Why auditions fail (and the NY Times is so wrong)

Why auditions fail (and the NY Times is so wrong)


norman lebrecht

July 21, 2020

Max Raimi of the Chicago Symphony takes issue with the New York Times’s demand to abolish blind auditions:

To promote greater diversity in our symphony orchestras, The New York Times’ chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini proposes that auditions should no longer be held behind a screen. Here is an excerpt from his article:  “Blind auditions are based on an appealing premise of pure meritocracy: An orchestra should be built from the very best players, period. But ask anyone in the field, and you’ll learn that over the past century of increasingly professionalized training, there has come to be remarkably little difference between players at the top tier. There is an athletic component to playing an instrument, and as with sprinters, gymnasts and tennis pros, the basic level of technical skill among American instrumentalists has steadily risen. A typical orchestral audition might end up attracting dozens of people who are essentially indistinguishable in their musicianship and technique.”

“Ask anyone”?  Nobody asked me. I play viola in the Chicago Symphony.  A significant percentage, very possibly a majority of our auditions, end up with us failing to hire a musician.  I am currently on the audition committee to find a new Principal Viola.  We have had two rounds of auditions—prelims, semis, and finals—and have heard well over 100 candidates.  We even tried out two of the more promising players, having them play a few concerts as Principal.  The committee and our Music Director, Riccardo Muti, have been in agreement that none of the candidates meet our standards.  Mr. Tommasini’s premise, that there is any number of more-or-less interchangeable candidates who can fill the openings in our major orchestras and the decision of which of them to select is essentially arbitrary is a fantasy.  Unfortunately, once the pandemic allows it, we will again be back at square one, sitting for hours and days on end listening to one violist after another play Strauss orchestral excerpts.

The statement I cited was troubling for another reason as well.  Mr. Tommasini talks about the “athletic component to playing an instrument”, comparing us to “sprinters, gymnasts and tennis pros”.  Fair enough.  But then, in a splendid sleight-of-hand, he talks about “dozens of people who are essentially indistinguishable in their musicianship and technique.” Disingenuously, he inserts “musicianship” into it; this has no parallel in his athletic metaphor.

Many years ago, our former Music Director here in Chicago, Daniel Barenboim, insisted that we have violists play the opening of the solo viola part to Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante” at auditions.  It is not at all technically demanding.  But I was astonished at how after six measures—perhaps twelve seconds of music—I knew everything I needed to know about whomever I was listening to.

The viola in this passage, in octaves with a solo violin, rises an octave on E Flats, the lower one a grace note, the upper one held for more than two bars that call for a crescendo and then a diminuendo.  The music then meanders down the E Flat major scale, taking a scenic route with brief digressions.  At first, the soloists are all but inaudible, lost in the sympathetic vibrations of the E Flats in the orchestra.  Miraculously, at some point in the crescendo, we become aware of the soloists. It is as if they have always been there, since the beginning of time, but we hadn’t noticed.

The violist, in a matter of seconds, must transform his or her sound from a shadow to a physical presence, and then contrive to sing the circuitous downward line in one uninterrupted phrase, lyrically and yet with utter simplicity. E flat is a notoriously hard key to play in tune. The music is sufficiently slow so that your sound and intonation are stripped naked; the passage comes off as either absolutely gorgeous or grotesquely flawed.

The reason that this little except works so well in auditions is because it crystalizes perfectly what we are looking for in a colleague.  The technical command that Mr. Tommasini references is a given; our search goes far beyond this.  What is required is a concept, a way to tell a story with sound, with phrasing, with dynamics, and with every other resource at our command.  Mr. Tommasini would reduce the criteria by which we evaluate candidates for our orchestra to speed and accuracy; judging us as one might judge a stenographer.  I find it quite frankly offensive.

An argument can be made that hiring musicians of color is of such importance for the place of orchestras in our society that it should perhaps be a higher priority than necessarily finding the best musician for every opening. If Mr. Tommasini wishes to make that argument, it is a discussion well worth having. But to say that there are so many people who can step into our major orchestras and perform at the highest level that it doesn’t matter which of several candidates get the job (so we might as well take the musician of color) is simply not true.

Max Raimi arguing it out with Bernard Haitink


  • Bloom says:

    New York Times and Parterre are being engaged in a sort of
    dubious far left crusade at the moment. Another target of theirs is making money for the Met no matter how , even by overpraising crappy performances.

    • Lou Goldman says:

      As white and asian artists are discriminated against due to their race; I’m interested to see how the individual and class action lawsuits will change the profession.

    • Nick says:

      NYTimes became a left-wing propaganda hand of the far-left socialist Democratic Party. Why listen to what Tommassini writes? He needs to keep his job. Plain and simple.

    • Dennis Pomeroy says:

      Since most venues can’t even open and their seasons are cancelled this topic is moot.

      Plus nobody is going to pay for dumbed-down performances as if it’s a different genre like pop or rap with no academic background required.

  • Paul says:

    Bravo, Mr. Raimi. Thank you for this.

  • Guest says:

    This is an utterly brilliant piece of writing. No doubt we need to seek ways of greatly strengthening diversity in our orchestras, but this piece perfectly communicates the truth that critics and audiences overlook- that though there are many very technically competent musicians out there, finding a musician with an intense musical imagination is still hard to do.

    • Grittenhouse says:

      I do doubt it, the very idea of “diversity” goes against the art.

      • Inga says:

        Absolutely! Talent CAN’T be substituted with a color of the skin. Who else is sick and tired of this unstoppable motion to charge everything by the ‘diversity’?

  • Sure, high standards are fine, but America’s 1% culture funded by the wealthy to create luxury orchestras in a few financial centers creates a mindset of superiority so extreme it is rarefying our orchestral landscape into extinction. “Nobody is good enough for us.”

    First of all, it’s a conceit. I think of Philly paying $300k a year to poach the first trumpet of Dallas, who then hired Ryan Anthony (RIP,) one of the world’s greatest trumpeters for what I suspect was a considerably lower price. There are musicians to be found if one gets off one’s high horse.

    Second, we have such a poor orchestral landscape that we lack the well-funded regional orchestras to give musicians the experience for the top orchestras. So the top orchestras complain they can’t find anyone, but instead of recognizing the source of the problem, they just hoot about how great they are and nobody is good enough for them.

    We might look at Germany which has 133 state owned and operated orchestras in a land area the size of Montana, and with one quarter of the population of the USA. Sometimes openings remain for a time while they search for someone qualified, but generally they fill the positions fairly quickly. And I don’t hear big problems with the Berlin Phil or their world class radio orchestras. And even the plethora of regional orchestras are good and genuinely serve their public without all the hoity-toity without the nobody-is-good-enough-for-us back slapping.

    We might also look at the opera landscape. Germany has 83 full time houses while the USA has one for four times the population. And only about 6 or so genuinely functional houses with even part time seasons like San Francisco or Chicago. So gee, I wonder why American opera conductors or so difficult to find. And why American singers have to go abroad essentially as economic refugees to build careers.

    Anyway, I’d have a lot more respect for the top boys hooting about their superiority if they engaged themselves in advocating a genuinely functional public funding system for the USA instead of smugly finding any excuse to pat themselves on the back while remaining conveniently silent. Especially since classical music is a picture perfect example of white privilege. Add the smugness, and it all becomes a very ugly picture.

    • Old Man in the Midwest says:

      Agreed. Good comment!

    • Anon says:

      Yea, sure.
      Because Germany’s orchestras and those of other European centers are anything but diverse.
      And no, they absolutely do not fill positions in Europe quickly, and they deny tenure far more often. And they force their musicians to retire at age 65.
      So please don’t use Germany as an example in this argument.

      • Diverse or not, the point is that they generally fill positions fairly quickly. They have the freedom to deny tenure because they can fill positions without so much trouble, and because there are lots of other orchestras for musicians to try again. And retiring at 65 allows younger musicians a chance, unlike the USA where people occupy exceedingly scarce chairs for up to 50 years–a truly grotesque situation.

        • A Pianist says:

          I can’t understand these fantasies you have about Germany. I lived there too. 14 orchestras closed during the time I lived there. And no this was not right after the Iron Curtain fell as you disingenuously supposed in my earlier post. It was after the year 2000.

          Who could possibly say the American system is a great system. No one says that. But my friends in the back offices at European orchestras very often state a wish for the philanthropic culture of America as another line of support too. In Europe when the state decides you’ve had it, you’re closed. Grow a balanced perspective for heaven’s sake.

          • The View from America says:

            Yes, the Osborne “Johnny One-Note” screed has become quite tiresome …

          • Eric Wright says:

            He lives in Germany, genius. His wife was the solo trombonist with a major German orchestra (who tried to demote her for merely being female.)

            If you ever took the time to read more than Breitbart, you’d know that.

          • Almost all of the orchestra closings were in the few years after the wall came down since the number of orchestras was excessive. Since then, the number has been minimal. That’s a plain fact. Don’t believe false statements by Americans rationalizing their poor funding system.

          • In Germany, there is open rejection of the American funding system. They look at the situation in the USA and have no doubts their system is better, e.g. 83 full time opera houses vs. 1 in the USA. Or 50 billion Euros as a relief fund for the arts in Germany vs. almost nothing in the USA. The examples are countless.

      • Eboli says:

        They don’t “force” the musicians to retire at 65, that age is the retirement age in Germany and not just for musicians and all – if they worked long enough – receive a pension they can live on.

      • Shaunna says:

        How much do Blacks donate to the Arts?

    • Byrwec Ellison says:

      This is one of the few postings where Mr. Osborne’s comments are receiving significant push-back. I’d just like to say that I’ve always found his comments to this blog very thoughtful and his arguments well informed. I note, too, that he’s almost the lone commenter here with the integrity to identify himself by name.

    • Thank you for putting this in writing. So correct (and a relief to know other people are aware of this
      very American situation.)

      • Omar Little says:

        So incorrect. White privilege explaining why things must stay the same. Well done.

        • Ay lmao says:

          Sour reasoning. If the results are not diverse enough, the auditions are not to fault, but certain race’s access to the arts and education is. Screened auditions are the definition of unbiased.

          Tampering with the results is one of the most subliminally racist things I’ve heard all day.

          If certain races are not winning blind auditions as often as others, it is clear that their OPPORTUNITIES are not equal! Education, outreach, and spreading love and music are the true solution here, one that does not rely on racist epithets such as “white privilege”.

    • Anonymous says:

      Your comment is well-thought out and blamelessly lacking some nuance here. I’ve taken many auditions and later, once landing my job, sat on many committees. The problem here is not that we are on a high horse, per se, although I cannot blame anyone for seeing it that way. I used to think so from the other side of the screen. But to convince 7-10 people to sit and listen to 8 hours of auditions for days on end, a process that can be mind-numbing, multiple times for the same position- it would take as many VERY high horses.

      The fact is that, as in American schools, our orchestras “teach to the test”. By this I mean that musicians have months to prepare just a few minutes of music, all of which is taken out of context and laid bare.

