do orchestras like the BPO expect to get away with this if confronted? They may, again, contend that these positions are merely fellowships — not jobs — and therefore not subject to federal employment law. The position’s very description, however, belies this defense.

The BPO’s Conductor Diversity Fellowship is a job in everything but name. Its compensation — itemized into a “housing stipend” and “living wage stipend,” plus health benefits — add up to a competitive market salary for an assistant-conducting position at a midsize regional American orchestra: $35,000.

In all other particulars, the fellowship mirrors assistant-conducting jobs at peer orchestras. Its two-year term of employment is typical. So, too, are the job’s required qualifications. (That is, aside from skin color.) Its list of responsibilities — covering for visiting conductors, conducting education and outreach concerts, and planning engagement programming alongside orchestra administrators — are the same as well. Even its requirements for attending a diversity conference and sitting on a diversity council — which appear several bullets down the list of responsibilities — are hardly rare in assistant-conducting job descriptions these days.

Any amount of background in the orchestra world would make an impartial observer suspect that the “fellowship” label was applied to this job mainly in order to muddy the legal waters enough to allow the orchestra to practice racial preference in hiring.

There are plenty of worthy ways to increase diversity in the orchestra field: For a long time, the BPO’s education and youth-engagement programs were a model for the industry. Earmarking jobs based on skin color, however, is one of the surest ways to lose any progress the profession has already made. It can only discourage talented young people from pursuing music, leading the art further into irrelevance and ruin. The BPO and its peers would do well to walk back from this dangerous precedent.

David Thomas is the pen name of a current conductor working with professional and semi-professional orchestras on the East Coast.


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