On minorities and orchestras: A view from Carnegie Hall

On minorities and orchestras: A view from Carnegie Hall


norman lebrecht

December 30, 2014

Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, was asked on the BBC’s Today programme about equality in orchestras. Here’s what he said:

My view is that the objective is to get the best player and to be fair, and so that’s what you’ve got to address. So the way we used to do it at the LSO, to be fair, was to make sure that we had a woman on the audition panel. We always had breadth of people on the panel so that one was absolutely looking after the fact that there could be no prejudice of any sort within the discussion.

Er, yes.

Gender imbalance is no longer much of an issue in UK orchs, but this may help explain why so few minority players, Asians excepted, are to be found in London orchestras.

Let alone the US.

Their voice is simply not heard.




  • Michael Spencer says:

    It would be interesting to know how the gratuitous inclusion of one woman on an audition panel might help to combat cases of endemic prejudice not only with regard to gender issues but colour, race, religion, sexual orientation etc? I wonder, too, how this was applied practically in the brass and percussion sections which, in my day, were distinctly male preserves.

    • MWnyc says:

      So why haven’t UK orchestras adopted the practice of having auditioners play behind a screen, as U.S. orchestras have been doing for some years now?

  • Michael Spencer says:

    This is undoubtedly an extremely important matter, however, I feel that it is part of a wider issue regarding appointments procedures in general. My experience from observing the processes of several different orchestras, both within and without the UK, has been that it is a highly subjective process prone to both the separate and individual preferences of the audition panel, and those of the colleagues alongside which potential candidates must sit during their trial period.

    The perceived wisdom seems to be that any attempt at a structured and analytical approach to the evaluation and comparison of candidates is something which should be left to organisations away from this particular arena. Whilst recruitment procedures in the world of business may not be perfect, there exist set processes and methods for selection which tend to start with a defined statement of the requirements needed from a future appointee; something which I believe to be rare in the context of orchestras. It is perhaps helpful to take a look at what is happening elsewhere in the world from time to time.

    • Gerhard says:

      Your observation that the decision about the outcome of an audition is a “highly subjective process” is quite correct. What you seemingly don’t understand is that this is no flaw but that what it is really about. No doubt that any audition must be carried out with the greatest fairness and openmindedness by the people deciding, but it is a basic misunderstanding that it is about establishing an “objective” ranking of the musicians taking part. This is what competitions try to achieve, and IMHO they fail more often than they succeed. The point here is to find the best possible fitting newcomer into a preexisting team of players. In teamsports its a given that some players who couldn’t fit into one team may excel in a key role in another (or vice versa), and there are very few who have such a high level of personal excellence that one feels tempted to believe that they would simply be the best choice for each and every team, if one could only afford them. I would suppose that individual idiosyncracies play an even much greater role in an orchestra, because success and failure can’t be judged simply by looking at a scoreboard, and the time of working together is potentially so much longer. Whether someone’s general musical approach or sound fits or doesn’t is in the end more crucial for a good choice than any objective criteria like the possible top speed in a given passage or objective dynamic possibilities. And this fit can finally be evaluated only during a probation period. So the only purpose of the audition is to find a candidate who seems at the time to be the most promising one to strengthen the team in the advertised position. The idea that some organisation “away from this particular arena” could be qualified to make a better choice than the players immediately concerned seems outright absurd to me.

      • Michael Spencer says:

        I think you may have missed perhaps the most important part of the sentence – “…prone to both the separate and individual preferences of the audition panel”. Appointments in orchestras have to be made within the context of the ethos of the organisation itself, as with any other enterprise, and therefore there should be a collective understanding of the type of applicant one is seeking before the auditions take place. That candidates should be sufficiently accomplished is not in dispute, but no matter how accomplished they may be there are, for example, stylistic considerations that are more suitable for one ensemble than another. This one of the reasons why orchestras sounds different. Experience, both as a former player, audition panel member and observer, has shown that it is rare for orchestras to have a clearly articulated organisational vision which is shared by all members of a panel, and in some instances by the orchestral membership as a whole.

  • John Borstlap says:

    I would recommend, as a balancing measure to so much inequality in the orchestral circuit, to set-up a symphony orchestra of which the players are selected entirely on the basis of their belonging to some minority, and not for their performance abilities. The repertoire played whould also be dedicated to music – from all periods – which we don’t hear in the regular concert series. Any inconveniences that might arise concerning performance expertise and repertoire choice, should be accepted as the price to be paid for all the things we are deprived of.

  • JJC says:

    In my orchestra, audition committees consist of 5 tenured players – the principal of the section where the vacancy exists, plus 2 more from the section elected by secret ballot amongst the remaining players in that section, 2 more elected by and from the entire orchestra. In addition, all members of the orchestra are invited to sit in the hall during the final round as observers. Funny business is not in anybody’s best interest and with a system such as this would be very difficult to pull off especially as it would require the complicity of the Music Director who has the ultimate decision. At the very least, it cannot be done furtively, everyone will know.

  • Mark Pemberton says:

    I couldn’t find it, having scanned through the full three hours of the Today programme. Could you tell me roughly when it was?

  • Bob M says:

    What about short people (<4'10")? Shouldn't they have a stronger orchestral presence as well? I’m not seeing enough of them in orchestras and it is downright outrageous.

    Also, I demand more Eskimos.