Another Nordic at shockingly white BBC orchestras

Another Nordic at shockingly white BBC orchestras


norman lebrecht

November 20, 2019

The BBC Concert Orchestra has just named Anna-Maria Helsing as its principal guest conductor.

She is Swedish-Finnish and has been, at the Oulu Symphony, the first woman to head a Finnish symphony orchestra.

There are now four Finnish conductors across the three main BBC orchestras –

Sakari Oramo as music director of the BBC Symphony

Dalia Stasevska principal guest conductor

John Storgårds Chief Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic

and now Helsing at the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Plus a Dane, Thomas Dausgaard, at the BBC Scottish.

One might almost suspect nepotism.

Why is there not a single non-white conductor at the BBC?

Questions should be asked in the next Parliament.


UPDATE: The BBC have been in touch to say that Ryan Bancroft, recently appointed principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, is African-American.




  • Johannes says:

    First it was “not enough women”, now it is “not enough non-white” … what’s next??
    It is quality what should count. Nothing else. Period.

    • Alank says:

      Spot on. This is ridiculous. Next he will demand more transgendered conductors. Where will it end?

      • Sue Sonata From says:

        Where it started; amongst the ‘velvet’ authoritarians in university when the foot-soldiers of ‘conformity’ to PC ideology are replaced by the very minorities they fetishize.

    • Rachel says:

      If only

    • V. Lind says:

      My exact reaction as soon as I saw this header. The fight to get more women seems to have been won. Time to pick another fight.

      Anybody who gives. a. damn. about this is not listening to the music. Orchestras are not social engineering factories. Fight the fights where they belong — in providing musical education. You cant hire female or minority conductors till SOMEBODY PRODUCES THEM. And that means the same amount of training and practising and sacrifice that white and male practitioners have undertaken for centuries.

      GOD. Will this p.c. rubbish ever run its course? Fight the fights worth fighting, not this cosmetic stuff.

      • Hilary says:

        A very perceptive argument.
        Musical education (I detect an inequality in the UK, I can’t speak for other countries) is at the root. A bottom/up approach is what’s needed as a matter of urgency.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That is not very good. Too fast, too loud, to much on the outside, and sentimentalized (the facial expressions don’t help either). Superficial and not understanding the music. But all of that has nothing to do with her gender.

    • Johannes says:

      Oh lord …… 🙁

    • Moishezmom says:

      I lasted 39 seconds, desperately hoping she’d do something other than mirroring every gesture.

      • FrauGeigerin says:

        I don’t know where you play or where you studied conducting, but in my orchestra – one of the top orchestras in Europe where we have some of the top names in the business on the podium every season – we are always happy to have conductors as clear as this woman. The mirroring doesn’t bother me… I don’t understand why couldn’t you watch more. Perhaps you don’t like music enough?

        My concern here is that we are talking about the “excesive presence” of white males on this business and promoting women,and non-whites, when we should really be talking about the better effort that talent scouts should make in order to find the best talent, regardless of their sex and race.

        • Moishezmom says:

          I prefer a conductor, male or female, white or non-white, who is more than just a timebeater on the podium. I would imagine that your orchestra doesn’t need anyone up there doing nothing more than that and would prefer someone who can show them the music through their gestures and make the experience an inspiring collaborative one, rather than the musicians not bothering to look up at because they really don’t need to.

          I like music just fine, it has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. What orchestra do you play in? I ask because I am genuinely interested.

  • Guillermo says:

    Mainly because there are significantly more white conductors due to Western classical music being more culturally aligned with white Europeans. Finns in particular represent a large number of elite conductors due to their nation’s investment in institutions such as the Sibelius Academy. There is, happily, a growing number of conductors of non-white origin, and whilst I’m all for this I don’t think their smaller representation is cause for panic or appointments being made based on skin colour rather than merit.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      It would appear by the number of positive ‘votes’ here on SD that the vast majority of readers are sensible, centred people who eschew radical politics and the new authoritarianism. I retain hope.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed. Culture is something that can be absorbed entirely, depending on character and talent. But where exclusion of groups appears to be a structural problem of a society, it is a good idea to take compensating measures: making careers in classical music accessible and possible for people with talent.

    • Metartmusiscien says:

      You are right. The musical fleurishing state of Finlandia can be noticed also by the outstanding amount of modern composers it produce. The most well known being Rautavaara. So it is not only conductors.

  • Malcolm james says:

    Ryan Bancroft, the American principal conductor designate of BBCNOW, appears to be biracial (or whatever the PC term is), although his Wikipaedia bio doesn’t state the racial origins of his parents.

    • Metartmusiscien says:

      I found this in his bio “Bancroft studied trumpet at the California Institute of the Arts, alongside additional studies in harp, flute, cello, and Ghanaian music and dance”. So probably one parent has something to do with Ghana…

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    Concerto for dogwhistle and chorus.

  • Dennis says:

    Perhaps they felt the candidates they hired were the best available, without checking whether they had first ticked some PC box labelled “non-white.”

    After all, since Western classical music is at root a European art form, it’s not surprising if the vast majority of its practitioners and fans happen to be white, no?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, but that does not mean that there are no abject prejudices in music life. Without prejudice, Slipped DIsc would not needed to exist.

