NY Times claims Asians are invisible in classical music

NY Times claims Asians are invisible in classical music


norman lebrecht

July 21, 2021

The paper reports the grievances of US orchestral players of Asian origin who, though numerous, feel undervalued.

The number of Asian soloists and orchestra musicians has swelled in recent decades, even as Black and Latino artists remain severely underrepresented. But in other parts of the industry, including opera, composition, conducting, arts administration and the boards of leading cultural institutions, Asians are scarce. A lack of role models has exacerbated the problem, artists say, making success in these fields seem elusive.

“At times, you feel like an endangered species,” said Xian Zhang, the music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Zhang is one of a small number of Asian female conductors leading major ensembles.

Your views?


  • Anon says:

    Every orchestra musician feels undervalued. Asians don’t exactly have a corner on that market.

    This is a ridiculously naive article. Asians dominate at international competitions, on conservatory admission rosters and in top symphony orchestras.

    This dilettante journalist (writing for NY Times, seriously?!!) went out looking for Asians in classical music who feel undervalued. He could have interviewed ANY pro orchestra player or aspiring conductor with the same response.

    • Henry williams says:

      I have seen asian players in the israel philharmonic orchestra.

    • Shana Millborough says:

      The leftist narrative focuses solely on race over quality or educational prowess hence their raging on for blacks only.

      Nobody else counts with the left!

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        It’s their EPIC hypocrisy which galls me. Not just their hectoring, finger-wagging, cancelling, command and control miserabilism.

    • Giusitizia says:

      Upvote but the NYT is exactly where I would expect this kind of nonsense to appear.

    • justin says:

      Asians are under-represented relative to their TALENT, not relative to their POPULATION.

      If Asians were admitted purely based on objective standards, there would be a lot more Asians at Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Yale…

      But America has always been afraid of the Yellow Peril, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act, and now with elite high schools changing their admissions standards to keep Asians at a controllable level.

      Ditto in the classical music world. People say, oh, Asians make up 30% of this orchestra, while the Asian population is only 10%. Relative to their talent, Asians ought to be making up 70% of orchestras and 30% of conductors.

  • Stas says:

    David Kim, Frank Huang, Daishin Kashimoto, David Chan, Jun Iwasaki, Andrew Wan, Yoonshin Song. Only a few, of many, stellar high profile concertmasters of major ensembles of East Asian origin.

  • Paige Rigby says:

    So Asians should simply go where you outnumber other minorities like native Americans, Hispanics, blacks and women naturally…

    Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, all over Silicon Valley and Asians are absolutely EVERYWHERE along with Indians and white males who created these huge businesses. No worries! They may think they’re Democrats for show but they’re clearly capitalists at heart raking in BILLIONS as everyone around them suffers in unaffordable filth. None of them voted for Trump yet they ooze white privilege with their big mansions, private schools and armed security to keep folks out that are too ‘dark’.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Isn’t it more likely that Asians, because of having integrated to much earlier in music life, don’t beat the drum? And now, with the BLM movement, they suddenly see so much media attention going to an under-represented group while THEY are so much more numerous.

  • J Barcelo says:

    I don’t know if it comes from that Tiger Mom mindset, but in my experience Asians are well-represented in orchestras all over – from the majors to the small amateur groups but oddly they mostly are string players. There are many Asian conductors, pianists. Not so many singers or wind players.

  • vhe507 says:

    The saddest thing about this is in the end people still only focusing on Asian female conductors. If you compare the ratio of Asian female conductors within the female conductor pool to that of the Asian male conductors within the male conductor one, it is obvious which deserves more discussion.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The prominence of Chinese female conductors was already predicted by To-Fu in the 9th century in the 7th Parabel of his ‘The Sixtieen Wings of the Dragon’:

      ‘There will be a time when our daughters will do things a little bit better.’

      About the precise meaning of the parabel there still is some debate among sinologists; some believe the text refers to better householding skills, other (more recent) groups think he meant eastern feminism, since in the 23rd parabel he mentions the necessary freedom of his PA to relieve him from the burden of soring-out his post.

  • SMH says:

    Snowflakes everywhere.

  • Emil says:

    My view is that you are wilfully distorting what is written. They are not “invisible in classical music”, but in “opera, composition, conducting, arts administration and the boards of leading cultural institutions”. The article clearly notes that Asians and Asian-Americans are well represented among musicians, and notes that the dynamics are different to the underrepresentation of other minority groups.