      In most auditions, 80% of people do not represent themselves well, as it takes a long time to get good at performing under such great pressure on command. The other 15% are fine players who do well to execute the prescribed excerpt list but maybe show general deficiencies which exist outside of that preparation in later collaborative or trial rounds.

      The last 5% are in the running, but need to prove that they are the complete package- that they are not only technically proficient, but easy to play with, flexible, listen well, play with a mature and polished concept, and, ideally, have a little something “extra”, that musical instinct which cannot be taught. This becomes exponentially more crucial for principal positions.

      The chances that every audition will produce that person are extremely low. There are great musical minds who cannot seem to get over the pressure. There are great technicians who are not naturally musical. And there are prodigies who have it all except for the ability to play well with others. And everyone in between. It takes a very long time, a mountain of work, and failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment, to become polished enough to win a job in a major orchestra- and this is the main reason that Tommasini is so dead wrong. Orchestras on the whole are better than they used to be in large part because of the process. There simply are not just dark horses waiting in the wings all the time- I know very well that the DSO got very lucky in finding Ryan. And if we dismantle that process, it will definitely affect the overall quality for the worse, as well as deny potential winners the satisfaction of truly deserving their job, and certainty in the work that they have done their lives over to get there.

      • The Met orchestra has a policy of always hiring someone at their auditions. And yet it is a world class orchestra. Actualy practice thus illustrates the fallacy in your argument.

        • Anonymous says:

          This is false. The MET has a policy of always hiring the WINNER of the audition- i.e. no trials- not of always hiring someone no matter what happens behind the screen. They have the power to move nobody forward and stop an audition, and conversely they can hire someone right out of a semifinal round if enough people know they want a certain person based on their playing. They are not allowed to talk to each other at all, so outcomes can be surprising, and sometimes unconventional, from what I’ve heard.

    • SVM says:

      Osborne makes some interesting and very valid comparisons between the orchestral scenes in the USA and Germany. But I disagree with his claim that élite orchestras’ selectivity were a manifestation of snobbery. In just about any profession at just about any level, one can make a distinction between a “good player” and a “great player”.

      Here in the UK music scene, I find that there is no shortage of “good players”, but an acute shortage of “great players”. Some of these “great players” are to be found among the big superstars of the profession. Others languish in relative obscurity, to be appreciated only by those who have been fortunate enough to encounter them and recognise their worth.[*] The rare occasions when I have either listened to or performed alongside a truly “great player” are among my most treasured memories.

      For an ensemble or orchestra, recruiting a “great player” can be a difficult and time-consuming affair, and many do not have the luxury of being able to wait for years and offer appropriate working conditions[**] in order to find the perfect “great player”. But where a person/institution/ensemble/orchestra *does* have that luxury (or manages to stumble upon a “great player”), we should not begrudge it.

      [*] This is not to suggest that only connoisseurs and professionals have the capacity to recognise a “great player”. On the contrary, a “great player” often has an unsurpassed capacity to inspire audiences largely/completely ignorant of the applicable musical style/tradition (even if the untrained listener may not always be able to identify the player individually in the context of an orchestra), and even to inspire some children and adults to embark on the journey of learning an instrument.

      [**] I should make it clear that the expression “appropriate working conditions” does not necessarily equate to an enormous salary.

      • Interesting thoughts, but I think the myth of “the great player” is overdone and is one of the oddest characteristics of the classical music world, a kind of mythologizing hero worship. It’s part of the profession’s marketing practices to create personality cults. When one actually listens past these filters, one sees that the levels among established professionals are more similar than we think.

    • The View from America says:

      And there’s so much ethnic diversity in German orchestras …

      • John Feinberg says:

        You’re too concerned with the fashionable statement of diversity.

        Quality always wins out!

    • Dd says:


  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Mr Raimi’s articles. He writes really well

  • Anon says:

    Well said.

  • Imagine an audition where some of the candidates have a ball and chain attached to their wrists. Then a screen is put up and the judges decide who plays the best. That’s basically what American society does. Some get lots of privilege, and some are handicapped from the day they are born, often largely determined by race. It all adds up to that ball and chain on the day the audition arrives, except that the vast majority of those with the ball and chain never even go to an audition. Classical music is a picture perfect example of white privilege.

    But don’t ask orchestra musicians to deal with that problem aside from a few paltry outreach programs that will never solve the problems. They’ll point the finger at everyone but themselves.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      You lost me at “white privilege”. A meaningless, divisive, hollow term for the weak minded. There are underprivileged people of all colors.

      • A blatant denial of our racially informed class system that stares us in the face every day. Not only white privilege, but white denial.

        • Maria says:

          In London it is our white working class boys who, from the star from all statistics, are underprivileged and not necessarily black, Asian or even Irish – as some would have us believe. There are those who are underprivileged right across the board and not because one is white or black or race x, y, or z but because one is simply underprivileged. In America this may well be different. I don’t know so can’t speak.

          • The situation is different in the States, but it is true that rural whites also face disadvantages in classical music. Classical music organizations are not as evenly distributed geographically as in Europe, which means rural kids often do not have access to good school music programs. And a considerable majority of the states do not have an upper-level orchestra. The average pay for our regional orchestras (defined by ROPA membership) is only about $13k per year.

            I know about this, because I was one of those rural white kids, and also poor. Getting an education and finally getting admission to the better graduate schools was a difficult and long process.

            Nevertheless, just being white allowed me to avoid countless difficulties that minoritized people face. Racism can trip them up everyday to the point that entire communities become demoralized. Things are getting better in the States, but only a fool would think we live in a post-racial society.

        • Le Křenek du jour says:

          ” Oh ye gods, who knows what it is to be running?
          Only them that is running, running, running knows!
          Run! Run! Running knows. ”
          –‘Iphigenia in Brooklyn’ (S. 53162), slightly corrected for inclusive pronouns.

          Mr. Osborne, and others who support the NYT stance, do so from their comfortable, white-privileged, bourgeois, salon-liberal stance.
          It is still an ableist, elitist, hetero-normative, neuro-functional, cis-vitalist, oppressive stance.

          – First of all, until the last Black note shall be enfranchised, we demand that all progressive players abstain from playing non-Black notes.
          Moreover, all Black notes, whether crotchet, quaver or semiquaver, must be played to the full length of a bar. Equality matters!
          – Second, the required ability to play an instrument is preposterous. It is ableist. It is exclusive. The vast majority of the Oppressed do not play an instrument. How can they feel included if that requirement stands? Thus, the ability to play an instrument, a sure sign of inherited privilege, must become a disqualifying criterion.
          – Third, we demand an intersectionalist process: only non-melanodefficient, non-hetero-normative, non-cis-determined, non-four-limbed, neuro-diverse, chemically and metabolically challenged entities should compose the orchestra. The vitalist conceit that they should be ‘alive’ must be dropped.
          – Fourth, in accordance with the vast majority of the populace, they should be tone-deaf.
          – Fifth, all concerts should begin by playing ‘Six goofs on the name W-O-K-E’ ( a ‘goof’ being an inverted fugue).

        • Sue Sonata Form says:

          Ok. Time for an education for you:


          • John Rook says:

            Fascinating. We should see more of these people, but it wouldn’t fit the leftist agenda.

        • stefan de la pastrue says:

          My Lord, how much Kool-Aid have you imbibed? Pferdescheisse.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Yes, it’s such Commodore 64 (thought) processing!!

    • Confused says:

      Please explain further! I like that your using a metaphor, but I have no idea how it actually works and you just drop some terms that aren’t self-evident in meaning after that. Keep going! I want to “learn.”

      • Let’s start with one of the core problems. Music lessons are expensive, as are good student level musical instruments. (The cheap ones are OK to start with, but good students quickly outgrow them.) The average wealth (assets) for African Americans is $95,261 compared to $678,000 for whites. And the median wealth for African Americans is just $11,030 compared to $134,000 for whites–over a tenfold difference. This alone already accounts for discrepancies in which families can afford music lessons and instruments. And especially the good music lessons that truly lead children to professional careers.

        The problem is further compounded by our system of funding schools through local taxes. Poor people get poor schools while the middle and upper classes generally get far better schools. (There is no greater admission of white privilege in education than white flight.)

        Larger cities sometimes have arts magnet public schools, and they do a good job of helping minoritized kids, but they only reach a small portion of the population.

        The upper middle class and rich have far greater opportunities. Interlochen Arts Academy, for example, costs $60,000 per year. My wife attended IAA back in the early 70’s when it was still affordable. She has more professional contacts around the world from Interlochen than she does from Juilliard. These networks are exactly how white privilege works.

        Until we level the educational playing field, and level the social conditions under which children are raised, our blind auditions are going to be blind in more ways than one.

    • Adrienne says:

      Oh dear, this is bordering on derangement.

      Classical music is overwhelmingly white? Of course it is, it’s essentially a European genre, albeit one which SE Asians are attracted to.

      Last time I attended a free, very accessible, outdoor classical concert, I was one of only two or three black people there as far as I could see. If the audience had been 15+% black, I would have been wondering why this wasn’t reflected in orchestra membership, but it wasn’t. This was simply freedom of choice, and there was no suggestion or sense that black people were not welcome.

      • Yup, same reason so few blacks live in the Hamptons. (98.5% white and 0.6% black.) They just don’t want to have all those luxuries, mansions, sail boats, servants, and fancy private schools white folks have. Those are just European tastes.

        And of course, we know blacks aren’t interested in classical music even if they’ve barely been given an opportunity to develop an interest. And afterall, there is no way a black person could be interested in European culture, even if they have lived their whole life in the USA which is in reality a European culture. Such is your logic.

        • Adrienne says:

          I think you need to calm down and read what I actually said, instead of what you want to hear.

          Of course black people want many of the things that white people want, I never said otherwise. But when it comes to music, black people can, and have, plowed their own furrow, and done so very creatively. This seems to be of little interest to you.

          If there’s one thing that annoys black people more than virtually anything else, it’s white people like you deciding what black people should want.

          • The View from America says:

            “I think you need to calm down and read what I actually said, instead of what you want to hear.”

            Yeah — good luck with that. 😉

          • John Rook says:

            If there’s one thing that annoys black people more than virtually anything else, it’s white people like you deciding what black people should want.

            Well, one has to use one’s ‘white privilege’ constructively, does one not? And what better use than to patronise entire cultures?

    • Anonymous says:

      This is true, but Tomassini’s proposal is to throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s not on orchestras to prioritize inclusion at the expense of quality. It may be, however, incumbent upon us to be closing those gaps in early childhood through high school so that underprivileged kids get the same musical opportunities as rich ones. This is the only thing that will fix the problem without undermining the quality of the product, and it’s very doable. It just takes a laser-focused mission and subsidies from people who care about this issue.

      • Lawrence Franko says:

        Project STEP, done out of Boston Symphony’s Symphony Hall, does exactly that. If you care, Google them and contribute.

  • drummerman says:

    Well said!

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    Chasing your tail.

    While well written, and based on your experience with Maestro Barenboim, it does not address the issue of diversity and how to make that happen in the audition process.

    Let’s face it. Every audition process that has been proposed be it Raimi, Slatkin or the current status quo is flawed when it comes to finding a solution for what is wrong.

