Uncle Tom’s Orchestra

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.

29 thoughts on “Uncle Tom’s Orchestra”

  1. Well writ Bill!
    Racism tends to increase too during economic contractions. “We save our jobs for our own… or at least for those that we’re not afraid of.” The world is at such a state of population that there are MORE than enough qualified candidates from which to choose.
    The question for me (from sales) becomes, How do we overcome unspoken objections? One way is to try to draw it out in the interview. (“Is there any issue we haven’t spoken about that might prevent you from hiring me?”) Another way might be to draw attention to the elephant. (“I know it may seem odd that African-Americans would embrace classical music. But it really belongs to ALL of us and here’s why.”
    This is no panacea; just an attempt to offer possible solutions.

  2. “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.”


    These are some of the most disturbing anecdotes I’ve ever heard from the world of classical music. Setting aside for a moment the deeply troubling moral issues here, even setting aside the incredible stupidity of passing over a superior artist because of his/her race, this is just suicidal in terms of audience development. I mean: what’s the hottest orchestra in the country right now? The L.A. Phil. Why? Well, a lot of reasons, but one is that they picked a (great) music director who literally speaks their audience’s language, and they go out of their way to reach out to nonwhites in their area. Every classical presenter needs to take a look at that model.

    These racist idiots, whatever they might think they’re preserving, are killing the symphony orchestra.

    • I have the distinct feeling that they are not trying to preserve anything culturally Indo-European. Quite the opposite. “Concert Music” is an old aristocratic form (to their reasoning), and expensive. If one could do away with the “concert season”, the hall could be rented out to those Broadway Travelling shows at huge inflated prices and no one would be bored with a stage full of black and white clad old people with old instrumentsplaying music that gets too loud and then is too soft and mostly sad.
      They have seized upon the populist wave in an economic downturn to get rid of as many orchestras as they can, and the grossly mean uninformed comments from the masses seem to give assent. Boards, far from being a plum, or old boy club, should be about policy and framing a culture. The best ones understand this and are working toward it. And, dare I ask, “Are there any charitable people who are NOT Old, Male, White Only and Stupid, who also have money and smarts? I think we know the answer. What is truly, truly sad that I will not get to hear or see the wealth of new talent with names I do not know. The young of each new wave are more and more accomplished. This fact alone lends credence to the statement “A great Nation deserves great Art.” (and the other side of the coin is too frightening to imagine but we’re beginning to catch glimpses.)

  3. In 2011, the prevailing paradigm of orchestra management is still the 19th century aristocratic model in which the ruling class grant funds to the manager class who hire the serf class to produce a performance product to be enjoyed by the elite. As a conductor or executive director, getting hired to manage an orchestra embedded in this model (almost all orchestras) is all about having the ruling class elite become charmed and seduced by the conductor’s personality and prestige such that associating with her/him increases the elite’s social cachet with their peers. If the board is filled with real music lovers, the musical values the conductor brings will be most important in the selection process. If it is filled with the kind of bastards described above, the acceptability to the elite and potential for social success will be judged most important.

    These kind of people define themselves by excluding others from their “in” group. This is a junior high school level of personal development that many people are psychologically unable to transcend. It’s a form of slavery to the will of the peer group where what others think of you determines who you are. What Biff and Buffy think of you and say to others drives your decisions and behavior. (This kind of ego identification is also in play for many musicians as well. Consider the more exclusive members of the musical elite and the way they relate to the rest of the profession.) The most pernicious of these types are the unthinking, racist, elitists that currently hold sway in much of our country.

    Looking good to their country club friends and “being somebody” in the community is the primary driver for these people to participate with the local orchestra (and to vie for elected office.) This 19th century business model is why we have so many incompetent yet socially adept Music Directors and Executive Directors in the business. It’s why orchestras have been left behind by the great majority of the public who don’t care what the local aristocracy think or do. This elitist structure perpetuates the obscene racism and the crushing of musical souls that are described in the article above. It has always been unacceptable to enlightened people. It’s time we killed it.

    Just as the American and French Revolutions overthrew the tyranny of monarchies to create democratic republics designed to check the power of the aristocracy, we musicians and the lovers of music need to foment our own revolutions. I don’t believe that unevolved and hateful people will ever change. They will be with us always. Trying to change them is futile. I do believe that what will work for music, musicians, and music lovers is to design organizations in which everyone can get what they want. The deluded wealthy elite who are playing the looking good game want increased recognition and social cachet. The artists want the respect of their peers and to give divine Beauty to the world. The true lovers of music in the community want to experience and share being touched, moved, and inspired by something extraordinary in every performance. Can we design organizational structures that allow everyone who wants to participate in an orchestra community to get what they want?