    • John Porter says:

      Absolutely. The classical music industry DEPENDS upon Asians, with major conservatories having around 50 percent Asian student populations, not to mention the interest in classical music in Asia. That said, name me one Asian head of an American opera company or major orchestra or conservatory? At least WQXR hired the wonderful Ed Yim to run their shop.

      • BrianB says:

        Oh come now, Seiji Ozawa was head of the Boston Symphony in the second longest tenure of its history and before that San Francisco and Toronto. Myung-whun Chung has had an extraordinary presence in Western orchestras. How many non-Asians head major arts institutions in Asian countries? Would anyone in a million years ever expect a non-Asian to head the Beijing Opera, for example?

  • ….as compared to what other groups that the journalist may feel are over represented?

  • Peter says:

    Who feels undervalued? What is the source for this statement?

    • John Borstlap says:

      I for one, not only feel, but AM undervalued & as a member of their gender, I feel their pain. We need a revolution to entirely invert male dominated society in all professions!


  • Wli says:

    So true. Asians need to be recognized!!!!

  • TubaMinimum says:

    Here I am in the Slipped Disc comment section below an article about race looking for reasonable discussion… because I’m a masochist evidently.

  • V Lind says:

    One could recite a long list of conductors and soloists of Asian origin and high quality and profile. I don’t know about administrators and boards — this may be a legitimate complaint. If there are talents out there who are constantly overlooked in favour of others, then they may have a legitimate case for concern about the future, and the focus at the moment on black and, to a lesser extent, Latino, artists — and possibly, probably, admins and board members — may slow the process of integrating able Asians into these roles.

    Starting with El Sistema, whatever its sins, there does seem to have been a leap forward for Latinos in recent years. And whatever one thinks of him as an artist — and many internationally seem to value him highly, whatever the naysayers on SD have to say — Gustavo Dudamel has been a vigorous and charismatic example to inspire those young Latinos, especially in LA, where they form a substantial part of the population. Others from Christian Vazquez to Gabriela Montero, also young and energetic and imaginative, surely have done the same wherever they appear.

    It has been evident in recent years that fewer members of the black community have taken an interest in classical music. That there are more than the ones we hear about is inevitable, and I would not doubt that many have been passed over for others. But BLM and related lobbyists are trying to work both sides of the street — on one hand they are arguing that they are given short shrift in the classical realm, while on the other they are insisting, to the point of shrillness, that their “own” traditions, from jazz to R&B to hip-hop and a lot in between, must be given more critical respect. In point of fact, black artists have achieved the most respect in these fields — and the most success and the most money.

    Asian music traditions have, on the whole, stayed in Asia, but Asia has seized on western classical music with an enthusiasm that the black community of the west never has, and is consequently turning out a mass of talent, of which the cream is rising swiftly.

    The question of opportunity and recognition of talent is finally being addressed, to the point that in any “when in doubt” artistic appointments, the nod is quite likely to go to the minority applicant. It is to be hoped that that returns to truly blind casting in future, and that in the meanwhile offices and boards are as open to giving people from every background any chance their talent deserves.

  • Wise Guy says:

    Without a doubt, Asians are now openly discriminated against in major symphony orchestras as managements and boards attempt to impose DEI mandates. The idea being expressed seems to be “there’s enough now”.They view Asians as “model minorities” who will remain quiet, who for purposes of diversity, are suddenly classified as white, with the implied invisible backpacks of privilege. Asian opera singers also get passed over for other DEI favored groups. The class action suits against top universities and elite high schools might slow down this practice.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    It is hard to comment on whether someone, or a group, or members of a group. “feel” undervalued or for that matter feel anything in particular. Only they know what they feel, and we can only know if they let their feelings be known.

    But I would say this (and writing this makes me feel like a political science major all over again) that orchestras are an example of workers who see no way up, and that the managerial class and the worker class often have little in common. The managerial class is valued for its ability to find and squeeze money out of donors. An ability to read music matters none.

    Of all the ways orchestral musicians can be categorized, I suspect most of those categories see little in common between themselves and the board members who run the thing.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      That’s why you have a Democrat party!! That’s THEIR job; to advocate for the people in their employment, pay and living standards. Sadly that has all been tossed over in favour of the oligarchs and their precious pieties (all thrown across your path as one giant red herring).

