Thursday, February 24, 2011

The VPO and Its Discontents, or Bravo, Joshua!

Back in 2009, Joshua Kosman took a trip to Dresden, where he heard the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play Sibelius and Shostakovich under Valery Gergiev. He blogged about the trip, and among other things said this:
My God, it was magnificent. There's no way to listen to the VPO without feeling some tinge of moral unease at that unbroken sea of white male faces (some of my fellow critics amused themselves during the applause by scanning for the two or three women that are now scattered among the orchestra's ranks). But it's just as hard to resist the magical sound of this orchestra — the warm, fluid string textures, or the glowing, utterly distinctive brass.
This past week, he went into more detail, this time in the San Francisco Chronicle, about why, exactly, the white-male-makeup of the orchestra is such a problem and why it's worthy of our consideration. The headline has the short version: Vienna Philharmonic must answer for exclusion. Because, of course, until the grudging agreement some years ago to admit women - not that that agreement has made much of a dent - it was an explicit policy of excluding people who were not white and male. (I'm not sure whether anyone has tried to figure out whether you also have to be a Christian. Exclusion of Jewish people would raise a few hackles too.) 

The heart of Joshua's Chron article is this:

Perhaps there's no problem here. For all we know, there may be some musical performances that can only be produced by an orchestra of white men; and it may also be that those performances are so illuminating, so transcendent, that they trump the fundamental American values of equal opportunity and fairness. I'd love to hear someone make that case.
What we can't do, though, is pretend that the VPO is an orchestra just like any other. It's not. It's the living embodiment of an exclusionary philosophy that should, at the very least, give any thoughtful person pause.

I would also love to hear someone attempt to make the case that some musical performances can only be given by an orchestra composed of white men. Because I have not noticed any lack of technical skill or spirit in the playing of any other orchestra I've heard, and they all contain women and non-Euro-Americans.

You might or might not want to read the comments to the Chron article, which run the gamut from thoughtful to eye-rolling. But Joshua has at least temporarily revived his blog to post some material that didn't make it into the Chron article, and you'll definitely want to read that. He goes into some detail about why the racial situation in United States orchestras differs from that of the VPO and other European orchestra. (Briefly, there's plenty of demand in U.S. orchestras, but no supply because so few African American and Hispanic kids play classical music, so that there are almost no African American and Hispanic kids going into and graduating from American conservatories.)

I want to add one thing. Blind auditions are the only way to ensure that an orchestra is hiring based on a performer's playing rather than on the performer's skin color or sex. We know this because when U.S. orchestras started using blind auditions in the 1970s, the number of women with orchestra jobs immediately began to rise. The string sections of quite a few orchestras are around 50% women now, because women are not automatically excluded based on being, you know, female. And given the makeup of other European orchestras, we know that the VPO isn't using blind auditions.

Related: Anthony Tommasini addressed the all-white-men issue in the Times in 1999; Joshua Kosman in the Chron in 1997.

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