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Proof that the talent is there

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by Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer

pdnrace30-aDefenders of the status quo will tell you two things about African Americans and the American symphony orchestra: The reason there are so few blacks in orchestras is that the talent just isn’t out there, and racism can’t be the issue because auditions are played behind screens.

Several years ago I wrote about the fact that 16 years after announcing a cultural-diversity initiative, the Philadelphia Orchestra still had the same three African American members it hired in the 1970s. The reaction from musicians, rather than introspection, ranged from complacency to defensiveness.

And the excuses they offered didn’t wash, not when you take into account the variety and complexity of the ways in which musicians get into the orchestra. Little has changed in recent decades, making the ensemble as tone-deaf to race as the Vienna Philharmonic is in its historic exclusion of women.

But this month, in a relatively significant development at the Mann Center, the orchestra took a quiet baby step.

Sitting in the principal oboe chair Tuesday night was a substitute musician who happens to be African American. The orchestra rarely hosts African American substitute players, much less in so prominent a spot. In the Overture to La forza del destino, and last week in the Overture to Tannhäuser, this single player was cause to think that perhaps times are finally changing.

Why this is significant – he’s just subbing, after all – might not seem obvious until you think about the fact that many musicians land a spot in the orchestra by starting as substitutes. Such experience grants several advantages: It gives players a chance to hone their styles to the ensemble’s sound; they see and hear what others are doing and emulate it; they learn to fit in. And when at some later point a sub does get a chance to audition, the audition committee recognizes the sound of a kindred spirit.

Additionally, substituting is a tremendous schmoozing opportunity. Anyone who says personal relationships don’t help land jobs isn’t acknowledging hiring patterns. If you look at who has won a spot in the orchestra, it’s often been a spouse of a current player, a son or brother, a girlfriend, an in-law.

In 2007, when the orchestra hired 10 players, nine were related to or involved with other members of the orchestra, or had substituted with the orchestra regularly, and/or studied with members. Only one had no previous associations with the orchestra or anyone in it. (If interracial marriage and adoption were more frequent occurrences in the ensemble, the Philadelphia Orchestra would have had perhaps dozens of African American members by now.)

Relationships that help players get into the orchestra don’t have to be personal or familial. They can also be professional, beginning in the teaching studio.

Sometimes a substitute gets a chance to play in the orchestra because he or she has auditioned for the official substitute roster. But sometimes a player in the orchestra simply taps on the shoulder of a student or former student and hires him for the night.

And after hour upon hour, year upon year of lessons, it’s easy for a teacher to recognize a student’s sound emanating from behind the audition screen.

Another loophole in the so-called blind audition process: Some important personnel appointments – concertmaster, principal oboist – are made by inviting a known musician to try out in the ensemble for a week. Obviously there’s no audition screen in those cases, and obviously if the orchestra were really interested in making its ranks more representative of the city in which it lives it could actively recruit African American players for those shots at a job.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has a lot of catching up to do, and those musicians who think it’s unimportant for the group to look something like Philadelphia are living in a fool’s paradise. Departing board chairman Harold A. Sorgenti – a longtime proponent of diversity at the board level – made sure the board included several new African American members. Former president James Undercofler lured a top African American member to the senior administration.

Will new leadership arriving in the next few months press for progress?

This season the Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated contralto Marian Anderson on stage at Carnegie Hall with a program that tipped the hat to African American contributions without any apparent awkwardness about the fact that it hasn’t hired an African American member in decades. Tomorrow night it takes its free neighborhood concert series to Deliverance Evangelistic Church at 20th and Lehigh.

These are nice overtures to a slice of the population the orchestra has largely avoided – but only that; the more significant overtures were the Tannhäuser and La forza del destino of recent weeks. For musicians, it’s an important bit of delayed justice. But the orchestra would benefit enormously by having an ensemble for which the entire city could feel ownership. Facing concerts just 80 percent filled last season, it has identified reconnecting with the city as its most critical task – and you can’t connect with a place that’s more than 40 percent African American if you’re an orchestra that’s less than 3 percent African American.

A better representation can happen, and it can happen without artistic compromise. In the last few years, just at Curtis alone, African American graduates have landed spots in the orchestras of San Diego and the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere.

It turns out that our oboe visitor studied at Curtis with a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. But he was called in to substitute because, as is required for playing in a principal chair, he has a title with another orchestra: He’s Shea Scruggs, hired in April as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s assistant principal oboist.

It’s time to stop saying the talent isn’t there, and to stop citing the objectivity of the audition screen. The only thing the screen hides is the audition process, and it’s not even doing a very good job of that anymore.


Written by Symphony

July 30, 2009 at 9:23 pm

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