Report on American orchestras strikes loud note of discord

A little more than a year ago the annual conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League issued a report saying American orchestras were in big trouble. Their graying audiences were dying off, their funding sources were drying up, and they were running deficits that pushed more and more orchestras near -- and in some cases into -- bankruptcy.

Last month at its annual meeting, the ASOL issued a 200-page report, called "Americanizing the American Orchestra," that seeks to address the problem. The report suggests changes in the way orchestras do business -- from their repertory to the way they present concerts to the way they hire music directors and managers. It's a call to arms. And it's a call to arms in more senses than one. A controversial document, it has offended several observers of the musical scene -- most recently New York Times senior music critic Edward Rothstein, who called "Americanizing the American Orchestra" a "disgrace."


Much of Rothstein's criticism (and the criticism of others) centers on the chapter called "Achieving Cultural Diversity."

"Orchestras that do not embrace the cultural and racial diversity of America's citizens will miss opportunities and run the risk of becoming increasingly isolated from the social, political and economical realities of American society," the report says.


While Rothstein and others (this writer included) believe that cultural diversity is a valuable thing, they also think that symphonic music is not necessarily the place to achieve it. When orchestras begin to worry about being all things to all people, cultural diversity becomes cultural delusion. Classical music is not -- and shouldn't be -- for everyone. It's valuable enough so that people diversity becomes cultural delusion. Classical music not -- and shouldn't be -- for everyone. It's valuable enough so that people from non-Western cultures have a lot to gain from being exposed to it. But the ASOL has a guilt complex -- fueled by financial anxieties -- about the music that is one of the West's greatest strengths. And its report encourages orchestras to dilute what has made them worth preserving and, perhaps, to hasten their own destruction.

It's easy to understand the ASOL's concern. In 20 years, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-American and American Indians will constitute one-third of the U.S. population. And these "minority" populations, the report adds, already comprise the majority in 15 of the nation's 28 largest cities -- the cities that also happen to be home to the largest orchestras.

'Affirmative efforts'

Although the report pays attention to all minorities, the real focus is on African-Americans. And the changes it recommends -- in repertory, presentation and hiring orchestral musicians and managerial staff -- seem designed to alleviate problems created by decades of discrimination. In effect, what the ASOL suggests is creating an American orchestra that is analogous to the cabinet President Bill Clinton has tried to create -- one that "looks like America."

The report encourages orchestras to seek out African-American composers and to make their concert halls more accessible to African-Americans, and even hints that it may be necessary to abandon "blind" auditions -- in which the musician plays behind a screen so that his or her race or gender cannot be detected -- in order to hire more African-American players.

"Affirmative efforts to bring [minorities] into the ranks of professional orchestra musicians, composers, conductors and soloists," the report says, "is the most effective strategy both to nurture a representative new generation of musicians and to promote a sense of ownership throughout a broad cross-section of the community."

The orchestra, the report asserts, has an "image . . . as an exclusive, arrogant, possibly racist institution that resists sharing the secrets and norms of participation."

The concern of American orchestras to right past wrongs may in part be prompted by idealism. But a large portion of its response has a lot more to do with its alarm about financial realities. Many American orchestras -- including Baltimore's -- are dependent upon government funds. And all of them are dependent upon contributions from corporations and large charitable foundations -- such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, which paid for the ASOL report.


The reality of giving

The reality of charitable giving in the United States today is that scarcely anyone -- not government, not charitable foundations and not corporations -- seems to be interested in funding art for art's sake. What they seem most interested in is solving the nation's social problems, which are closely identified with its racial problems.

As an institution, the American orchestra is particularly vulnerable. It's a transplanted European institution whose musicians -- mostly of European descent and more recently of Asian descent -- play a mostly European repertory to audiences that are largely of European (and also increasingly of Asian) descent. The numbers of African-Americans in the audience are usually what they are on the stage -- from 1 percent to 2 percent of the total -- and much less than the 12 percent that African-Americans comprise of the total U.S. population. As little as this is, it makes the American orchestra more ethnically diverse than many other North American institutions -- hockey teams, for example -- and at least as diverse as the boardrooms of many large American corporations. But businesses are not perceived as receiving public funds -- and not as obviously dependent upon them -- and they are not as identified with the hegemony of European culture as the orchestra.

Wake-up call

About five years ago, two black Michigan state legislators from Detroit were able to withhold more than $1 million in state funds from the Detroit Symphony until that orchestra agreed to dispense with blind auditions and hire another black musician. That case received national attention and sent a wake-up call to American orchestras. For a cultural institution, the taint of racism can be likened to the effect that a charge of child molestation has upon an individual. And orchestras -- like other cultural institutions such as colleges and universities -- became determined to show that they were doing something about what perceived as the most threatening of American social problems.



But there may not be much orchestras can do about increasing the number of African-Americans in their audiences and on their stages. The percentage of African-Americans in orchestras corresponds almost exactly to the percentage of those who study wind or stringed instruments at American schools of music. This has nothing to do with talent: A significant part of the best American popular music and much of the best jazz has been created by African-Americans. For numerous reasons -- some of them financial -- most African-American youngsters usually do not study an instrument with the intent of playing in an orchestra.

To put the onus for this on the American orchestra as a racist institution is unfortunate. Operatic music is at least as European an art form as symphonic music, and about one fourth of the artists' roster of the Metropolitan Opera, this country's and perhaps the world's pre-eminent opera house, is made up of African-Americans. The reason? Step into any large African-American church on any Sunday and you'll hear it. Most great African-American singers, whether pop divas like Tina Turner or operatic ones like Jessye Norman, begin in church choirs.

What troubles Rothstein and this writer about the League's "Americanizing the American Orchestra" is its fear that the orchestra is perceived as an elitist institution harboring an elitist art form. There are a lot of things wrong with the way classical music is presented today, but institutionalized racism in American orchestras is low on the list. Diluting what is best about one of our strongest institutions will only make things worse.