      There’s an old saying: ‘if it’s working for you keep doing it”.

  • CarlD says:

    Nothing in this article adds up to a cogent argument advancing the premise.

  • Alphonse says:

    “Endangered species”? Is this some kind of a joke?

  • Y says:

    I don’t know, but I do know that the solution isn’t to insult people, demand preferential treatment, and burn down cities. I think we’ve had enough of that lately.

  • Scott says:

    Here are some Asian or Asian-American composers I have heard:

    Unsuk Chin
    Bright Sheng
    Tan Dun
    Dai Fujikura
    Toru Takemitsu
    Vivian Fung
    Chinary Ung
    Conrad Tao
    Chen Yi
    Chou Wen-Chung


    Alan Gilbert
    Akira Endo
    Kent Nagano
    S. Ozawa
    Yu Long
    Xian Zhang
    Myung-Whun Chung
    Eiji Oue

    Three of the top five have Asian concertmasters. The other two are vacant.

    Make your own conclusion.

  • Aaron says:

    This article is practically the definition of first world problems.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    What’s behind the sentiment is valid, of course, but it’s no secret Western classical music is shifting to East Asia, and has been for about 20 years. There are numerous Asian conductors—most of a younger generation (under 40) —who have been making great strides and share encouragement. To me it seems to be a period of transition, but I do not know the whole story.

    I certainly hope the Times considers an article on diversity in sports, notably American football, basketball, and hockey. It’s high time we have more under-represented persons in basketball and hockey in particular.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Yes, it’s ‘high time’ is an ideal trope, completely consistent with the command-and-control modern Left. And they’ve got the jack-boots to match.

  • I think the numbers would confirm that Asian conductors and arts administrators are underrepresented in the USA.

    In Germany, Asians also face problems finding positions in orchestras. This 2009 article in Die Welt entitled “Deutsche Orchester und ihr Rassismus-Problem” documents the issue. The problem continues in orchestras, though German opera houses have hired a significant number of Korean singers over the last decades or so.

    Perhaps the strangest case is the Vienna Philharmonic which has a long history of excluding fully Asian members in the belief that they would damage the orchestra’s image of Austrian authenticity. I discuss this problem and aspects of its historical context in cultural nationalism in this article in Leonardo Music Journal published by the M.I.T. Press.


    In German here:


    • M says:

      ok this true. european orchs have long discriminated with asian sounding names. two examples: i have a friend who is great who finally made a new name and sent the exact same CV to an orchestra that had rejected her application to audition cuz her last name sounded Asian. Changed her last name , sent the same CV and was invited. 2) At my former band a member simply said out load anyone with a last name Asian she just vetoed it without even reading the CV.

  • fflambeau says:

    I fully agree.

  • Here is another article (in German) about the problems with structural racism in classical music. It notes that in Germany even blind auditions often do not solve the problems because applicants with Asian names are not even invited to audition. They can have qualifications equal to or higher than white applicants from Germany or other countries, but they are filtered out.


    The article discusses how internationalism and diversity are not necessarily the same thing. Orchestras might have members from 10 to 20 countries, but all of them are white.

    The Vienna Philharmonic often uses that rationalization. It notes it has members from many countries and that a large percentage of the orchestra is comprised by foreigners. Unfortunately, that only makes it even more notable that none of the foreigners are Asians. Foreigners are acceptable only as long as they are white.

    When asked, the VPO responds that there has never been an Asian good enough. This is odd since about a quarter or more of the student body at Vienna’s University of Music has been Asian for the last half century.

    • M says:

      again you are entirely correct. and it are swiss- austrian-german orchestras. not so much in the rest of the EU. but while not of Asian descent myself i have seen it first hand.

    • Anon says:

      Mr. Osborne, with all due respect to you and your excellent work, you are kind of stuck on VPO and maybe a few German orchestras. This is good – they needed your attention – but VPO hardly represents the entire classical music profession. It is atypical.

      I appreciate your writing about what you know. You have great insights. But this article is not about your area of expertise. VPO and a few German orchestras do not represent the classical music profession as a whole. Asians are represented robustly in the classical music profession. In fact they dominate it. This article does not fall into one of your niche areas of expertise, which are frankly, starting to get a little dusty.

