Still Exceptions: The Enduring Issue of Whiteness within American Orchestras
By Sebastian Lajos
From the many whitewashed, misrepresentations within Green Book we should all come away with one key question. Who was the real Don Shirley? It is imperative that we search for his identity beyond Hollywood clichés. His life experience raises a fundamental issue regarding the structures of the American classical music industry. In spite of reforms and policy changes at governmental and industry levels alike, these gaps are no less glaring today.
Don Shirley’s mastered the piano at the age of 10 and eight years later in 1945, performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra. His impresario Sol Hurok, In what was intended as an act of pragmatism, warned the young virtuoso that a black orchestral musician was way ahead of their time in post-war America. After Don Shirley’s passing, this episode received increased media coverage. Significantly it provided a starting point for a 2019 work authored by American cultural historian Joseph Horowitz. In ‘New World Prophecy’, Horowitz advances a predominantly optimistic argument regarding the increasing role of African American identity within the nation’s orchestral landscape. Yet, at a closer reading, prospects appear to be mixed at best.
In 1934 the Philadelphia Orchestra debuted William Levi Dawson’s 'Negro Folk Symphony'. It was an instant, nationwide critical success, as Horowitz observes. Progressives of the day regarded it as a dawn of a new era which would give black classical musicians a voice. The reality was that despite numerous reinterpretations, Dawson’s work was never quite allowed to reach its full potential. Marian Anderson’s example speaks to the same end. As Horowitz notes, the opera, spiritual and classical singer was appreciated in the US, but only found true success overseas in the 1930s. When Sanford Allen, the first African-American performer of the New York Philharmonic opted to leave the Orchestra in 1977, he was quoted as saying "This is not a Philharmonic problem. And it's not a Boston Symphony or Chicago Symphony problem. It's part of a national social problem," Despite this Allen was still keen to highlight the progressive diversity of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, with hope that it would soon become the norm. Fast forward some four decades and this is not remotely the case. In 2020, clarinettist Anthony McGill is still the only African American within the ensemble.
Founder and Executive Director of the League of American Orchestras violinist Aaron Dworkin, approaches the issue with refreshing honesty in his welcome address on the organisations web page. He admits that there is effectively zero diversity in terms of composers featured in the Orchestra’s repertoire, despite 30% of the American population coming from a Black, Hispanic or Latino background (with 13.4% predicted to be Black American). This disproportion is also reflected in terms of personnel. A dedicated study published in 2016 shows that a mere 1.2% of performers employed by the largest orchestras are of African-American descent. The figure doubles within some of the smaller institutions, but that hardly alters the overall picture. Nine out of ten professional classical musicians employed by American philharmonics are still white. Mr. Dworkin points out the hostility of the classical music industry for someone from a minority background. The whiteness of orchestral music is ingrained through popular cultural representation and the often elitist, condescending nature of the environment. In 2018, NBC News reported the story of 25-year-old Nathanial Taylor, a cellist from a mixed African-American and Filipino background, seeking to turn professional. His experience is painfully similar to those of his predecessors from decades ago. Just like Marian Anderson or Sanford Allen, he oftentimes found himself to be the odd exception at the gateways of American classical music, facing rejection and alienation.
The Juilliard School's Music Advancement Program coordinated by Anthony McGill, offers seventy aspiring orchestra musicians from minority backgrounds the opportunity to pursue their career of choice. However this is only one step on a long way towards diversity, as noted by McGill himself to CBSN. In its recently revised 'Equality, Diversity and Integration Statement' the League of American Orchestras outlines a framework of action at organisational level. The League’s 'National Alliance for Audition Support' scheme is a laudable example of affirmative action. Designed to support candidates from minority backgrounds, the bespoke program provides financial backing, mock auditions and mentoring.
However, history is filled with initiatives and breakthroughs scarcely yielding long-term results. It is ultimately a question of sustained effort and careful monitoring of results. Without resilience and pro-activity, there is a risk of backsliding into a world where the gates remain firmly shut.
All the Sources used in writing this article can be found below.