    So the Million Dollar Question is how do we accomplish diversity and inclusion while maintaining an artistic standard that is worthy of the institution the candidate is auditioning for?

    We need to address this immediately and past efforts have not been fast enough to reflect the population of the cities these orchestras perform in.

    Especially if public money, raised through taxes on citizens, is involved in keeping orchestra afloat in the coming year.

    • Anon says:

      An orchestra is a professional performing organization and that is not the place to deal with issues of equality and diversity.
      This has to be dealt with by educational institutions and even earlier than that. Taking lessons from a high level teacher is expensive; anywhere from $100-200/hour these days. The talented underprivileged musicians of adolescent age need access to this training, AT THAT AGE.
      It’s also worth noting that there are currently many, many young musicians of color playing at an outstanding level, in conservatories. They can easily make a tremendous impact within the next 5-10 years. It would be an injustice to them to put racial policies in place because many of these kids are too good to need this. It took decades to get here, but we HAVE made tremendous progress.

      • TubaMinimum says:

        A few years back there was a lot of public conversation on why Google or other silicon valleys had so few women employees. The most complete answer tried to look at the whole pipeline: signals girls were given in K-12 education about math and science not being for them, what happens at the college level, what happens immediately after college in terms of internships and opportunities, and finally what conscious or unconscious sexism exists at the top companies.

        I feel like the same is true in the orchestral world: what is the level of public music education for kids at the K-12 level, what advantages their parents can afford for them in terms of private lessons or music summer camps, what sort of barriers to access top conservatories put up and whether a more affordable state school can provide a similar level of education or opportunities, the post-conservatory training, and finally opportunities in the orchestra job market. Having a conversation only about what happens in auditions is an inadequate solution to the pipeline and at best will only result in a quick sugar high toward better representation rather than lasting change.

        I also work in orchestra administration, and looking to change the complexion of your union-ed rank and file or principal musicians is the slowest and most difficult thing you can do when talking about representation – because the number of jobs you’ll be hiring each year could be counted on one hand. Additionally, the orchestra musicians are selected from a national and often international labor pool of available talent. And similar to the National Football League where the athletes on the Green Bay Packers look the same as the Baltimore Ravens despite the makeup of those two cities, orchestras reflect that larger pool and not their communities. The makeup of What you can do immediately as an artistic planner is look at the music you perform, who you commission, who your guest musicians are, and who is on the podium and ask whether those areas are where you think they should be.

    • Omar Little says:

      This comment is correct. What we’re hearing from is the employed musicians who don’t want change. Enjoy the unemployment line. America doesn’t care about you and you’re not important.

  • DAVID says:

    Well said. The NYT article exposed a profoundly misinformed understanding of the profession and of what it actually takes to make it into a world-class orchestra. To claim that there is such a plethora of great players, that it essentially doesn’t matter which one is chosen, is a statement that could only be made from someone who has never actually played an instrument, who never actually sat on an audition panel, who clearly has no extensive first-hand musical experience — and frankly, someone who cannot seriously claim to have musical expertise. It was offensive to the profession as a whole, but it was also offensive to readers in that it presented a highly misleading account of the profession. To have actually published this reflects quite poorly on the NYT. Lack of diversity is a problem that cannot be solved by artificially enforcing quota, but which should be addressed by giving everyone, from the outset, the tools and education necessary to be truly competitive in a field where only the very best have a reasonable chance to make it. What Mr. Tommasini probably doesn’t understand, is that “good enough” is simply not enough to make it in classical music. There is indeed no shortage of “good enough.” However, in order to make it, you need to stand out from “good enough” and demonstrate a much higher caliber. Experienced orchestra musicians sitting on auditions panels instantly recognize such caliber when they finally have a fitting candidate step into the audition room –they probably recognize it, frankly, within the first 30 seconds of a candidate’s audition.

    • Marc says:

      FYI, Tommasini happens to be a pretty good pianist. Sure, a lot of critics are not full-fledged musicians, but many of them have been, and thus can view the world of performing first-hand. In any case, it’s irrelevant. Being a critic involves so much more than being able to play an instrument. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if Tony has judged competitions — most critics have done that.)

      • SVM says:

        Being a “pretty good pianist” does not necessarily make you qualified to comment on auditioning procedure. I would be interested to know whether Tommasini, in his capacity as “pretty good pianist”, has done any accompanying, chamber music, répétitur work, or similar music making? In particular, has Tommasini done any accompaniment work for auditions? If so, have any of the auditions for which he has undertaken accompaniment work been blind auditions (of course, it should be recognised that many blind orchestral auditions do not involve an accompanist at all)?

        In my own experience of accompanying auditions (mostly singers) without a screen in the UK, I find that it *is* possible to distinguish between good and outstanding candidates (but of course, in general, nobody asks the accompanist’s opinion… and that is just as well, because the accompanist is supposed to be on the candidate’s side, regardless of who is paying the accompanist, and there is an unspoken understanding that the accompanist shall not divulge information about any weakness manifested by the candidate in the warm-up session before the audition).

        Returning to Marc’s comment, let us suppose he is correct in his supposition that Tommasini has served as a competition judge. Even if that is the case, competitions are a very different medium from orchestral auditions, and serve somewhat different purposes. Competitions focus on performing a thoroughly prepared programme (largely or wholly selected by the candidate) as a soloist or chamber musician in public, and almost never involve sight-reading (although there may be a set piece that is provided less than a month in advance). To the best of my knowledge (I have almost no direct experience of orchestral auditions, but I have spoken to many people who do have such experience), orchestral auditions tend to focus on performing a thoroughly prepared set of excerpts from the orchestral repertoire (largely or wholly selected by the orchestra) /in camera/ to a small panel/committee of expert peers, and may well involve sight-reading on the spot (or with preparation time measured in minutes rather than weeks).

        So, Marc’s defence of Tommasini is insufficient to inspire confidence that Tommasini really understands orchestral auditions. Does Tommasini have experience of observing orchestral auditions? Has he conducted serious academic research into them? Or, failing that, has he discussed the matter in depth with any serious researchers in the field and/or people working on the inside of the process?

    • Bryan says:

      I suspect that Tommasini does know better, but that the powers that be at the NYT put the arm on him to fall in line with the narrative, facts be damned.

      • Larry D says:

        Your “suspections” are backed up by absolutely nothing but prejudice about those terrible “powers that be”, facts be damned.

        • Curious says:

          There can no longer be no reasonable doubt about the fact that the NYT is a cesspool for leftist dogma. Dissenting views are quashed. Or, at least, those who somehow allow one to slip through are terminated. The NYT is a disgrace to journalism in the US. “All the propaganda that’s fit to print.”

      • SVM says:

        If that is the case, Tommasini may have rendered a service in demonstrating how absurd the aforementioned “facts be damned” narrative is.

        The problem is, nowadays, that we can never be sure whether these presstitutes are being sarcastic/satirical or whether they are true believers. And, even where a someone intends an article or comment to be satirical, no satire is too outrageous to be taken seriously.

      • The View from America says:

        Nah, he probably drank the Kool-Aid too.

    • AstoriaEd says:

      like Mr. Raimi says, all you need is 16 bars of Mozart. While it looks easy on the page and technically is, those bars more or less tells you all you need to know about their sound, rhythmic discipline, intonation and phrasing. The musicianship required is exceedingly difficult and the reason why professional musicians spend their lives mastering Mozart.

  • Gustavo says:

    “The viola is as superfluous as the Pope’s manhood.”

    – Hans Knappertsbusch

    Time for more Bratscherwitze!

    • Maria says:

      How disgusting that you can ridicule Catholicism who are devout Christians, bound up with mainland Europe and Ireland not to mention sub-Sahara Africa, but don’t talk about any other faith or race as that is an -ism of some sort.

      • Alexander Tarak says:

        Idiotic comment. (Maria’s)
        It’s Knappertsbusch who is ridiculing viola players.
        You have completely missed the point.
        “Race, faith, isms”?
        What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?
        Talk about lowering the tone.

    • Max Raimi says:

      Q: Why are viola jokes almost always such terse aphorisms, typically a one- or two- liner?
      A: So violinists can remember them.

  • annnon says:

    1) Mr. Tommasini knows not the first thing about what is required to play in an orchestra, not having ever played in one himself, he is, by his own account, not even a very competent amateur pianist, but that he thinks he can just pontificate on the skill sets required of Big Five orchestra musicians is pitiful triumph of arrogance over ignorance.

    2) Mr. Tommasini fails to make the *moral* necessity for racial diversity in an orchestra, anymore than, to follow the logic of his sports analogy, the moral necessity for racial diversity in ice hockey.

    No one doubts that Blacks make up the best athletes, and musicians, of the world, and there is no one doubts that Blacks can play ice hockey and classical music…if they so choose.

    If Blacks, for whatever reason, are choosing not to play ice hockey, why on earth would you create affirmative action for the few Black ice hockey players who are out there who, if they were white, would never make it onto any NHL team?

    Same logic with Big Five orchestras.

    • Frankster says:

      Comfortable in your little world?

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Well, there are four Black ice hockey players in the ice hockey hall of fame so far, so your final generalization is, at best, out of date.

    • David Moran says:

      a stupid (and inaccurate) comment, and not only because AT is quite a competent pianist, easy to confirm, not that that ultimately matters in this discussion


  • Alank says:

    I find it interesting that no one talks abut increasing diversity in major league sports. Is the the predominance of black athletes in basketball due to black privilege? Unsaid here is the increasing dominance of Asian Americans, especially in the string sections of the top American orchestras. Do you want put a quota on them to have other people of color in the first violin section. Maybe it has something to do with culture and the career preferences. Blind auditions in some cases are not totally blind since wind players can often identify their students. But the whole concept has prevented much of the bias that use to determine who won an audition. The NYT only agenda these days is to undermine every western institution in America. It is a despicable organization

    • Mr. Knowitall says:

      It could be argued that the predominance of black athletes is related to the opposite of black privilege. Poor urban neighborhoods are littered with basketball courts and hoops, which are relatively small and inexpensive to maintain. Football, baseball, soccer, and ice hockey are expensive sports to play. You need big fields, special equipment, and usually adult organization. As American blacks started to concentrate in cities, they focused increasingly on basketball. Soccer is suburban. Baseball became rural. Same goes for classical violin as compared to, say, electric bass for pop music.

  • London pro. says:

    Well said Mr Raimi. Spot on.

  • Max Raimi says:

    One quibble, Norman. I most certainly was not “arguing” with Maestro Haitink. I admire him enormously.

  • Put your money where your mouth is….perhaps the entire “NYT music critical” staff should relinquish their positions to other minority critics and let them have at it..for the cause.

  • Anon says:

    “We even tried out two of the more promising players, having them play a few concerts as Principal. The committee and our Music Director, Riccardo Muti, have been in agreement that none of the candidates meet our standards.”

    Sounds like a terrible practice. Why does anyone subject themselves to this nonsense?

    • AstoriaEd says:

      Because that’s the way orchestral auditions have always been done? If you don’t like the process don’t aspire to be a professional orchestral musician. It’s not all the different from acting actually. There are multiple rounds of casting, callbacks, screen tests, meetings.