    • GGV says:

      When I studied in the US I heard often people complaining that in classical concerts there were too many pieces by white Europeans. Perhaps they did not realise that classical music IS an European art from the same way Kabuki is a Japanese art and Tango an argentinian art… that does not mean it cannot be practiced and mastered by non- Japanese or Argentinians, but it is an art that is rooted in the local culture, society, history etc. Same thing goes for classical music. And yes, until the immigration to Europe from the colonies or former colonies in the 20th century, people living in Europe were predominantly white.
      Also while living there was the first and last place where someone told me “… and [in your conservatoire recitals] you must always include a piece by an American, female or non-white composer”, because apparently the quality of a piece was not a strong enough reason to program a work.

  • Me says:

    Who the hell cares?!

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    Can’t decide whether this is just ironic, the comment “Questions should be asked in the next Parliament.” might indicate so, or just moronic. One might almost suspect the latter.

  • Emil says:

    I’m eternally curious how the commenters can seriously state ‘there are next to no BAME conductors because the best candidates are white’ and not pause to think ‘Huh? Why? How does that happen?’

    There was the same debate re. women and minorities in the Vienna Philharmonic, and miraculously it so happens that their best candidates often are women or minorities now, while they were nearly all white men 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Totally random, right?

    The only plausible answer is that the notion of ‘the best’ is much more complex than assumed, and engages with profound structural factors which must be taken into account.

    • Antonio says:

      Oh Emil, you make some very good points that will, unfortunately but rather predictably, fly over the heads of the bigoted, racist, sexist and just generally mean-spirited people who seem to have the loudest voices in this comments section.

    • John Borstlap says:


    • John Rook says:

      It’s probably more complex than you describe. Yes, there are now more women in the VPO than before, but have they always been the best recent candidates in the light of the pressure put on this august institution? Maybe yes, maybe no. Who can tell?

  • If the BBC is seeking conductors of African descent, male or female, they should contact me; I know a bunch of them. There is no shortage of anything save opportunities for them to demonstrate their abilities.

  • Reggie says:

    As a non-white musician in the UK, I don’t think this aggressive approach is useful in the least.

    What would help is to see this website, and others, campaign more to keep music education alive in state schools. Funding cuts to music education in schools are the main obstacle to non-white people becoming more involved in classical music.

    • Sue Sonata From says:

      Bravo, sir.

      • Reggie says:

        Please keep your “Bravo, sir”, Sue Sonata. I’ve seen the profound hate towards women that reeks from many of your comments on this forum. Someone who has so much contempt for other human beings is probably on the wrong side of most issues, including racial equality.

        • John Rook says:

          You’ve missed the point. Sue’s approach is very logical if not viewed through and idealogical prism.

        • John Rook says:

          BTW: ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ is purely a matter of opinion and not cast in law. Tolerance works both ways.

          • Reggie says:

            The danger of moral relativism is that it makes it very easy to stand back and allow injustices and oppression to continue unchecked. Theoretically, yes, right and wrong are relative and tolerance works both ways. But at least for me there are very clear things that are wrong. I will not be relativise the damage that is caused by a pedophile, a sexual predator, someone who supports slavery, racism, xenophobia or, in the case of many people on this forum, sexism and misogyny. I guess that makes me intolerant in their eyes? 😉

    • mick the knife says:

      2000 inner city kids involved in the Baltimore Symphony’s Orch Kids and still a lily-white audience.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    I don’t see any Indians or Chinese either in this list. May be a quota should be imposed on BBC orchestras when they are selecting their chief conductor.

    • Jorgeperez says:

      I am not sure if you are serious or not? I also don’t see enough transgender conductors; let’s impose a quota. I don’t see enough conductors on a wheelchair; let’s impose a quota. I don’t see enough Sikh conductors; let’s impose a quota. I don’t see enough bald women; let’s impose a quota. I perceive there are not enough conductors over 100 years old of age; let’s impose a quota.

  • Bone says:

    I applaud NL for taking this stance. When I close my eyes, I can clearly hear the race, gender, and age of each and every performer; the tapestry woven by these individual voices is greatly impacted if there aren’t adequate representatives from every category. Crystal clear to me – not sure what all the fuss is about.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Oh yes, we must ‘ask questions’ in our age of ‘velvet totalitarianism’. Make sure they all conform to your ideas!!!

  • Allen says:

    Why are there few, if any, non white classical music critics and bloggers? Shocking.

    I think we deserve an explanation.

  • Mark Lowther says:

    And the first woman to head a Finnish Symphony Orchestra was Susanna Mälkki, who has been Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic since 2016 …..

  • Karl says:

    How many non-white people are in the audience? In Boston the audience matches the orchestra – white.

  • barry guerrero says:

    “Shockingly white” . . . albino? . . . what?

    Also, in the alternative movie industry, BBC would mean something very contradictory to “shockingly white”.

  • Novagerio says:

    Harrison & Parrott?…

  • Patrick Gillot says:

    Always the same story. Why not more Oscars , entrance in Harvard, Music Directorship etc…. for Non White. May be when they are more non white actors, better secondary schools in the US, and more African origin people in Classical Music Schools?

  • Mick the Knife says:

    Dumb a$$ comment.

  • christopher storey says:

    Would you ever have dared to use the phrase “shockingly black”? No, of course you wouldn’t. You should take this racist nonsense down immediately

  • Peter Phillips says:

    So the BBC National Orchestra of Wales isn’t a main orchestra. It looks and sounds like it down here.

  • John Rook says:

    Why do you hate white women?

  • details says:

    Ryan Bancroft is half black half white. that means he is just as much white as black and not an African American. This is not the same as hiring a full African American.