Mellon offers near-million to foster non-white principal players

Janelle Gelfand reminds us of a shocking inequality: In New York last year, the sensational clarinettist Anthony McGill – whose first orchestra post was in Cincinnati – became the first African-American principal player to be appointed in the New York Philharmonic’s 173-year history.

The Mellon Foundation aims to redress that imbalance. It has given $900,000 to the Cincinnati Symphony and the local Conservatory to train up minority musicians to take the lead in professional symphony orchestras.

Good call. Read more here.

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  • Mr McGill’s solos during the NY Phil’s recent European tour – particularly in Salonen’s “Nyx”, which I heard in Paris and Cologne – were nothing short of sensational. What a fine musician!

    • Call it what you want, but I see this as a positive step toward ensuring that classical music will survive in the demographically vastly different US of the future.

      • Where talent is hindered by circumstance there should indeed be a supporting hand. It is a tricky business though, positive actions can degenerate into a kind of inverted racism, where ethnic background will become more important or decisive in situations like auditions.

        • Indeed John and where does the boundary lie is a mystery dear Patrick…
          Unless it is proven by a scientific survey that certain demographics are systematically barred from getting these positions. Rarity of those appointed is not in itself a proof of discrimination.

          • I see it this way…

            Imagine you’re an orchestra conductor, and patrons are always asking why you have no musicians named Penelope in your orchestra. You reply, “Because so few musicians named Penelope audition, the odds are we’ll award the position to someone with another name.” You, the conductor, feel guilty about this — Penelope is clearly an under-represented name in the orchestral world — so, you’d like to do something about it. You, as conductor, are faced with a few choices:

            1. You can hope more people named Penelope audition. It might happen, but probably not. So it’s not a sure way to solve the problem.

            2. You can rig the auditions so that every time someone named Penelope auditions they automatically make the finals and win the position. Of course, that’s unethical and would likely result in a lower level of musicianship.

            3. Invest in the training of musicians named Penelope. Invite them to go through a rigorous audition process before both a conservatory committee and a committee of professional musicians with whom they will, if they are accepted, work closely. This training comes with no guarantees of professional opportunity or success, but it will increase the number and quality of auditions by persons named Penelope — thereby increasing the likelihood (over time) of having more persons named Penelope in your orchestra.

            I believe #3 works, because there will still be plenty of musicians named Alan, Bob, Sarah, Jane, etc. auditioning for the orchestra — who will all be in fair competition with persons named Penelope.

            If you believe it’s important to have persons named Penelope in the orchestra, then this is a way to accomplish it without compromising standards.

          • It appears that you didn’t read the linked article, or even Mr. Lebrecht’s summary. The Mellon Foundation is trying to help provide opportunities for graduate conservatory education for African-American musicians who might otherwise not be able to undertake the lengthy and expensive training that a musician needs to attain the level of skill and polish that will win a place in a major orchestra. There’s no notion of “affirmative action” in the sense of choosing less-qualified players for scarce orchestral chairs, merely an effort to improve educational opportunities for minority musicians. I don’t see any slippery slope or loss of standards coming from this laudable project.

          • @ Patrick, I believe quality musicians in orchestras, regardless of their names.
            @ Stephen, nice try. “…to train up minority musicians to take the lead in professional symphony orchestras.” They can certainly and it is indeed a noble undertaking, train them to be able to compete in auditions… As to take the lead, that’s where things get muddy.

          • Olaugh: I do understand the arguments against afirmative action, however, in the long term this plan is more to the benefit of orchestras than to any particular minority. In order to survive into another century, the orchestra will need to more closely reflect the demographics of the US. I am not in favor of lowering standards. My point is this: The orchestra can’t survive as something mainly white people do. It just can’t. (A similar point is mostly lost on the US’s Republican party, by the way) We have to find ways to correct what is increasingly becoming an unrealistic demographic.

          • Responding to Patrick: “In order to survive into another century, the orchestra will need to more closely reflect the demographics of the US”

            Why? There are any number of organizations – sports teams, musical groups, theatre ensembles, etc. – which do not reflect the demographics of the US, and they seem to be doing fine.