      • My article is about German-speaking orchestras. Anti-Asian attitudes are frequently found in them. See the documentation in my article. And also the article from Die Welt whose link I posted. The VPO is merely the most extreme and high profile example.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      The Vienna Philharmonic is waiting on strict instructions from you about whom it can and cannot employ. Not like they have any autonomy – especially when the Left has any say about it.

      When you stump up and pay their bills they’ll listen to you. In the meantime, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

      Here’s the thing with the Left: they’re plenty dictatorial with OPM (other people’s money).

  • PianistW says:

    Nothing better for self promotion and appearing in the media than claiming being a victim of some sort of discrimination.

  • Stephen Lawrence says:

    Gihong Kim? I hadn’t noticed a lack of Asians, in Russia one sees many, in Cambridge too!

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Asian musicians have invaded the classical music world like Gingis Kahn’s hordes, for better or worse, and they are all but invisible.

  • Bartholins says:

    We have to stop using the word “Asian.” People from Mumbai and Mecca, Nagoya and Novosibirsk, are all Asians. Let’s at least narrow it to “East Asian” if that is what we mean.

    • Anon says:

      Oh, please get over it. Do you have any idea how many nationalities are encompassed in the term “Hispanic” or “Latino”? They live with it. You can, too.

  • Tamino says:

    all narcissists want their fair gratification share.

  • the answer is yes says:

    Hilarious to be asked whether Asians are invisible in classical music by a man who regularly ignores and discounts Asian musicians on this very website.

    The conducting competition described as having an ‘all-white line-up’ when it actually had had six Asian conductors in it. https://slippedisc.com/2021/03/all-white-line-up-for-international-conducting-competition/

    The claim that Alpesh Chauhan was the first ‘BAME’ music director in the UK which ignored Asian conductors such as Jonathan Lo and Tadaaki Otaka as well as others, going back to the 1980s at least. https://slippedisc.com/2020/06/big-news-britain-has-its-first-bame-music-director/

  • Amy Simmons says:

    There is an emerging issue here: as BLM becomes increasingly prominent in American institutions, you’re seeing a movement away from intersectionality, the sort of thing the MLK was espousing. It is much more Black centered and has left other non-White members of the community behind and outside. Black and Brown are being prioritized in hiring while Asians are somewhat invisible. It will probably change and in some places is already changing. But in this regard, the article is important. For many years, it was said that there was no diversity in classical music and that the field should not “count” the significant population of Asians to support the position that the field was more diverse than people believed.

  • Fed Up says:

    The New York Times Arts section has become a virtue signaling joke. Garbage like this will do nothing to help ticket sales.

    • Bill says:

      Didn’t know the NYTA section sells tickets. How does that work?

      Must really rile you up not to have any virtues to signal, apparently…

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Yes, the entire newspaper has gone to the dogs – just an activist, collective rag – just like Pravda. Soon it will be extinct. And as Ninotchka also said, “won’t be long now”. Followed by the incredible apposite, “the mass trial are progressing; soon there will be fewer but better Russians”.

      Welcome to the modern USA. Minus the incredible Billy Wilder, sadly.

  • Violin Fairy says:

    I’ve been seeing a lot of strong comments here. Let me say this: yes, Asian musicians are highly represented as instrumentalists and soloists. There has especially been an increase in representation over the past few decades , which is definitely laudable.

    However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any challenges which Asian artists face. As the NYT article mentioned, Asians are still underrepresented in leadership positions which are not just limited to conducting positions. This includes board & director positions. I can definitely see similar parallels to women in classical music. While similarly there has been an increase in female musicians in orchestras (Yay!), that doesn’t mean that women don’t face any challenges either. Likewise, women are still underrepresented when it comes to leadership positions in classical music. In addition the MeToo movement over the past few years have shown that women can still face hostilities.

    Perhaps instead of disparaging this article, let’s all listen to each other and work towards making classical music a better place for everyone.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There may also be a political factor at work; Chinese who are US or European citizens, are therefore Westerners; Chinese who work in the West but remain clearly Chinese citizens, may be treated with suspicion, due to political tensions between the Chinese government and Western governments. And where affiliations are not very clear, Western Chinese are, unfortunately, treated with similar suspicion and reluctance, which is entirely inappropriate.

