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Orchestral Colors

Nearly all press reports of the recent death of Jerome Ashby, associate principal horn of the New York Philharmonic and a Juilliard faculty member, mentioned the fact that he was one of but a handful of black musicians in U.S. symphony orchestras.

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That handful has not changed appreciably in the past two decades and the question continues to be asked: why?

The same observation has been made of audiences.

In 1974, Robin Hood Dell, the longtime summer venue of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was replaced by the Mann Centerin another part of Fairmount Park near a predominately black Philadelphia neighborhood. One of the city’s music critics pondered the question why, in view of the proximity to the free concerts, were there not more blacks in the audience.

I replied that I thought the question understandable but not fair. He inquired about only those people whose absence could be noticed but not about those non-blacks from the same socioeconomic group who also were not in attendance.

A numbers game is perhaps inevitable when it comes to equality for women and visible minorities. Barriers fall in unpredictable and sometimes ironic ways. When I was growing up, the players in the N.B.A. were all-white on the court and mostly so in the seats. Times have obviously changed on the court but hardly at all when it comes to the spectators. This situation is instructive when considering the case of the number of African-Americans in the nation’s symphony orchestras. There is no direct correlation between the number of black players on the court or onstage and the number of the same ethnic group in the seats. It is not that simple.

In 1956, when I went to join the American Federation of Musicians I was politely directed to the “colored” local. Segregation was still alive and well in Philadelphia, the “city of brotherly love.” Although bigotry and racism persist, undeniably times have changed. There has been a relentless march for equality but progress has come slowly. In the beginning, aspiring black instrumentalists eyeing professional orchestras were bluntly told “fuhgettaboudit.” A few years later the excuse du jour was “the time is not yet right.” Women, of course, have heard this for years. Clearly one must cut through such convenient non-truths with both courage and persistence. For some it’s never the right time.

I often think about my aunt, who was born in 1897 and decided that she wanted to have a career as a concert singer, being told by a music school receptionist, “We don’t take your kind here.” Imagine her concert tours during which hotels refused her, and when they did permit her to stay, they required that she use the service elevator. Despite these and other obstacles and indignities, imagine her building a world-famous career, being praised by Toscanini, appearing on the cover of Time—and upon her death, her obituary running on the front page of The New York Times, above the fold. Marian Anderson’s extraordinary story was emblematic of the history of a people who overcame the obstacle of racism and ignorance at every turn.

The mere presence of a black face in a symphony orchestra was unthinkable not too long ago. The undeterred pioneering musicians’ talent and persistence helped break down the barriers and unthinkable became rare, and the counting began.

For as long as I can remember serious observers have lamented the paucity of musicians of color in symphony orchestras. There has been insufficient focus on the process by which all musicians enter the profession. A long view is needed, in order to see how many candidates of color might be in the other end of the pipeline—access to which  is pivotal if there is ever to be the critical mass necessary to impact the number of African-Americans on the stage.

This is the usual path: A talented and highly motivated player is identified and encouraged, then studies with a fine teacher, is accepted into a major conservatory, works hard, and auditions for a professional orchestra. I have spoken with many African-Americans presently in major orchestras who have succeeded precisely in this manner despite having had no role models and limited exposure to classical music in the home. Their success was based upon talent, a passion for the profession, and persistence.

There is one quality that must be the goal of every fine musician, regardless of ethnicity: compelling artistic excellence.

It has been suggested that conservatories and private teachers might adopt a public school and help to ignite the inner spark in potential pursuers of the profession. The appropriate questions then become, “How many can we hook?” “How many of those hooked can we keep?” “How many of those kept can we deliver to the conservatories?” This is the proper place to start counting, for if people are not in the pipeline they will not be on the stage.

As long as we are assured that the portals to opportunity are open and the process fair we should get out of the way and focus on encouraging a constant supply of candidates. The rest must be up to the musician. I have to believe that an orchestra, like any other professional team, simply wants to engage fine players and in 2008 America ethnicity is not a viable issue.

The cultural atmosphere of the United States favors that which is popular and commercial. In general, classical music does not fit. It’s not that everything commercial is bad, merely that some of the very best things may not be commercial. Classical music is decidedly a minority interest in this country so it is not unreasonable to imagine its being a minority interest for a minority of the population. But it is a glorious minority interest and for those of us already seduced it can be just about everything.

It is unlikely that our culture will change soon, for we’re trying to promote Velcro values in a Teflon age. We need everyone.


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