  • I would be very interested to know if the Mozart Concertante excerpt was done with a violinist and the orchestra. Since this opening requires all of the qualities outlined by Mr. Rami, how can you judge them without the other instruments present? In other words, playing this work “blind” at least to me, makes no sense.

    • mary says:

      But that could be said of all orchestral excerpts on all audition lists.

    • A Bassist says:

      Playing most orchestral excerpts without the orchestral context is a pretty bizarre experience but it is the best compromise… I wonder how many orchestras could afford/ persuade its members to play for an audition? I know that the Philharmonia did this for a few finalists in their recent leader auditions…

  • Greg says:

    And, of course, no one seems to be willing to look at this issue from the perspective of the musician of color who ‘lands’ a job with a major orchestra knowing she will be regarded by her fellow musicians and the audience as a mere affirmative action placeholder.

    • Omar Little says:

      You realize that the reason that they feel that way is because we haven’t changed any of the practices in the industry. Most execs don’t feel tokenized? Why do y’all? Oh…right, because you’re pandering to the 1950s way of life and not living in reality.

    • MacroV says:

      Probably not. Because any such player who makes the final of a big audition has moved in high-level circles long enough to be confident of his/her ability and stature. It’s not as if an orchestra just grabbed someone off the street, handed him an instrument, and said good luck.

      Does every Cleveland Orchestra member who graduated from CIM and studied with an orchestra member feel like a “mere affirmative action placeholder?” Maybe they should.

  • anon says:

    Everyone should read Kurt Vonnegut’s story Harrison Bergeron.

    • V. Lind says:

      Makes 1984 read like The Wizard of Oz.

      Full marks for something so on point. Even though I loathe the story.

  • Thomas Dawkins says:

    There is very little wrong with the audition process, except perhaps for screening by CV instead of asking everybody to make a recording. The simple truth is that lower income areas = schools with fewer resources = schools with no arts curriculum. Until ther number of people of color studying classical music seriously rises, we cannot expect ethnic diversity to rise in orchestras, and this needs to be addressed at a very basic policy level.

    • PaulD says:

      This is not about “people of color”, but “people of a certain color”, a description that does not include Asians, South Asians or Latin Americans.

    • V. Lind says:

      I utterly agree with this, and think the opportunity should be presented early and widely. Nobody can have failed to notice the proliferation of Venezuelan artists making names throughout the world in recent years. Of course they did not all come from El Systema, nor is it the only way to do this, and its aims at the outset went beyond simply populating international concert stages. But it shows how early training can be productive in every way.

      But there is another question, one that I suspect is rooted in the elitism and class-consciousness (in the American sense of class, which is usually racial) of the classical music establishment and that perhaps ought to be considered. Jazz, blues, R&B and hip-hop are well-populated by black musicians. These are forms that essentially are the products of THEIR culture, and while many whites have taken a place in all of them, to a greater or lesser degree, they are not as wholly connected to it historically.

      If this is the music that speaks to the souls of black Americans (and other nationalities) perhaps what is needed more than an expensive and possibly misdirected initiative to indoctrinate black Americans into the European classical tradition is offering ALL young students a good grounding in musical forms and making sure they can follow the path that speaks to them.

      What is needed as much as altering criteria for admission to any professional music institution is a greater respect for other forms of music than the one each classicist prefers. I am not a fan of hip-hop, for a lot of reasons, but I am a reader of social history and I know where it came from and what it has done in speaking to a massive generation, by no means all black. I will always prefer classical music and opera to jazz, blues or R&B, but I have been at concerts of the latter that were just electrifying, as was a particular country concert — a genre I generally dislike in the extreme — that was so musically accomplished, so passionate and so intelligent that it overmastered any prejudice I might have.

      I do not mean, or want, to see any black who would like to use his or her musical talent toward a classical end to be left out for any reason other than level of ability, any more than I would like to think that the world would have overlooked Eric Clapton’s great talent — a man who was inspired as a boy by the blues of the delta. (As many popular musicians have been similarly inspired in their own pursuits, to the benefit of their careers. Think Elvis Presley and go on from there).

      But if the majority of black musical talent, for one reason or another, directs itself toward jazz or another musical genre, perhaps what we need is to honour that and foster it. A good grounding in classical music would be a boon to any musical kid, even if he longed to get back to his guitar or drums rather than a piano or timpani. But perhaps a better grounding in other musics would be beneficial to adults with closed ears and closed minds.

    • Max Raimi says:

      The CSO does no screening, by tape, CV, or anything else. If Mr. Dawkins wished to, he could audition for our next bassoon opening.

  • Grittenhouse says:

    The New York Times is garbage nowadays, and that especially includes the music section. None of them are qualified to write anything. Stop paying attention to them, they don’t deserve it.

    • Larry D says:

      Thank you, Mr. Trump.

    • Ben says:

      True, they no longer provide good news, but instead coddle and endlessly placate the professional managerial class at the expense of a real critique of anything… that includes the classical music scene.

  • Ann Roggen says:

    great post, Max. just a wonderful description of the opening of Sinfonía Concertante. if that isn’t one of the most individual and subtle dramatic moments in music, then I don’t know what is. no assembly line playing could manage it.

    • I will reiterate what I wrote to Max. How can you do the Concertante opening without the violinist and orchestra playing? All the points that Max makes have to do with the collaborative aspect, including the intonation and vibrato as well as the needed dynamic to make the first entry almost inaudible. There just is no way to make a judgement of this piece in a blind audition.

      • Anon says:

        Respectfully disagree Maestro.
        One can hear an overall awareness and presentation of what Mr. Raimi described without hearing the other parts.
        If you feel this way, why ask an instrumentalist to play anything at all? You can’t tell anything without hearing the entire orchestra playing with the person in context, right?

      • Max Raimi says:

        Ideally, we would hear it with the violin and orchestra. Not really feasible when there are as many as 10 days of prelims, sometimes stretching from morning through 5 PM. We found just hearing the violist alone in this music quite illuminating.

      • Old Man in the Midwest says:

        How do you do any concerto without the orchestra playing.

        If anything, this “concerto” demonstrates experience, nuance, and subtlety.

        I am very surprised to hear you say this.

      • Max Raimi says:

        One more point, Leonard. After the solists in “Sinfonia” hold their first note for two bars, they descend the E Flat major scale in even eighth notes (as I know you are aware). It is absolutely astonishing how many candidates, brilliantly athletic players in Mr. Tommasini’s metaphor, cannot play the eighth notes in the same tempo that they establish in the first two bars; they lack the internal metronome. A very good thing to find out about them before they are sitting next to you.
        If you play it with the orchestra, you have repeated eighth notes in the accompaniment to help you keep the tempo consistent. Actually, to hear the violist alone is in this sense more useful.

  • Anon says:

    Serious question. Is the UK’s audition system racist? I don’t know of orchestras using screens there. I have only auditioned there twice but there was no screen and the players in the section asked me to play several passages again with different adjustments. It felt almost like a coaching or a conservatory audition, and I at least could be myself. So what’s on the other side of the coin with the screen? Several highly qualified applicants spend months preparing a huge list, and then if they open with one imperfect crescendo/diminuendo in an acoustic they are unfamiliar with, they get a “thank you” from the other side of the screen after 12 seconds? That’s the best system we can come up with in the US?

  • Brian says:

    Tommasini was definitely on to something with his column.

    What’s needed is a hiring process similar to that of most major American corporations or universities: When confronted with a group of candidates of largely similar abilities, they should give preference to the one who is Black or Hispanic. That means taking the screen down.

    I know the Slipped Disc commentariat tends to be politically and socially conservative, but I suspect a lot of young professional and pre-professional musicians would support an affirmative action program.

    Orchestras simply can’t keep going on as lily white organizations and expect to seem the least bit relevant to society at large. And their current strategy, such as it is, isn’t working.

    • SVM says:

      No, you really do not want to emulate major “corporations and universities” when it comes to recruitment practices.

      In the UK, too many “corporations and universities” are incredibly lazy when it comes to their “hiring process”. They cut and paste a bunch of generic criteria that have little to do with the job, outsource the shortlisting to people and procedures who have no understanding of the job requirements, and do not meaningfully test the actual ability of the candidates (as opposed to their capacity to promise the earth in interview). Quite simply, they do not devote enough time and effort to recruitment.

      If an orchestra emulated this model, it would be equivalent to outsourcing the shortlisting process to an admin staffer who cannot read music, and not asking the candidate to play a single note in audition (but instead assess them *solely* on their answers to questions such as “What makes a good rehearsal?” or “Tell me about the most challenging orchestral concert in which you played, and how you responded to the challenges.”). Assuming “corporations and universities” in the USA are broadly similar to those in the UK in this regard, it would be a disaster if orchestras emulated their approach to recruitment.

      When confronted with “a group of candidates of largely similar abilities”, the solution is to keep looking, keep deliberating, seek 2nd/3rd/4th/nth opinions, and, if necessary, recall the best candidates for further assessment until a winner emerges. As soon as one legitimises discriminatory solutions (such as positive discrimination), one is giving licence to be lazy and cut corners. Rather than making an effort to evaluate and discuss strengths and weaknesses carefully, selection panels will rush to the “cannot distinguish between them” conclusion, especially if they are under political pressure to select a candidate from a particular group/demographic. It would be the equivalent to telling the jury on a criminal case: “If, after the first vote, you cannot agree a verdict, do not bother discussing the evidence any further, but instead proceed immediately to deliver a ‘guilty’ verdict to the defendant if he/she is privileged, or else a ‘not guilty’ verdict.”.

      If one really cannot avoid having to make selections between candidates who cannot be ranked meaningfully on merit-based criteria, at least make the decision on meaningful reasoning related to the candidate’s capability, even if the reasoning is somewhat subjective/imperfect in some way (e.g.: because it involves prioritising one virtue over another without a completely unassailable rationale for so doing).

  • Kenneth says:

    Is it right to judge musicians based on the color of their skin? This article is well written, but avoids the elephant in the room and the main point of the NY Times op ed.

  • Omar Little says:

    You all realize that you’re arguing the fact to keep things racially unjust in the classical music world, correct? If the real world (the ones that were smart and didn’t commit to a career in the orchestra) would laugh you out of the room for the insensitivity shown here.

    Go ahead, and tell me I’m wrong and that you’re keeping the sanctity of the ensemble together. That’s BS and y’all know it.

    It’s 2020. Not 1780. Get with the friggin times or get the hell out of the way because we have progress to make.

  • buxtehude says:

    Am I wrong is imaging a similarity between the division over Brexit and now in this expanding racial filter applied to music and society?

    Especially in how the merits of the sides dissolve into ever-more-general anger? A common experience of narrowing horizons? A crippling of social discourse?

  • sam says:

    White privilege is when white people assume that black people want to join their club.

    Maybe, just maybe, black people just could not care less about white people opera.

    If Kanye West suggested that the rap music industry should have an affirmative action program for white rappers from the suburbs, he would not sound crazier than what Tommasini is suggesting.