  • Freewheeler says:

    A more pressing problem is raising the number of female lumberjacks.

  • Alexander Graham Cracker says:

    I wonder how “represented” Westerners feel in the classical-music communities of China, South Korea, and Japan.

    • John Borstlap says:

      For instance, the Hong Kong Philharmonic – one of the best orchestras in the region and psosibly the best – consists of a very international mix, including many Westerners. Nobody complains – because it is irrelevant. Their Intendant is a German, of all nationalities.

    • Chris says:

      You don’t have to wonder because you have me to ask.

  • Quality Matters says:

    The opening anecdote of the New York Times story screams journalistic problems. I’ve often noticed that when people of any background become highly politicized, they also become very unhappy. In this case some viola player in San Francisco clearly became radicalized in general. (First I had to get past the fact that he has the same name as Philadelphia’s concertmaster.) Then he got into fights with other members of a committee on which he was serving. Gee, that never happens on committees! Then he dropped the committee entirely. Finally he decided he was too depressed to show up for work at all.

    Um, hello, NYT editors? There are two sides to every story, yes? But this was enough to earn the guy a feature photo with Sainted Victim Look. I’ve seen this same pose – many times justified, of course – on lots of stories about bias or harassment over the past few years. But then the whole situation is dropped until it’s recalled for some token quotes at the end, still without any evidence that the Times dug any further to find out what was really going on.

    The article has some interesting, and in some cases not all that surprising, information about the varied experiences of talented Asian-American musicians. Or really those of East Asian heritage, something the NYT cleverly elides especially in its misleading statistic about London orchestra players. There’s a valid feature story somewhere in here, including some of the dumb things that people say to certain artists, and the longer path to management that tends to be true of all minority-group experiences. But the aggressive, overarching narrative that the NYT builds around the thin gruel of this one-sided opening anecdote is largely manufactured and, to me, rather obviously skips over traditional and professional journalistic procedures. Too bad.

    • Anon says:

      Bravo, Quality Matters.

      Yours is the best, most succinct and well written comment in any of the threads on this topic. You sum it up perfectly, and express your thoughts with an intelligence and skill which outranks 10 to 1 the journalist who wrote the original article.

      It should be you writing for the NYTimes, not the nincompoop who wrote the article.

      • Quality Matters says:

        Thank you. You may know that the photo of the violist took up almost the entire front page of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section when the print version of the story came out yesterday. I re-read the beginning and end of the article, and again, by any standard journalistic judgment, I saw red flags and alarm bells. Mr. Kim’s uncorroborated story is all general assertions rather than evidence, and it’s barely even about his own treatment as a player. It’s mostly about his committee service and advocacy for things like still greater social justice efforts, and includes a debatable rationalization for taking time off work. I’m not even sure how this qualifies as the lead anecdote of the piece. It’s not that the reporter didn’t eventually put a lot of work into the article, but I’m sorry, something seems missing.

  • piston1 says:

    In 2005, with much fanfare, Xian Zhang was given a generous three-year contract to be Music Director of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra. Upon getting the post she immediately convinced the board out in Iowa to hire a resident Assistant Conductor to do most of the heavy-lifting, whereupon she would fly in just before the last three rehearsals and fly out the morning after the performance. To the surprise of her employers, she left at the end of her second season. Sorry if this doesn’t fit into her current narrative.

    • Rodrigo says:

      Interesting. Here’s another one.

      In March 2020, Xian Zhang was hired as the much-anticipated female conductor chosen to replace Charles Dutoit with the Orquesta Filarmonica de Gran Canaria in Spain. There’d been a public outcry against Dutoit because of the accusations of sexual harassment against him. The public demanded a female conductor. Zhang was hired. Everyone was happy.

      A week later she dropped out, and with no time left to find another woman conductor, they had to hire a man. Leif Segerstam, as I recall. It struck me as odd behaviour on her part.

      In the Times article, Zhang says she feels like “an endangered species” and that she “has difficulty persuading male musicians to take her seriously”. Sounds to me like she’s just unreliable.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Segerstam had to take-on a disguise with wig and dress to filfil the PC agenda of the staff. But the players saw through it the moment he opened his mouth and explained a passage.