    I say that it’s possible to create beautifully functional orchestra organizations that allow the monied elite to continue to play their exclusive games with themselves while checking their financial power with the power of the artistic collective, and the power of the community at large. A tripartite governance structure has been designed that can provide each constituency – the artists, the staff, and the community – with tangible and intangible benefits that exceed the costs of their participating in the organization. In this new paradigm, the value one brings to the organization is measured by the growth of audience attendance, volunteering, amount donated per auditor, and the numbers and length of spontaneous ovations from the orchestra and the audience.

    The value of a Music Director is measured by his/her ability to inspire extraordinary performance and extraordinary participation in the growth of the orchestra community as a whole. Being successful as a conductor in this new system is not about successfully schmoozing the connected, the wealthy, and the powerful. It’s about creating the conditions in which the players find themselves exceeding their own expectations for excellence, inspiration, and job satisfaction – and the audience finds itself “owning” the orchestra like sports fans own their teams. In this structure, there is no room for racism, elitism, or cronyism because everyone who participates is doing so from the impulse to serve. An orchestra like this exists already in California; American Philharmonic – Sonoma County.

    If racist, elitist, kleptocrats are running your board, start an initiative to replace them with true music lovers who can provide what the orchestra needs to thrive. There are 7 billion people on the planet. There is no reason to put up with evil people in our organizations. If most everyone on the Board is evil, start a competing orchestra. Life is too short to compromise one’s integrity to that extent. I say take a stand for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness and let the chips fall where they may. ¡Viva la revolutión!

  4. In an otherwise cogent exposition of what we face in the industry today, I find fault with one statement made above. That you would reflexively attribute racism to those whose philosophies are simplistically described as “right-wing” and “godless” is presumptive in the worst sense, and in fact renders the entire thought ludicrous. Both the Left and the Right are fully capable of racism; neither can claim it as their complete prerogative, and it does not advance your argument to posit otherwise. It is simple and simplistic to make such claims. Following that line of thought, we can say factually that leftists are far likelier to identify themselves as atheists, and thence “godless”. What good does that do?

    We all agree with your broad point; certainly I have been subject to such treatment. We all will benefit by exposing those responsible for such prejudice, but let’s be careful not to overreach and resort to ad hominems. So many things do not belong in music, and such Alinskyist slurs are among them.

  5. When the need arises, I shall. No blog is necessary to point out when some choose to parrot slogans without a thought as to what they are actually saying. Where objectivity is in order, you chose to vilify without anything more than the received shibboleth of “right wing” racism. You are not calling it as you see, but rather as you feel it, and that makes a distinct difference in the quality of your argument.

    • If you are done trying to impress the rest of us with your vocabulary I would thank you to stop posting comments.

    • From what I can read from the blog, the comment wasn’t “Son, we’re a liberal democratic town. Do you think people will like you?” 1) It’s a shame you seem to feel the need to progress the idea that classical music is for elitists. I admire your vocabulary, but it’s obvious that you feel the need to find ways to place yourself above others. While I consider myself a centrist, I would love to statistics in relation to “music directors of color.” How often do people of color get jobs in conservative bastions?

  6. Good to hear someone else put this into writing. For what it’s worth – I see part of my role as a female conductor to offer, and on occasion insist on, classical music as an art enriched by the human spirit, in its fullest. I challenge my female-conductor colleagues to do our part.


    There are subtle things we can do to stretch the classical world. For example, it may seem trite, but even something as trivial as our wardrobe has consequences. I personally insist that musicians I work with dress like artists, rather than butlers from the servant’s quarter. This takes one subtle swipe at the hierarchies we have inherited – which I feel we are responsible for choosing to uphold, or to re-shape. In fact, I feel so strongly about this, I call it my Campaign Pledge No. 1.


    Keep shaking it up Bill!

  7. Some of these racist attitudes seep down from boards to managements. When I was in New World Symphony, we had a visit from the symphonic services Rep. from the American Federation of Musicians. He told the tale of a management that said they couldn’t be expected to fill the house enough to pay the musicians what they asked for, “BECAUSE THE POPULATION OF THEIR TOWN WAS OVER 60% MINORITY.”

    Hmm. Someone either has to work on their demographics (if that’s your town, that’s your audience) or definitions (anything over 50% is no longer “minority”). Classical music is designed to speak to the human condition and be performed by humans. Anyone who tries to limit it to a class or ethnic group, or to exclude anyone from being invited to the table (performing, listening, or setting policy on an administrative or board level) is racist and wrong.

    And we wonder why some orchestras are going broke.