    • William Safford says:

      Many of the great jazz musicians of decades past were trained in classical music, especially in the wake of efforts by enlightened teachers and administrators such as Dvorak.

      In the first half of the twentieth century, many of them were refused employment in the classical world, because of anti-black discrimination. Many ended up in jazz or popular music at least in part in order to get work.

      For every one who made the choice voluntarily, many others did not have opportunities that white people take for granted–which is itself an example of white privilege.

      (This comment barely scratches the surface of this topic.)

      • M2N2K says:

        Yes, unquestionably – “in the first half of the twentieth century” (or until about six decades ago, to be more accurate), systemic “anti-black discrimination” and “white privilege” (or that of WASPs, to be more specific) were real in the USA.

  • Anonymous says:

    Oh boy, the racist boomers are out in force in the comments!

  • DAVID says:

    Staatskapelle Dresden vacancies page tells it all: https://www.staatskapelle-dresden.de/en/staatskapelle/vacancies/

  • MacroV says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Raimi, I want to call him out on a couple things:

    – “A significant percentage, very possibly a majority of our auditions, end up with us failing to hire a musician.” – All Mr. Tommasini was saying was that at the top level, it is very competitive. That doesn”t mean that an orchestra will find someone to its satisfaction. Apparently the CSO has deemed none of the 100 candidates it tried out to be appropriate for its principal viola position, which is understandable, but that doesn’t actually refute Mr. Tommasini’s point. Mr. Raimi and his colleagues were able to judge all the candidates unsuitable, but could they actually distinguish them so completely as to credibly rank-order them? Probably not; I suspect they are all very good, but none good enough.

    – One of the major things that music teachers teach these days is “how to take an audition.” If a major orchestra principal does a master class somewhere, you can bet part of the program will focus on the right way to play certain key excerpts, and may well include a “mock audition” where the teacher gives feedback. Top candidates for orchestra auditions are VERY thoroughly drilled for taking auditions; if you don’t know the process, and the unwritten rules, you will quickly be found out and shown the door.

    – Mr. Raimi isn’t really defending the blind audition process, at least not for principals. And that’s good, because over the past 25 years the CSO has hired a large number (I would guess the overwhelming majority) of its principals through non-blind auditions, usually after running a blind audition process, and sometimes several.

    I hope people will focus on the fact that Mr. Raimi is not taking issue with Mr. Tommassini’s assertion that players are so good, and so similar, that an orchestra would choose a player of color from a significant pool of equally qualified players, and not have to lower its standards in doing so. And that’s good, because his orchestra HAS on many occasions taken up Mr. Tommassini’s recommendation to dispense with (or at least ignore) the blind audition – just not in pursuit of diversity.

    • Max Raimi says:

      The policy is that the prelim and semifinals are always behind a screen. If any member of the orchestra is a candidate (which for principal positions, most titled chairs in the strings, and first violin openings–which second violinists often vie for–is almost always the case) the finals are behind a screen as well. In the finals, the Music Director takes part and has veto power even if the committee votes for a candidate. He (at some future date she) will often wish to engage with the auditionees, which is much more difficult with a screen. Barenboim used to get up in their face and conduct them; Solti would have all the finalists on stage at the same time, playing certain excerpts one after another. I believe that the last time we had a musician of color in the finals, we hired him. Tage Larsen is a brilliant trumpet player and a wonderful colleague.

  • CanuckPlayer says:

    Mr. Raimi has just proved that the American audition system doesn’t work.
    Orchestras like the Chicago Symphony have no trust in the results.
    The MET orchestra has a policy of hiring someone from every audition, but many of the other most prominent US orchestras do not.

    Why have these charades if they don’t produce results?

    • NYC Violinist says:

      incorrect, I believe the MET might have used to have a policy like this but it doesn’t exist now. If nobody is qualified for the job then why hire at the time? Seems simple to me.

  • M2N2K says:

    First to Max Raimi: that is a beautiful description of the opening solo viola phrase in Mozart’s masterpiece. Very well written and convincingly argued.
    Second to Leonard Slatkin: according to your logic there is no reason of listening to orchestral excerpts during auditions because all of them “should” be played together with the entire orchestra. But this is precisely how we can separate best from good – by hearing how they play those excerpts AS IF they are playing together with others, how even when playing alone they hear in their heads the entire structure of the music. Removing screens for that is not necessary at all.
    Third to “Anon”: in our American orchestra, we never stop anyone “after 12 seconds” or even after a full minute because of just “one imperfect crescendo/diminuendo”. Any kind of coaching should be done before the audition, not during it. We are not a training institution and so we look for a musician who can immediately contribute to the improvement of our orchestra, because that is the only way to serve great music and the audiences that support us at the level they deserve.

    • Corvus says:

      Playing alone at an audition “AS IF they are playing together with others” is a lofty ideal that quickly breaks down when faced with reality. Examples: tempering pitches “AS IF you are playing together with others” makes you sound out of tune when alone. Articulating a brass instrument–especially in loud passages–“AS IF you are playing together with others” while alone will usually produce an unwelcome sound. Observing emphases in such nuances as passing tones, suspensions, anticipations, etc. “AS IF you are playing together with others” while alone often results in an unconventional-sounding musical line. Changing tone color to blend a particular note “AS IF you are playing together with others” can result in an inconsistent musical line. I could go on, but I have heard each one of the above criticisms at auditions after people (myself included) played “AS IF they were playing together with others.”

      Those seemingly most successful at US auditions are those who can play orchestral excerpts soloistically–even so far as in a way that would never work while “playing together with others”–while alone, but who can then play the same excerpts “sectionally” when “playing together with others.”

      • M2N2K says:

        The key word in your last paragraph is “seemingly”. In my long experience, the most successful are those who are playing orchestral excerpts not fully soloistically, but with clear understanding of how their part fits into the musical whole, while at the same time making it attractive and reasonably expressive according to the style of whatever piece it is. Once again, I find Max Raimi’s comments here truly knowledgeable and very convincing.

  • Ani says:

    I still can’t believe that in 21st century there are talks about racism and especially within Arts. But what I can’t wait for is a CHANGE in selecting musicians for orchestras. Unfortunately every orchestra in the world still sticks on stereotypes during auditions…same Mozart concertos&Straussso, if a good musician haven’t performed well those pieces the way panel wants, does this mean he/she is not good enough? That’s not right.
    And another side of coin is those selected musicians who’s been drilled with common audition repertoir and got a place means they are great? – double standart no?
    Imho the selection procedure should be changed, uprooted.
    I have some ideas, but cares about it…

    • John Rook says:

      same Mozart concertos&Straussso, if a good musician haven’t performed well those pieces the way panel wants, does this mean he/she is not good enough?

      That’s not the point. Mozart and Strauss show everything you need to hear in an audition.

  • Kelly says:

    Excellent rebuttal Max! The “athletic component” here is your response amounts to a TKO.

  • Elaine Calder says:

    I realize you are currently auditioning for principal so there are immediate problems with this suggestion, but have you thought of establishing the CSO viola section standard for the audition committee by having the principal – or perhaps the most recent hire – play the excerpts at the top of the first round?

  • MacroV says:

    A lot of things get conflated in these comments, so let’s tease out the threads a little.

    – The key point of the Tommasini column is that greater diversity in American orchestras is a worthy goal.
    – To that end, maybe orchestras should stop using screens, so they can consciously hire for diversity.
    – It’s not necessarily going to threaten quality, because the standard of candidates today is so high, hiring the non-white person from a pool of essentially equally capable finalists is unlikely to threaten the group’s quality.

    That’s it. Disagree if you want, but those are the points one should focus on.

    As for Mr. Raimi’s piece, he’s only addressing the third point. He may well be correct, but a CSO principal position is perhaps not the best example for Mr. Raimi to use to refute the Tommasini comment. We can agree that there is probably a VERY short list of people worldwide who are qualified for that position, most of whom may hold jobs they are quite content with and don’t want to give up, even for the great CSO.

    • Max Raimi says:

      I’m not sure you read all the way to the end. I addressed points one and two as well here: “An argument can be made that hiring musicians of color is of such importance for the place of orchestras in our society that it should perhaps be a higher priority than necessarily finding the best musician for every opening. If Mr. Tommasini wishes to make that argument, it is a discussion well worth having.”

      • MacroV says:

        I did. That was more for the commenters, who are conflating several issues here. Especially those who may be under the impression that you are defending the blind audition process, which is the headline issue.

  • fflambeau says:

    Very thoughtful. Perhaps we should have more blacks writing for the NY Times?

  • fflambeau says:

    “Germany has 83 full time houses while the USA has one for four times the population. And only about 6 or so genuinely functional houses with even part time seasons like San Francisco or Chicago.”

    Well, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, the Met are some but this article lists dozens of opera houses in the USA. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_North_American_opera_companies

    All are not full-time, true, but neither are all 83 in Germany.

    The Opera in Weissbaden, for instance, has only 6 operas. Fewer than in San Francisco and more like the Florentine in Milwaukee. https://www.staatstheater-wiesbaden.de/oper/premieren-2020-2021/

    Bielefeld “Opera” meanwhile is more of concert hall that focuses on Hollywood music. I could find only one “classic” opera, La Boheme.

    See: https://theater-bielefeld.de/programm/vorschau-202021.html

    Are they really that different?

    • Frank says:

      (First off, you have to take into account that the schedules in Wiesbaden and Bielefeld are out of the ordinary at the moment due to Corona, of course). But you asked “Are they really that different?” They are VERY different. I live in Germany and have played with a number of orchestras here. As far as I know, all the opera orchestras and symphony orchestras are regulated under collective agreements. They are ranked as A, B, C or D orchestras and paid accordingly, but no matter the level, they all are paid as full-time jobs. True, the money isn’t so great at the D-level, but it’s at least enough to live off of and you get all the benefits of full-time work too.

  • Chicagoan says:

    Mr. Raimi, as a longtime CSO concertgoer (nearing 40 years) I’ve been a fan of yours for some time. However, I have to say that in all my years of going to hear your orchestra, I don’t know if I can recall a single season where there wasn’t at least one player on the roster that had a number of us in the audience asking “why is that person in the orchestra?” These have been important players, with exposed parts, that even us ‘nonprofessional’ listeners cold tell were not playling at a world class level. Some have been, year after year, truly awful. As for the tutti players, I have no idea, but I can’t imagine this exists only at the top of the sections.

    I know (casually) a couple of your colleagues, who have told me that it is up to the managers or the conductor to deal with these players. I also know that the issues of diversity, and how to hold auditions, is very thorny and fraught, and I sympathize with the difficulty of your position. However, it is a very bad look for your organization to claim to be so picky about who gets in, on the one hand, while continuing to turn a deaf ear to some real problem musicians who very noticeably bring down the quality of your orchestra. Sometimes these players have been allowed to continue on for decades, to the disappointment and consternation of your audience. How can you know if somebody is no good after twelve seconds, but let someone else who is clearly not qualified continue on for twelve years, or more?

