Racism. Every year someone asks me if there’s much racism in Classical music. My stock answer is “No, not really, at least not amongst musicians. Boards are a different matter, though.” I’m sorry to say that it looks like nothing has changed.
I have a young colleague who has asked me for advice about the conducting world. This person comes well recommended to me by colleagues who I trust. Unfortunately this person has also already had some very negative experiences in this business, all centered on Boards. It’s been my experience that amongst musicians there is precious little racism. There may be personality issues, even sociological and political issues, but in general if you can play your axe then that’s what people tend to care about, unless you are just a complete bastard.
But musicians don’t run orchestras. That’s a very good thing for many reasons, but for other reasons that’s a very bad thing. The people who run orchestras – Board members – generally know very little about music per se, and there’s the unfortunate truth that these people tend to be from the monied class. There are many areas of this country where the odds of you running into blatant racism increases in direct proportion to your exposure to said monied class. This would have very little impact on the orchestra directly since those musicians are generally hired through the audition process and fired through….. well, that’s another story. But when it comes to being a conductor it’s a whole different ball game.
Yes, it’s the “Black Quarterback” syndrome. Remember those days? Are Blacks smart enough to be quarterbacks? Or in baseball, were they smart enough to be managers on the major league level? Those questions still inadvertantly crop up and there’s usually the brief ESPN driven scandal. In classical music you could just as easily call it the “Non-European” syndrome, and the question has never been seriously addressed. Why? Because of Boards, that’s why.
My young colleague would have, in other days, be described as “swarthy.” He is certainly not of European descent. And so he had the following experience:
The other side of the coin is one orchestra where in a board interview, a board member looked at me and said, “Son, this is a conservative Republican town. Do you think anyone is going to really like you here?” I responded by saying, “Well, I grew up near George W. Bush’s home town, and people liked me fine there.” In the same interview, I was asked what church I’d join if I was given the job. (Go figure!!!)
Oddly enough, I didn’t win the job. A year later, I got a call from the executive director who had been fired. She said, “I wasn’t able to tell you this at the time, but you were not hired because ‘they weren’t comfortable seeing you as a member of their country club.”
One is tempted to just shrug this off as just more viscious bile pumped into society by the right-wing of the political spectrum but anyone who has been in a similar situation to my young colleague has had at least one experience like this. Unfortunately, my colleague has had another one. One enterprising Board member caught up to him and asked him why he had turned down a job. Turns out he was never offered the job, and the orchestra wasn’t allowed to fill out peer reviews on his concert. Why? Because:
some of the board members were disappointed that so many [members of his ethnic group] had been at my concert and were worried that they’d be around more often.
Words cannot adequately express how outraged I am at this behavior. Not only is my young colleague being denied career opportunities because of his ethnicity, and at least two orchestras have been denied a chance to work with a talented young conductor, but worse of all the music that we love and treasure has been put in the hands of godless, right-wing rascist bastards who are only one step removed from the ideology of the National Socialist Party. Yet these people can bribe their way onto the Board of your local orchestra under some pretense that they are helping to support this musical institution.
I have been lucky. I have been affiliated with the Minnesota Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, and I am currently Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. I have not had to deal with any kind of racism at these institutions, at least not overt and to my knowledge. I have had to deal with it at a couple other orchestras but I have managed to have a career without having to worry about this too much.
But I worry about my young colleague and all those who come after. There are still a lot of yahoos out there with money, and they have neither morals nor ethics. To them denying a conductor not of European descent a job is just protecting their little slice of the good old boy’s pie. As a Taoist I am suppose to forgive them their ignorance. As a human being, and as someone who deeply, deeply loves the music that I am priviledged to perform, I hate these people with ever fiber of my being.