Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wiener Nachschlag

I got up on my soapbox in the Sunday paper on the subject of the Vienna Philharmonic — which is about to hit the Bay Area for the first time in more than 20 years — and its ongoing reluctance to integrate its ranks despite a nominal change in policy dating back 14 years. As usually happens in such cases, there was a whole lot more to say on the subject than either the pages of The Chronicle or the patience of readers could quite accommodate, so it seemed like the right moment to take a dustbuster to this abandoned warehouse space and park some of the overage here. Mostly what got squeezed out were the responses to expected counter-arguments — the part of the essay that features phrases like "now, some might object that..." — and this would be a good place for that.

The most substantive point worth addressing would be the argument from tu quoque, i.e., the one pointing out that American orchestras have, by and large, a very poor record themselves when it comes to racial integration. This is undeniably true, but it's also both irrelevant logically and not comparable in certain obvious ways.

The reason American orchestras have so few black and Hispanic players is because so few black and Hispanic classical musicians emerge from our conservatories. That happens because there are few going in, which in turn is because few black and Hispanic kids get started on classical music, which in turn has to do with the shoddy conditions and questionable priorities of our public school system, as well as a host of other facts about the socioeconomic realities of life in America. The racial makeup of American orchestras is admittedly shameful, but the shame is not that of the orchestras themselves. The problem is that the entire supply chain is faulty.

The situation of Asian musicians in Europe is different. There's plenty of supply, as you can tell by looking at the rosters of other European orchestras, all of which have found room for them. The problem in Vienna is one of demand, not supply.

A second point is timing, i.e., "you're bringing this up now?" I can't deny that this is an article that would have been more appropriate in 1997 — or better yet, 1996, or 1990, or 1965. But here's the thing: Nobody wrote it then. There was a pretty studied silence on the subject among music writers in the cities where the VPO was visiting regularly. I cracked wise on the subject in 1997, briefly, and maybe I could've gone further; but by that point that chapter of the story was over.

But here it is 2011 and apparently the argument still needs to be made. I'm sure the day is coming when this kind of article will truly be out of date. We don't seem to be there yet.