    Surely there is some room for flexibility in the audition processes – perhaps a board member could start a fund to help underrepresented minorities with travel and hotel expenses to increase their numbers at your auditions. Something. Anything. The current audition process is flawed, in that it cannot predict who will keep their skills up, or who might develope physical or mental issues that impact their performance, years after the fact. I exhort you and your colleagues to consider some changes, additions, and alterations to the way you hire new musicians, as well as the way you retain the existing ones. I firmly believe the orchestra could become more diverse without losing its world class status.

    Thanks for your passion for what you do.

    • John Rook says:

      They’re probably long-serving musos who have at least partially lost their chops, and there’s little that management can actually do about it.

      • Max Raimi says:

        Actually, there is a clause in the CSO contract for termination due to failing to meet musical standards. To summarize it briefly, the Music Director has to institute the procedure. On the first go around, a committee of musicians has the power to overrule him by a majority vote. But then, in the next season, the Music Director can institute the procedure again, and this time his word is final. I cannot tell you why no Music Director has availed himself of this power in the 35+ years I have played in Chicago. Which is another reason we are very judicious when filling openings in the orchestra.

        • Joe Exotic says:

          Why leave it up to the conductor then? Why not use the power of collective bargaining and take that responsibility on yourselves as musicians have done for so many other things over the years, including the audition process? The answer… the same reason the conductor doesn’t choose to assert that power: lack of courage. No one has the balls to do it. Musicians fear or hide behind “solidarity.” You think the musicians are the only ones judicious in hiring? The conductor isn’t either? Give me a break. Your response, Mr. Raimi, is so snobbish that it’s laughable, and what’s really sad is that the orchestra community as accepted these talking points blindly. “We’re so great that no one is good enough for us.” Laughable. Especially when you invite apparently qualified people to automatically advance in auditions. Still no hire? Laughable.

          Fix the system. Fix yourselves. The problem ain’t lack of talent.

          • Max Raimi says:

            The post is called “Music Director” for a reason. I’m not at all clear how you propose that we work out a process by which we fire each other; I’m not sure there is a precedent for it in most workplaces, except perhaps the set of “Survivor”.
            It is a rather mean spirited cartoon to characterize what I wrote as “We’re so great that no one is good enough for us.” We fill every opening; sometimes it just takes a while. Believe me, I would love to get it done on the first go-around, and so would all my colleagues. As I tried to express, my idea of a fun time is not sitting in a dark hall drinking bad coffee for perhaps seven hours at a stretch listening to the same excerpts over and over again. Once would be more than enough; we are highly motivated to get the job done.
            If you can propose a better audition process, I would love to hear it. Maybe the screen is the problem, although I have never encountered a plausible hypothesis as to why that might be the case.

          • Joe Exotic says:

            Take out the last part of the equation. Don’t allow the last word to be the MD. The MD starts the process, the players finish it. Some orchestras already do it like this. If you really want it, you can have it. The MD isn’t at the bargaining table. You just have to care enough.

            I stand by that characterization of process and mindset. The MET has a policy of always hiring at every audition, and regularly granting tenure, and they’re pretty darn world-class, maybe even better than the Chicago Symphony on a regular basis.

            Again, laughable.

        • John Rook says:

          That’s very interesting; it seems easier to bid farewell to an underperforming member in Chicago than in Europe. Still, it behoves every orchestra – anywhere – to be militant in its recruitment process.

        • John Rook says:

          BTW: If you ever bump into Frank Babbitt from LOC, do give him my best (English guy on Phantom back in 1998).

          • Max Raimi says:

            I will, although I am unlikely to cross paths with Frank in our current pandemic world.

    • Old Man in the Midwest says:

      The union is too strong. To remove a musician who is past his/her prime is almost impossible and quite messy.

      If it happens to one player, then it can happen to the others and so it never happens.

      The only way that management can do it is to dangle a huge buyout package to the musician and hope that it works.

      The biggest fallacy is that each member in a top orchestra is a virtuoso. Perhaps when they got in, but some do not maintain their standards.

      • Max Raimi says:

        Not true. See my reply to John Rook for the procedure in Chicago which cannot remotely be characterized as “next to impossible”. In recent negotiations the musicians of the CSO have agreed to reduce substantially the price of the buyout; I believe that it is now less than a year’s salary.

        • Old Man in the Midwest says:

          A joke.

          The minute Muti decides to clean house (which he won’t), there will be rebellion in the work force.

          That said, let’s be honest.

          The CSO is a great orchestra made up of dedicated members and most are continuing to setting the standard. It is truly a great orchestra.

          In the end, not sure if there is anyone who needs to get a pink slip after this last season.

    • Nan says:

      There is a program that funds minorities for auditions: Sphinx national alliance for audition support.

      Do you know how small the amount of minorities there are even auditioning for orchestras or enrolled in conservatories??You cannot force people into classical music and with this dying field why would you want to? Why not just showcase west African or afro Latina bands and music? Do collabs? Orchestras are in rough shape already and you speak like there is just going to be room for people. When picking a candidate skin color should not matter. Maybe the chicago symphony can give free tickets to the southside of chicago and free transportation? Even then people MAY be bored of classical music. Some may be inspired. Why not lift people up by embracing THEIR culture instead of trying to force diversity??? What is so wrong about black and other cultures that they cannot be included with white European classical music? Or at least showcased?

      I do believe in outreach of course and music education is effective but just because we educate does not mean diversity is even guaranteed. There is nothing more special about classical music than other types to many people of ALL races and although I would love to live in a world where everyone had an opportunity to study music in some way it really is not smart to encourage people to go into this profession right now unless that is all they want to do.

  • david moran says:

    jeez, if he had put it more moderately or judiciously you would be okay with it, sounds like.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Who in the world would take any notice of what was written in the New York Times – especially after the Bari Weiss resignation letter.

    • John Rook says:

      And that’s only one reason. They’ve turned into an arrogant partisan rag, interested only in their perceived moral superiority and disdain for anyone outside of their target readership. Loathsome.

  • Fiddlist says:

    Thanks, a much better argument than Tommasini’s. I’d maybe clarify that not ENOUGH panel members find the appropriate musicianship in any given candidate. Each panel member’s musical tastes vary. A panel who shared all the same musical tastes would have something very wrong with it.

  • John Rook says:

    To promote greater diversity in our symphony orchestras, The New York Times’ chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini proposes that auditions should no longer be held behind a screen.

    Decoded: To promote diversity in our symphony orchestras, we need to lower standards.

    • MacroV says:

      No. That’s a complete and bad-faith mischaracterization of what he’s saying. His point is that the standard of play at auditions today is so high, that you could hire for diversity WITHOUT lowering standards. Mr. Raimi’s rebuttal is the standard of play is not as high as Mr. Tommasini suggests.

      And note the Mr. Raimi did not, in fact, say anything about using a screen, which is good, because the majority of CSO principal hires, at least, over the past 25 years or more have NOT occurred through that process.

  • Brucknerliebhaber says:

    Very well put Mr Raimi. Blind Audition has worked quite well for the Boston Symphony and I recall John Ferrillo , Principal Oboe of BSO, reflected upon it extensively in a piece published here. I am a subscriber to NYTimes but the paper has drifted so far to the left that everything is politicized and social engineering is embraced to maintain “Correctness” almost exclusively. It is detrimental to Science, Arts….and Politics!

    • MacroV says:

      John Ferillo did not win the BSO principal oboe job through a blind audition. That’s how he won the MET. They recruited him after years of trying to hire a principal oboe, whether through blind auditions, inviting prominent players in for guest stints, etc.. It was logical that they pursued him – he was the best in the business at the time. One reason why he was able to negotiate a higher salary than Elizabeth Rowe (remember that whole row on 1-2 years ago?).

      • Brucknerliebhaber says:

        Yes . Ferrillo’s piece was about his experience as a member of the panel conducing the audition, not as a candidate. I remember he is quite convinced of its value.

  • Sanda Schuldmann says:

    I find it incredible that politics find itself in te arts. Not that there are no politics in the word of the arts, however, they are different. They were always to assert power and control, but little to do with “POLITICS” like diversity. When it comes to music-making or a theater audition, bias can only be absent if you do not know who the auditioner is! The only fair way to select a member of an orchestra is behind a curtain. PERIOD!

  • sabrinensis says:

    “The next time you are certain of your position on affirmative action, think of Richard Robinson. Robinson is the double bassist recently hired by the Detroit Symphony — the first black musician hired by the 98-member orchestra in 14 years. His addition doubles the number of black musicians — to two. But Robinson wasn’t hired through the normal audition process. He landed his job after several black members of the Michigan legislature withheld nearly $1.3 million in public funding for the orchestra and threatened to organize boycotts of its concerts unless it hired more black musicians. It is a stark case of affirmative action. But is it a good thing, long overdue in a city that is some 60 percent black? Or is does it constitute unwarranted interference in a talent-based selection process, interference that threatens the artistic integrity of a fine orchestra? Darwin Apple, a black violinist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, was outraged at “the intrusion of politics into an area where legislators are ignorant.” Other musicians and orchestra managers, white and black, were equally offended. Even Robinson has his misgivings. “I would rather have auditioned like everybody else,” he said, according to a recent report in The New York Times, from which these facts are taken. “Somehow this devalues the audition and worth of every other player.” ”


    When non-musical elements are introduced into the process, it creates doubt about the outcome. The classical music business is necessarily built on subjectivity and so it is inherently unfair in its pursuit of the highest quality. There is no way around that without compromising the achievement of that pursuit.

    If only blind auditions could be done for conductors. For them, all sorts of other considerations immediately come into play that leave behind the best musical result. Who has the right, contacts, who recommended them, what “dowry” might they bring to the orchestra (recordings, tours, etc.), are they “physically” acceptable to the audience (there’s a can of worms)…

    • MacroV says:

      You are aware this was 31 years ago, right? Yes, this was an issue back then, and I understand why black city council members would wondering why the city should subsidize an institution that doesn’t look like the community. Now, a lot has changed in the subsequent 30 years precisely to make orchestras more involved with their community.

      But there are lots of players in U.S. orchestras who were hired by means other than a blind audition. Should they all feel they didn’t deserve their job? If so, U.S. orchestras would be ridden with guilty consciences.

  • Kurt Kaufman says:

    Oh my, what a hornet’s nest! To be honest, from my perspective it seems as if the conservatories and universities have been cranking out musicians for many many decades – far more candidates than the shrinking number of employment opportunities require. Perhaps partially as a result of this, the standards have become ever more rigorous. Frankly, I have a hard time believing that suitable candidates cannot be found. It used to be that everyone would learn on the job to a certain extent. Now apparently an experienced professional is required at the start.
    I will avoid discussion of race and employment, and also mention that so-called “blind” auditions can never really be so, as eventually any candidate will be required to audition in situ.
    From the point of view of a player that’s had to sit on orchestral audition panels and listen to many applicants, it is really hard to be even-handed, especially comparing someone who auditions at 9:00 in the morning and someone who auditions at 4:30 later that afternoon. My ears simply won’t hear them the same way.

  • Lee Merrick says:

    Tommasini discounts artistry which IMO separates the very good from the brilliant.

