Last Thursday the NY Times’ classical music critic made a very odd but not terribly surprising suggestion: Classical orchestras should stop trying to be so impartial. Instead, he suggests it’s time for orchestras to start giving preference to race to ensure that the musicians collectively look like the cities in which they are based.
In the 1970s women and minorities made up only a tiny fraction of most classical orchestras. Orchestras around the country began instituting blind auditions, i.e. having musicians perform from behind a screen, so that their sex and race were unknown to those making the hiring decisions. There’s a debate about how much the screens really mattered which I’ve written about before, but in theory it was a way to making sure the orchestras would become what they were always supposed to be, a genuine meritocracy. But according to critic Anthony Tommasini, meritocracy isn’t producing the correct results:
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.
The status quo is not working. If things are to change, 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…
If the musicians onstage are going to better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, the audition process has to be altered to take into fuller account artists’ backgrounds and experiences. Removing the screen is a crucial step.