            And if you really want to reflect the demographics of the US, you will have to reduce the large contingent of orchestral players of Asian heritage, so that it’s more in line with that of the population as a whole. Is that a good idea?

            Also, there have already been attempts (going back decades) to market classical music to non-Asian minorities. What is their success rate? Based on my concert-going experience, it’s been minimal to non-existent. “Outreach” is fine, but you can’t force people to be interested.

          • Reply to Delbert Grady:

            Sports? Their future isn’t threatened by this factor. Ours is.

            Reduce musicians of Asian heritage? No, they are fine players and won their positions. This is not about letting lesser musicians into professional orchestras. It is about improving the quality of the pool of applicants/auditonees.

            Marketing to non-Asian minorities? I perform classical music for audiences of non-Asian minorities all the time. (It’s only called “Outreach” if you consider yourself on the “inside” of something looking “out”. I fear the opposite is more true — we’re on the outside and we need to get in.)

            This miraculous art form has a teensy-weensy niche market. This is why I support efforts (like the one in Cincinnati) to broaden and diversify the demographics of both audience and performer.

    • Does that mean that you support the status quo of institutional racism in the United States?

      That is essentially what one does when he or she opposes affirmative action, whether actively (supporting the structural racist status quo) or passively (hiding one’s head in the sand concerning the facts and continuing legacy of discrimination).

      If, in fact, you don’t feel this way — or perhaps if you do but would still like to learn more — a good starting point for educating yourself might be recent writings by Ta-Nehisi Coates. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta-Nehisi_Coates

      A couple examples:

      “The Case for Reparations”: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

      (I just re-read it.)

      “Between the World and Me”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Between_the_World_and_Me

      (I haven’t read it yet. I look forward to signing it out of the local library. I have read several book reviews.)

      Someone else drew the analogy of helping people named Penelope succeed in the classical world. What remains unsaid in that analogy is that it is valid *only* if Penelopes were systematically discriminated against from birth (or even conception). Without this proviso, the analogy is specious.

      This Cincinnati program is to be lauded. However, it does not address the fundamental reasons behind the dearth of black musicians in classical music in America. The damage is done long before students reach a program such as the Cincinnati one.

      Much progress has been made in our country, but we live with the lingering legacy of racism.

      The dearth of black members of our orchestras is a microcosm of this legacy.

  • The NY Phil had a black associate principal horn – Jerome Ashby, a fine player killed by cancer some years ago.

  • As we all know, there are thousands of very talented, thoroughly trained Afro-American musicians around. They just happened to not be educated in the standard European paradigm of classical music starting in the 17th century.

    • And I do not see anyone stopping them from succeeding in musical genres they appear to have preferred — jazz, r&b, pop, rock, etc.

      I assume you are not including hip-hop or rap as exemplars of “thoroughly-trained.”

      • Actually, historically speaking, a number of classically-trained black musicians ended up in jazz and other genres specifically because they were refused employment in the classical world.

  • Mr. McGill’s brother Demarre was the principal flute of the Seattle Symphony and now the Dallas Symphony. I might also mention the Seattle Symphony’s tympanist, Michael Crusoe who is the finest tympanist I’ve ever heard with any orchestra bar none.

  • San Francisco Opera Orchestra had a wonderful principal bassoon player for decades – Rufus Olivier. I enjoyed his playing throughout the 80s.

  • There are already plenty of non-white principal players in American orchestras. Or are Asians now considered white?

  • Forget race. Race is an artificial unscientific concept. Race is just one more artificial way of confusing the masses and apply “divide et impera” to them.
    The real problem is social class and the related lack of resources and role models to excel in something as tedious as classical music education and training.
    To have more children in the disadvantaged groups of society succeed in classical music means to go to their families and their close surroundings, finding the talents and support them from the ground up.

  • I’m really looking forward to seeing the evolution of this project and how/if it can effect change. Also – the “local conservatory”? The College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati is quite a high-level school and has better name value than implied.

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