  • Nancy Shear says:

    Leopold Stokowski — a great orchestra builder — felt that hearing a candidate for an orchestral job play chamber music would tell him a lot — how the player would blend his/her sound with colleagues; if the style of playing would be compatible with the ensemble; and if the player exhibited collaborative ability. For a musician with good credentials, technique should be a given. But possessing the subtleties that Mr. Raimi writes about should be the deciding factor, without any sort of discrimination. Musicians with great technique are not interchangeable.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    This has been one of the better actual discussions because for the most part it is content based, and has mostly avoided name calling except for some random swipes at the NYT and Mr. Tommasini. I am reluctant, based on my own (ahem) “abilities” as a string player to jump into the fray. But here are some random thoughts.

    1. Isn’t it just possible that Tommasini was doing a Jonathan Swift-like “modest proposal” about the whole topic? In other words was it a reductio ad absurdum hypothetical about the diversity goal? Maybe even a joke that his worthy employer didn’t “get.”

    2. Tommasini’s premise is that given the extraordinary quality of the products of contemporary music education, it no longer matters who you select or if they audition at all. Picking and choosing among them is just so much hair-splitting. He didn’t advocate for deaf auditions. But nobody arranges for only the best products of the music education system to be auditioning. He thinks there is a filter where there is no filter. There are people on the audition trail who can wave their diplomas at you but who would not be good additions to a great orchestra. There are people who should know better than to audition for the Chicago Symphony who do so nonetheless. I’ve known some of them. Some are people who incredibly can listen to a great orchestra and still not comprehend that what is actually being accomplished on that stage calls for skills they do not have. (Ironically some are gifted violinists who can zip through those opening measures of “Don Juan” or the various Wagner and Mendelssohn passages with no technical problem, but in a manner that reveals they cannot be part of a larger whole).

    3. Doing something meaningful about the lack of racial diversity in the orchestras at the audition level strikes me as late in the process. The supply problem is further up the pipeline. I realize that this can quickly descend to a variation on the smug and discredited “with all deliberate speed” Supreme Court language about desegregating schools. I am not sure I have (or that there is) a snappy solution to the problem.

  • rugbyfiddler says:

    Might I suggest that this piece serves beautifully to prove the old saying “Those who can, do, those who cannot do, teach, and those wh cannot teach become critics!’ Not a universal truth but so often happens to be so!

    • Gerry McDonald says:

      Dear Rugbyfiddler
      Hmm, yes perhaps, but I think you’ll find the really respected (by musicians) critics can “do” up to a point, and certainly the best instrumental teachers are almost always highly capable performers!

  • BrianB says:

    One of the best and positive eye-opening things I have ever seen on this blog. Thank you, Max Raimi.

  • Dan says:

    My uneducated and ill-informed response to some of the comments above, as well as to the main thrust of Mr. Raimi’s argument:

    1. Call me old-fashioned, but I do believe the purpose of an orchestra is not only to play great works of art, but also to enrich a community. Is it really so controversial to believe that an orchestra should look like the community it serves? In doing so, I believe you are able to more fully and more authentically serve your community. A lack of diversity in orchestras in major American cities might reflect the fact that orchestras have stopped seeing community enrichment as their primary purpose. The writing is on the wall though: if we want classical music to stay relevant, we need to build audiences. Are we really content with classical music staying a pass-time for the elite? God, think of how much great music we are missing out on by not involving more and more people! I believe it was Carl Sagan (in, the Dragons of Eden?) who said, (i’m paraphrasing), “The fear is not that the next century (the 21st) won’t produce the next Einstein. The fear is that the next Einstein will be born in a housing project without the means to realize their potential, or even the chance for this child to recognize that they have this potential.” I’m reminded too of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” in which the main character, a young girl in a poor town, falls under the spell of Beethoven due to Toscanini’s NBC broadcasts. This is the purpose of music, not to execute flawlessly a passage from Mozart (you can have both, but I believe the former is more important). Which brings me to…

    2. I have taken my musically illiterate parents to many concerts over the years. They would be absolutely unable to even pronounce the words “bad intonation” without fumbling, let alone accurately saying when a musician has bad intonation. I do believe the standards of modern orchestras has gotten almost too high (Virgil Thomson was saying this in the 50s btw). If the goal is to audition someone to be able to play a Mozart passage to the standards Mr Raimi describes, is the implication that an audience member should be able to recognize this? That is screening for a very narrow range of audience members, I have to say. I always say, I saw a famous orchestra play Mozart’s Jupiter once. Unmoved. I have heard children sing songs so out of tune with half the words wrong, and been intensely moved. Who are we playing for, and what do our standards say about the audiences we are trying to reach? Do we need lower musical standards? Probably not, but we should probably rethink why we have these standards, and incorporate others so that another performance of the Jupiter doesn’t go by without the faintest trace of purpose.

    3. All of these conversations are just a fun little diversion from the question of whether orchestras in the US will even exist in the near future, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Are we not at a major inflection point? Do we not risk entrenching the same power structures and elitism that has kept the makers of classical music from reaching greater audiences? Do we not the respect the music enough and believe in its transformative power to be content with it potentially reaching so few people in the future? Are we that selfish? I hope as a result of this crisis, orchestras will be forced to be even more inclusive and community-driven, as honestly, that may be the only way they survive.

    So, to comment on the topic at hand, should orchestra auditions stay behind a screen? Honestly, probably (due to inherent prejudices almost everyone bears), but reflecting the diversity of a community is important, and orchestras should probably prioritize people from their community in filling their ranks and getting diverse applicants into the audition room.

    And dear god, can we please start playing more contemporary music? Do we not have enough Mozart records? I like to think Mozart would be near-horrified at the amount of veneration heaped on works he probably wrote in 5 minutes on the toilet for the commission fee alone.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Thanks to anyone who read all that!

    • JAS says:

      To your second point:

      It’s fairly simple. People recognize excellence whether they can identify what makes something excellent or not. You can’t have excellence without an intense attention to detail. This is true in music, football, dance, cooking, writing, beer brewing and nearly any other human endeavor worth enjoying as something excellent.

      The audience may not be able to hear the phrase Max refers to, say “ah yes” and explain it back to you the way Max did, but anyone who has been to more than a few concerts can tell the difference between a performance that you think is good and a performance that is stunning.

      A musician who is capable of a stunning performance is one who, intuitively or through meticulous planning, can capture a level of detail beyond what the average listener can use words to describe.

  • Joshua Gordon says:

    I realize some musician friends in orchestras may disagree, but if even the Met Orchestra’s honorable system (screen all the way) hasn’t led to more diversity, maybe it’s time for the major full time orchestras to adopt a common practice of their major league sports team neighbors – establish a scouting system. Let orchestra scouts seek out great players who are more than technicians, who have proven themselves musically as well-rounded ensemble players as well as soloists, who’ve shown a willingness to take part in educational outreach and serve their communities, who have proven themselves curious about broadening the repertory and not just be obsessed with nailing a Strauss excerpt at an audition. And just as scouts have helped to diversify sports teams, they can do the same for orchestras. Maybe the scouts could be assistant conductors or retired players. Sure, there’s potential for favoritism here too, so the ethical standards of the scouts would be paramount and need to be drawn up carefully. Players are often invited to auditions through first hand knowledge of orchestra members or the music director anyway, so a scouting system would take this to the next level.

    • William Safford says:

      There are elements of what you suggest in organizations such as Sphinx, New World Symphony, The Orchestra Now, and Ensemble Connect (formerly ACJW): not specifically the scouting part, but the training part in outreach and pedagogy as well as musicianship and performing.

  • I M Wrighton says:

    I am concerned that certain sporting events such as high profile athletic competitions are becoming irrelevant because they are not producing results that reflect the community. For example, the first three in a 100m sprint might belong to a single ethnic group and, in some instances, every contestant in the race might do so. This is evidence of some form of privilege and is clearly unacceptable.

    To remedy this, I suggest that each ethnic group should have its own exclusive race, and the fastest in each race be regarded of equal merit. First second and third awards would be made for each ethnic group.

    Similar arrangements are already in place to separate male and female genders, so I don’t see why it should present a problem.

    Should this prove impractical, a committee could be established to assess each contestant individually based on a combination of background, speed and ethnicity, dispensing with the controversial and elitist distortions of an actual race.

    The problem, of course, is that in the absence of true competition, standards would drop and hardly anyone would turn up. However, ideology would be satisfied and this would more than compensate for any shortcomings in attendance.

  • Nan says:

    Hope everyone is having a good day and coping well.

    I am really unsure why forcing diversity should be something that happens to classical music or in general. If orchestras were more diverse that would be great. At the same time instead of insisting on this or forcing it why not embrace other types of music in the classical space? I wonder why most orchestras are not showcasing west African bands, afro Latina, asian music and etc. in their seasons if they want to encourage more diversity. I am not saying people have to do this but I think this is way more productive than white liberals who have no friendships with minorities and no experience with other cultures pandering to minorities and seeing us as victims. Not everyone is like this of course.

    Programs whether music or not need to be put in place with mentoring to help all types of people get out of poverty and deal with mental health issues.

    I am not so sure pushing anyone into a dying profession is worth it at this point. Music education has it’s place in educating a society for sure but the odds of getting into an orchestra even if you have great musicianship which is rare is difficult.

    The musicians of the chicago symphony may have a hard time finding a musical player because the technical ability is so high now if someone does not have both they are put aside. The older orchestral musicians have a level of musicality much higher but technical ability lower than the younger generation imo. Why have we not realized that a natural musician may have the slightest quirks, most minuscule or slightest lower level of technique, still at a very very high level but because it was lower than a technition, even one soo boring and uncreative the real musician loses and the technition makes it to finals and is not picked.

    I am obviously not talking about freaks that have superb levels of both like yo yo ma which is not who the orchestra is auditioning.

    I am a successful musician. I won a good job. I chose to leave this job because of the toxic work environment. Being an orchestral musician you have little choice where you want to work so I also lived in a place I could never like despite the good salary and musical opportunity.

    My initial plan was to win another job but that did not go so well even though I have been greatly encouraged by some of the best in the business.

    Times have changed and even my former teachers said when they were young freelancing was thriving and they were clueless how young musicians now survive.

    Times have changed. Especially with covid19. Why should ANY young person be encouraged to study just music? If someone has a more well rounded bachelors degree that helps them realize other interests that is great. We assume music is all we can do when that is what we think because we have isolated ourselves for so many hours doing just that. I feel sympathy for all the freelancers especially right now. Although you all have the brains and skills to explore!

    At this point I think it is extremely irresponsible to encourage anyone let alone the poor to have a career in classical music unless that is 100 percent what they want. Teachers need to educate the realities though which they really do not do generally speaking.