    • What a shame you feel the need to stoop to the point of personal attacks. I don’t believe that Mr. Eddins was being disrespectful of Mr. Williams. Mr. Williams’ post was obnoxious. I am suitably impressed with Mr. Williams’ vocabulary, because it was obvious he wanted us to be, but come on!!!! Talk about playing into those who believe classical music is elitist. The blog you cite is simply sad. It was nothing but personal attacks and vitriol. Mr. Eddins simply suggested that Mr. Williams put his opinion out there in his own blog. In my humble opinion, Mr. Williams endeavored to overwhelm us with his erudite vocabulary. If he had a true opinion, he should have stated it. Until he gives actual proof to overcome the general idea of conservative racism, then frankly, he’s not contributing to the dialogue. Again – I don’t believe the young colleague in the blog was confronted with “This is a liberal Democratic town..” I don’t dispute the idea that liberals can be racist. Frankly, ANYONE and EVERYONE can be racist. The question is when it comes to discrimination in jobs, I would love to see actual statistical evidence to see who is the most discriminatory. I just find it odd that you hear few stories about discrimination in liberal areas as opposed to conservative ones.

    • I don’t know Cal. That was not a very convincing post. Heck, I couldn’t get over feeling embarrassed for the poor parents lack of good social graces being publicly exposed (which took up an entire paragraph about nothing related to his post.

  8. I found the “godless” part surprising, at least.

    As a godless composer, I always hire the best performers, promote the best music, and cultivate the most enthusiastic listeners without regards to their ethnicities, politics, religious position, etc. I believe that great music is for everybody, and I don’t wait for a divine superpower to spread great music for me–no musician does, though some see themselves as doing divine work where I see myself as an agent of and for humanity.

    The appellation “godless”, used as a synonym for “immoral”, sews confusion and distraction much like the use of “atonal” to refer to music that an author doesn’t like. Yes, I’ve actually heard a guy say “Enough of that atonal Phillip Glass, give us some Varese!” But the use of “godless” for “immoral” is also commonly spoken by exactly the country-club klan churchgoers who ruin symphony boards by keeping best musicians and best listeners away based on irrelevant characteristics.

    Mr. Eddins, a great many godless music-lovers are your allies for art and against bigotry, and we hope you can see that confusing us with bigots isn’t productive. Thanks for speaking out from the podium.

    • I think the use of the word “Godless” was sarcastic. To be “tactful” it can seem as though those who are the most “religious” and “godly” end up being the most discriminatory. It’s as Gandhi said (to paraphrase), “your Jesus I love. It is your Christians I have problems with.”

  9. “Words cannot adequately express how outraged I am at this behavior”. Dito. The conductor sold seats and the board complained about the color of the people who bought the seats. Incredible. “Worried that they’d be around more often”. HUH?!? Board member wants to limit who seats are sold to? Is board member ready to pay salaries of musicians/conductor so house can be half empty?

    • The problem is in the way governance is structured with non-profits. It’s a catch-22. To a certain degree, being on the board of a non-profit is an issue of social status. Unfortunately, non-profits have to cultivate that in the effort to make sure that wealthy donors “compete” to support the organizations. It becomes detrimental in areas like this. My guess is that to maintain the feel of being in the upper crust, they want to search out music directors who fit their “country club” image. The sad part is that it is often fairly successful business minds who leave their business sense at the door because it’s a social endeavor.

  10. Bill
    It is another example of the downside to political correctness, because what is focused upon it seems is what is said and not why it was said, people think that as long as something is not said out loud, it doesn’t exist. People drank during prohibition, it just wasn’t visible. Same here, the language of racism and prejudice isn’t tolerated in the public eye by and large, but racism and bigotry itself still is, and as soon as people feel comfortable it comes out ever more vicious than before proving that racism and bigotry is still just as pervasive if not more so. Kudos to you for writing about this.

  11. Unfortunately, this kind of prejudice isn’t restricted to race. It also includes sex/gender and sexual orientation. Nor is it restricted to conductors. I’ve seen it happen with Orchestra Executive Directors/CEOs.

    • I agree, Joseph. I remember one orchestra interview as particularly surreal. At least overt discrimination makes it easy to recognize a job you really don’t want anyway. It’s a tough enough job without having to ‘swim upstream’.

      Management / Boards / Orchestras with a closed culture that is out of sync are not serving their communities very well. In this case, there is a democratic process in place. Almost anyone can become a member (most membership fees are really low) and vote in new leadership.

      Which is better than the odds of effecting change in most other industries. Cause for hope?

  12. Wow! Thank you for the article and how you “feel” about what your young colleague has endured in his pursuit of sharing his gift. We should all FEEL something when a friend, colleague or acquaintance is treated without dignity and respect. It disgusts me beyond words and the offending parties should resign.. but they most likely won’t. I hope he finds an appreciative and respectful home with an orchestra as you have very soon.

  13. Discouraging, but not surprising. My dearly beloved is a conductor who was involved in something similar. It was a small orchestra in a small Southern town; the chair of the Board was reliably reported to have started off the search committee’s first meeting with the statement that she just wanted to make it clear that as long as she was connected with the orchestra there would be no “blacks, Jews, Chinese (sic), or women” on the podium. Let’s just say that mdb is one of the first three. Guest conducted outside search process, loved by the musicians, management shamed into bringing him in as a candidate, “interview” with search committee a complete put-up job, obviously simply going through the motions for the sake of appearances. The more things change…

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