I'd like to pick a little more at the question of the link between what orchestras look like and what they sound like. Let's back up. Nearly a month ago, I wrote a column in Newsday claiming that the Vienna Philharmonic's de facto reluctance to admit women was, besides being reprehensible on the face of it, a symptom of an intellectually moribund, radically preservationist mentality that also permeates the ensemble's music-making. Alex agreed (in the last paragraph). The writers of the most vitriolic e-mails I received did not. Missing the aesthetic argument completely, they suggested that if I was so hot for orchestral justice, I should look at just how diverse American orchestras are, which I did. Among the responses I got for that story was one published in The American Spectator, which opens ingratiatingly: "If there were a Moonbat award for the worst solution to a non-existent problem, Aaron Dworkin would win the prize hands down." Now the reason that Dworkin, the founding president of the Sphinx Organization and an agitator for more minority representation in orchestras, elicited that reaction was that I quoted him as saying, among other things: "We should look again at the current standard of screened auditions. I believe that more information about the candidate should be incorporated, in the same way that institutions of higher learning take cultural and racial background into account."
For the record, I don't agree with Dworkin on this point at all, for reasons encapsulated by 27-year-old flutist in the New World Symphony, Ebonee Thomas, who told me: "Sometimes, people assume I got where I got because I'm black. One thing that drew me to classical music was that most of the time, people really just want to know how you play." Screened auditions have been enormously successful in reducing the effects of prejudice; the fact that they're not a panacea is not a reason to scrap them.
But orchestras should be doing a better job developing minority apprenticeships, extending educational activities, forging more meaningful ties with community organizations, fundraising for subsidized instrument programs, and loudly advocating more music in public schools, starting in kindergarten. While they're busy doing that, the rest of us might give a little more thought to what drawing on a large, varied pool of musicians has already meant for American music, and what drawing on a larger, more varied pool could portend. It's got nothing really to do with race: Black flutists don't sound black any more than female violinist sound female, so let's leave that preposterous debate alone.
However, if American orchestras are especially versatile, stylistically eclectic and quick to learn new music, that's partly because so many of their musicians arrive at their jobs with an arsenal of musical experiences that audition committees aren't generally interested in hearing about. Bluegrass fiddlers, salsa-playing trombonists, percussionists who double as drummers in rock bands, violists who improvise in Hungarian avant-folk groups — these are some of the people who populate and enrich today's Philharmonics. And that's in a system that attracts its members from a relatively restricted segment of the population.
Widening the embrace of the symphonic world to include not just the perpetually yearned-for younger audiences but also a greater range of musicians would give orchestras access to that much more flexibility, that many more flavors of talent. Pursuing this goal has nothing to do with social justice or political correctness: it's pure self-interest.
I second the above. It's amusing to see The American Spectator, a magazine that generally ignores classical music, rushing to the defense of high musical standards. Try spelling Juilliard correctly for a start. I also laughed out loud at the line "the San Francisco Symphony and the U.S. Marines are beyond compare." Let's hope no one tells them MTT is gay. — Alex