  • Veda Zuponcic says:

    I like the idea of a scouting system, suggested by Joshua Gordon. I have another thought on this subject, which is to institute something like a typical academic job search in these days, to uncover more diverse candidates. Let’s say we start with a pool of 100 persons. First, you determine if there are some under-represented persons in that pool. They could be women, Latinos, Native Americans, blacks. If there are a sufficient number, the pool stands and the work to winnow them out begins. If there are not enough, an active search for more diverse candidates takes place until you find some possible candidates. Then, the pool might be reduced to something like 20 persons. At this point, the committee takes a look at their pool of the 20 “highest ranking” people. If no diverse candidates are in that pool, we must go back and look, perhaps, at candidates 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20, and compare them to the highest ranking minority candidates. Can someone from that group be swapped out for a minority candidate? There isn’t usually a clear consensus about anyone except for the occasional genius who ranks head and shoulders above everyone else. Now, reduce the pool to 5 persons who are invited to audition. Is there a minority person there? Then look at your pool again–who out of the 20 persons might be competitive with candidates 3, 4 or 5? If no one, you can ask your administration to give you money to bring someone in for a final interview to make candidate 6. It is amazing, once you get people into the interview/audition process, how someone who looks good on paper is really awful, and how, many times, candidate 3 or 4 surfaces to the top. The same might be true of an orchestral audition; and, if nothing else, you gave a pretty strong player an opportunity to audition for a major orchestra. There are lots of ways to improve the audition process and I think Mr. Tomassini’s article is a very good starting point for re-thinking this problem.

  • robert freeman says:

    I shall be publishing a new book, “Leonard Slatkin and the Rescue of the American Symphony Orchestra,” later this year. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with the modernization of American music school curricula and with the reorganization of the American orchestra that such moves will make possible. Leonard and I expect a lively discussion to follow.

  • William Safford says:

    This is a challenging topic, without any obvious answer.

    For a moment, let’s discuss a corollary to this worthy topic: let’s juxtapose the prominence of women in orchestras past and present, vs. as conductors thereof.

    As we all know, for most of the history of orchestras, until the mid-20th century, orchestras were populated almost exclusively by men. If there was a female member, she usually played harp.

    This changed starting in mid-century, to the point that most orchestras have achieved near-parity, at least as section players. Even the percentage of female section leaders has risen, even if parity has not yet been achieved.

    Juxtapose this with conducting, which was and remains an almost-exclusively male bastion.

    What is the primary difference between how women are hired to play in orchestras, vs. how they are (most often not) hired to conduct them?

    Blind auditions.

    It was the implementation of blind auditions, more than anything else, that opened the doors to women members of the orchestra.

    Blind auditions have not been implemented for conductor positions, for what I hope are obvious reasons. (How can you judge a conductor’s competence if you cannot see her?)

    What is sad, is that most women continue to face the conducting glass ceiling.

    What does this say about the hiring practices by orchestras of female conductors? Why did it take blind auditions to overcome chauvinistic hiring practices and biases?

    I’ll also observe that the hiring of Asians and Asian-Americans has also gone up in this time of blind auditions.

    How can we relate this to the dearth of Black and African-American classical musicians?

    I do not have a concrete answer for this. My suspicion is that the primary answer lies not so much at the level of auditions for professional orchestras, but elsewhere in society in general and the educational process more specifically.

    It is well documented that classically-trained Black and African-American musicians of a hundred years ago were, with rare exceptions, refused employment in the classical world. The efforts of the likes of Dvorak went unrealized for decades.

    The barriers of discrimination as official policy have been removed, yet progress towards diversity has been slow and halting.

    How do we address this? Would eliminating blind auditions help to improve diversity, or exacerbate the problem of a lack of diversity? I do not know.

    • M2N2K says:

      Since you “do not know”, I shall try to help. Diversity already exists. There are different kinds of people who populate our planet. Some of them are better at one thing while others are better at another. There are always exceptions, but in general different groups of people have different talents in various human endeavors. All we have to do is to accept this and enjoy that wonderful diversity of human achievements. Any attempt to change it artificially is doomed to failure and is absolutely unnecessary. We are different as individuals and in groups too. That what makes life interesting and beautiful. Let us celebrate that, instead of trying to force some kind of boring conformity. Let us always remember the great MLK and strive to judge and value people not based on their skin color or any other external trait but according to the content of their character and the contribution they are making to humanity.

      • William Safford says:

        Your comment hews closely to the “colorblind” trope, under which the status quo is maintained and progress is inhibited.

        • M2N2K says:

          If your kind of “progress” means getting away from colorblind principle, then inhibiting it is the right thing to do.

          • William Safford says:

            I recommend that you do some reading about colorblind racism.

            Here is a good starting point:


          • William Safford says:

            A quote from the abovementioned article:

            “Like many white Americans, these white parents understand racism as a product of discriminatory thinking or overt, individual acts of racism rather than as a structure of inequality in which racism is embedded within the policies and procedures of American institutions and organizations. This focus on individual thoughts and actions diverts attention away from how race is embedded in the social structure of the United States and the historical and contemporary policies that have secured white advantage. Thus, what escapes white understandings of race and racism is that white privilege exists irrespective of whether whites believe that they as individuals have taken active steps to discriminate against or exclude people of color. Whiteness exists as a system of power.”

          • M2N2K says:

            Thanks for quoting – it is very helpful, because now I know that if the rest of the article is as illogical and nonsensical as this quote then I don’t have to waste my time reading it. Seriously believing such garbage is harmful for one’s mental health.

          • William Safford says:

            Denial–it’s not just a river in Egypt.

        • Roshumba Wallace says:

          Equality = Colorblindness

          Right now, certain Blacks are feebly trying to act superior for no good reason using savagery. It’s an enormous embarrassment to the majority of black people with stronger character, intellect and hearts.

          Glad Trump is standing up for the truly good Blacks along with all other races by sending in legitimate authority figures as opposed to Liberal wimps.

    • DAVID says:

      I love your point regarding the absence of blind auditions for conductors, “for obvious reasons” as you say. I would actually disagree — the musical differences between conductors should actually be audible, so we should also have blind auditions for them, too. Of course, conductors never actually “audition” for an orchestra, so it’s a moot point, but you would think there should be a noticeable difference in the end result. One could do the very same exercise by playing recordings without revealing who’s actually conducting and asking listeners which one is best.

      • William Safford says:

        Thank you, but I am a bit perplexed by your claim that conductors never audition for an orchestra.

        This is not the case.

        I have performed in concerts that were explicit auditions for conductors, who were the finalists for conducting positions.

        Even in instances in which there is not an explicit audition procedure for a conductor, there often has been an informal one: for example, if a conductor was well regarded as a guest conductor before being hired for a full time position, and was hired for the guest conducting position for that very reason. (Other times, of course, it can be serendipitous; the example of David Robertson’s stint doing emergency guest-conducting duties for the St. Louis Symphony orchestra in Carnegie Hall when Hans Vonk was indisposed comes immediately to mind–a concert that I attended, as it happens.)

        As for the audibility of the music produced by one conductor vs. another, that is valid, but misses the greater point.

        You can hear an orchestral musician play an audition from behind a screen; you cannot see a conductor conduct through a screen.

        If the auditioning orchestra members cannot see the conductor, how can they be conducted by him or her?

        I suppose a screen can be set up between the orchestra and adjudicators in the audience–but then the orchestra members do not have a voice in the decision? (Sometimes orchestra members have a voice; other times, not.)

        Or do you hire freelance orchestral players for the audition, then have the members of the orchestra in the audience? But then they don’t know what it is like to be conducted by the candidate.

        To quote Harry Potter: “It’s complicated.”

  • MacroV says:

    After reading all these comments over two pieces in the past few days, I fear everyone is missing the point. Aside from the MET, NO orchestra hires people blind. While just about every orchestra uses a screen in early rounds, just about every orchestra also drops the screen for the finals. Or, if the finals fail to turn up a candidate, an orchestra will often invite people – in the case of Mr. Raimi’s CSO and other orchestras of comparable stature, usually a principal from another top group – to come in for a mutual (and very un-blind) tryout, as it were. Kind of like a company headhunting for an executive.

    If a person of color manages to get through to the finals via a blind audition, once the screen is down, there is every opportunity for the orchestra to do an “all else being equal” and choose that person.

    Now, Mr. Tommasini might suggest dropping the screen so that you can promote more diversely into the finals. That’s a discussion one can have without denouncing the whole enterprise as NYT “wokeness,” etc..

    • M2N2K says:

      You are incorrect: there is more than one orchestra I know of besides the Met that use screens throughout all rounds of auditions. In any case, you are talking about compromises we sometimes need to make when dealing with imperfections of our auditions. Using screens as much as it is practical, however, is one of the most effective and useful features that make our auditions as fair and just as possible.

      • MacroV says:

        OK, virtually no orchestra does it. The CSO does not do it. And I’ve been trying to make the point that Mr. Raimi is primarily focused on Mr. Tomassini’s assertion that there are so many well qualified players at auditions. He is not actually defending the blind audition process, and he can’t do so credibly, because the CSO, like most orchestras, uses it in early stages but not prior to the final hiring decision.

        As to your use of “compromises we sometimes need to make…” That’s a pretty broad exemption you’re granting yourself. Translation: You drop the screen when you’re not getting the desired result. Which is exactly what Mr. Tommasini is proposing be done.

        • M2N2K says:

          Your “translation” is incorrect. There is no practically viable audition process – whether with screen or without – that can give us all the information about candidates’ potential value to the orchestra, which is why on very rare occasions it does make sense to “drop the screen” in order to learn a little bit more about the most outstanding finalists’ qualities as musicians for the purpose of choosing between them. We know that it is a compromise and so we do that as a last resort only. This is nowhere near what NYT critic was proposing.

          • MacroV says:

            He is proposing to drop the screen so you can see who is auditioning, and selecting for diversity.

            You are dropping the screen in order to “learn more about the most outstanding finalists’ qualities as musicians for the purpose of choosing between them.”

            You are both dispensing with the screen when using it prevents you from achieving your desired purpose. You are just objecting to his purpose while defending yours.

          • M2N2K says:

            You’ve got it! He wants to get rid of the screen to select the winner based on race, and I find that indefensible. We use screens as much as possible precisely because we do not want to allow any kind of prejudices based on external non-musical considerations (including but not limited to skin color) to get in the way of our ability to judge candidates’ qualities as musicians as fairly and as fully as we can. That is a big difference indeed.

  • Varados says:

    To be fair to Tommasini, he no doubt wishes to retain his position at the Times. It is probably a paying position, and what better way to join the crowd than by signaling one’s desire to promote diversity. How could this be otherwise?

  • Al Miller says:

    Don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I live in Houston Texas. The Houston Symphony is a very fine ensemble. Great music making. But I quite enjoy the local conservatory orchestra (the Shepherd School Orchestra). (The SSO plays in a better hall too).

    No they are not in the same league but the difference is very very fine to quite excellent not amateur to pro.

    The irony is that HSO musicians are overwhelmingly progressive in their politics in spite of their guardianship of western patriarchy and ableism (two things I hold dear. ) I am sure the CSO is even more progressive.

    It’s a tad of schadenfreude to see their pain and anguish as they contemplate the existential threat of diversity to their gig.

  • Wise Guy says:

    The elephant in the room (well, there are numerous) is the question; Why does it matter that there aren’t that many black people in orchestras? I should think it would matter a little bit more if more blacks were ardent enthusiastic listeners and players of orchestral music. But they aren’t. So, who cares? Oh, wait, white wokesters care…
    This is a non-issue, a first world problem, aka a fake problem.