Buffalo Philharmonic uses the tools of racism to fight racism

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The orchestra began to fight against old racism by using the tool of racism itself.

FWhere for decades, orchestras have worked to redress racial imbalances within their ranks by creating new pipelines for young performers. They created outreach and engagement departments bringing classical music to young people who were rarely exposed to it, developed music programs in public schools, and mentored diverse young musicians. These efforts are now bearing fruit, as many of these young artists continue to land coveted orchestral jobs.

With much of our society over the past year and a half, however, orchestras have begun to replace the focus of ensuring “equality of opportunity” with “fairness.” Gnawed by the guilt of racial exclusion in classical music in the distant past, many adopt the strategy of repairing old racism with new racism. In so doing, they risk turning some of our greatest artistic institutions from unifying meritocracies of mutual respect and artistic excellence into musically mediocre social battlefields.

One such example was the attack on the “blind hearing” process. In blind auditions, orchestras assess potential players by listening to them behind a screen, allowing judges to select musicians regardless of race, gender, or other non-musical characteristics. Recently, this hearing innovation – which was widely credited with the reduction of gender biases in hiring orchestras – has come under attack in some of the best orchestras in the country, on the grounds that it has resulted in the hiring of too few non-Asian musicians of color.

Equally dangerous – and less discussed – is the growing discrimination in the employment of artistic leaders. This happens not only during the selection of candidates, but also during the job posting phase. This is evident in most leadership positions, especially for assistant conductor positions (i.e. the first step up the ladder for young conductors), which now contain a variant of the sentence: “Members of groups under-represented in classical music, in particular members of [racial group x, y, z], are encouraged to apply.

Orchestras for which such language is not sufficiently exclusive have turned to the use of ‘scholarships’ – pre-professional learning or mentoring opportunities aimed at certain racial or gender groups, especially women. or minorities. By describing these opportunities as “scholarships” and not as jobs, they can circumvent anti-discrimination laws. But orchestras are now expanding this strategy to include traditional jobs as well.

Perhaps the most egregious example to date is the recently announced publication by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) of a Conductor Diversity Fellow, a position whose responsibilities – if one read the description carefully. post office – are practically identical to those of a peer assistant chef. orchestras, but for a key difference: that the posting explicitly solicits the candidatures alone of those who “identify as members of groups historically under-represented in American orchestras, including, but not limited to, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Alaskan, Hawaiian or Islander descendants. Pacific ”.

Two main breeds are visibly excluded from this list of “under-represented groups” and the subtext is clear: No white or Asian need to apply.

The publication of the BPO is one of the most brazen attempts by an American orchestra to erase the history of racism from classical music using the tool of racism. He could also be the first to clearly break federal equal employment opportunity rules, which state that no job offer can discourage a candidate from applying because of their race. But without any apparent reaction from orchestra members, board members, or the audience, it’s unlikely to be the last.

How do orchestras like BPO expect to fare when confronted? They can, again, claim that these positions are just scholarships – not jobs – and therefore not subject to federal labor law. However, the very job description belies this defense.

BPO’s Conductor Diversity Fellowship is a job in everything but the name. His pay – broken down into a ‘housing allowance’ and a ‘living wage allowance’, plus health benefits – is in addition to a competitive market salary for a post of assistant conductor in a regional orchestra. American medium size: $ 35,000.

In all other details, the scholarship reflects assistant conductor jobs in peer orchestras. His two-year term of employment is typical. The same applies to the qualifications required for the position. (That is, apart from skin color.) His list of responsibilities – covering guest conductors, conducting education and outreach concerts, and planning engagement programs alongside orchestra administrators – is also the same. Even his demands for attending a diversity conference and serving on a diversity council – which appear several points down the list of responsibilities – are hardly uncommon in executive assistant job descriptions these days.

Any experience in the orchestral world would cause an impartial observer to suspect that the label of “brotherhood” was applied to this work primarily in order to cloud the legal waters enough to allow the orchestra to practice racial preference. when hiring.

There are many valid ways to increase diversity in orchestras: For a long time, BPO’s education and youth engagement programs have been a model for the industry. Assigning jobs based on skin color, however, is one of the surest ways to lose the progress the profession has already made. This can only discourage talented young people from pursuing music, taking art even further in its relevance and ruin. The BPO and its peers would do well to step back from this dangerous precedent.

David Thomas is the pen name of a current conductor working with professional and semi-professional orchestras on the East Coast.


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