Monday, January 21, 2013

'Racial Favoritism and the ASO': Ack! ... You Again.

Talk about asking for a hotfoot ... but here is John Bennett's December 2012 article in American Thinker about the 'diversity' issue surrounding the ASO holiday concerts which featured high school choruses.  I have to say, I was surprised to find an article supporting racial diversity in a right-wing publication, but I shouldn't have been; reporting on the arts affords an opportunity to bash what is generally considered 'elitist'. (It's worth mentioning that Mr. Wade is no longer with the ASO organization, although he figures in the story.)

Several media outlets tended to flog this bit of news along the same lines as Mr. Bennett; our local Atlanta ones had a 'two-fer':  pointing up the lack of diversity in ASO player personnel ... while, at the same time, showing high school parents from a predominantly white area -- within a predominantly African-American city -- up in arms about what used to be called 'reverse discrimination'. The media coverage succeeded in bringing out the worst in everybody, stirring up hostility and anger.  But the worst thing was, the skewed publicity and subsequent comments vilifying the ASO organization were directed almost solely at the musicians ... and came at a time when the orchestra, having suffered a lockout, material losses, and damage to its reputation, needed the public's support.

In his article, Bennett says that the choice of inviting other Atlanta high school chorus groups to perform with the ASO was a product of 'hypocrisy and racial double standards', because orchestra personnel is insufficiently diverse.  In other words, ASO Management, seeking to add 'racially diverse props' to its image, dis-invited the predominantly white high schools.  By doing so, Bennett says, 'the ASO wants to engineer the façade of diversity. They cannot and will not create that façade among their musicians.'  Obviously the writer has some high feeling about this subject, but he didn't do his homework ...  

Just to be clear ... the ASO's core mission dates from 1998:

We unite in our desire to serve and to expand our audience through innovative programming, broader venues and increased educational opportunities while balancing artistic growth with financial soundness. We share a heritage of passion for the music. We embrace our responsibility to be a vigorous part of the cultural fabric of our community and to strive to reach national and international audiences.  

ASO Management administers a nationally renowned symphony orchestra, a public institution in one of the country's most racially diverse cities.  Trying to make a cloak of 'racial diversity' out of whole cloth was looking to get busted. Seeming to lack any context beyond needing a 'chorus featuring more African-American kids', ASO Management's actions generated more suspicion in the Atlanta community and beyond.  It would have made better sense for management to explore and advance new cooperative programs with Atlanta educational, cultural and arts groups; there are always exciting, forward-looking developments in this community.  Unfortunately, ASO Management decided to co-opt an already successful in-house program in order to publicly 'fix' the perception of racial diversity (or lack thereof) within the organization.  At best, the elicited statements from ASO Management, as reported by Mr. Bennett, come across as spin ... at worst, they sound patronizing ... and, most damaging, they do nothing to address the depth of ASO's commitment to music education in this city.

Bennett acknowledges -- in his last paragraph -- a 'positive outcome'; the orchestra bypassed 'ASO management to hold a school fundraiser with the Walton and Lassiter high schools.'  ASO musicians disregarded their own embarrassment and dismay, the unkind remarks from public and press, as well as the political aims of their management, in order to do the right thing ... demonstrating to students at Walton and Lassiter how real and strong their connection is to young musicians. 

But ultimately, Bennett appears to have missed an important point about that 'connection'.  And he missed it because he and others seem to have bought into the easy assumption that the classical symphonic art form has little to offer this community unless it mirrors the racially diverse city within which it exists. This 'easy assumption' fails to take into account that the real connection between Atlanta and its orchestra has always been made not through corporate policies or marketing schemes, but through the tireless efforts of the musicians, who have been performing, coaching, teaching, mentoring, and holding master classes in Atlanta schools and ensembles for almost four decades.

In my opinion, the city of Atlanta has no finer example of passion, discipline and commitment ... unless you also count teachers all over the city, many of whom plan their yearly curricula around the ASO. What Mr. Bennett calls an 'absolute absurdity' -- the reallocation of 'musical tastes among (diverse) groups' -- I call the ASO's 'core mission statement', because the importance of great classical symphonic repertoire ... like that of great literature and great art ... lies in its ability to enrich and deepen human experience.

Artistically, too, the ASO's programming has always been richly diverse, cross-cultural, often outside the box ... but I realize it's not the same thing to Mr. Bennett, who only counted the number of African-American heads in the orchestra to make his argument.


  1. I can't speak to the events of last December surrounding the choice of high schools to perform for the holiday concerts, but I do want to add a bit about the ASO's commitment to diversity within the organization. I worked for the ASO from 2002-06 and was responsible during that time for the Talent Development Program. This program was founded 20 years ago by people who did want to address the diversity issue in a positive and healthy manner. Originally called the Black Talent Development Program, it has expanded to include Latino students as well since those two minorities are the most under-represented in the nation's ranks of professional orchestra musicians.

    The focus of the TDP is to identify talented students at young ages and then give them the training and support it takes to eventually produce a player who can get a professional orchestra position. Auditions for those positions are almost always done blind, i.e., the players can't be seen by the auditioners. No one knows race or gender, hence the candidates are judged solely on playing ability. So it's not that easy to intentionally diversify an orchestra based on race, or indeed anything else outside of playing ability.

    The way the ASO is working to increase diversity is by providing what is needed to these students 20 years or so before those auditions will be taking place. The orchestra musicians are teaching the students (often at rates below their standard teaching fees), the ASO is providing those fees so that the students' families don't have to pay for them, the wonderful advisory committee helps to raise funds to send them to competitive summer camps to increase their skills, and the organization offers opportunities for the students to solo with the orchestra for such events as the National Black Arts Festival. In the years since I stopped working for the ASO, I'm sure they have come up with even more ways to support and train the students, and I know that the results are looking good. More and more of the TDP students are placing in top conservatories, and some have now found their way to a professional orchestra position.

    So while you may be able to look at the ASO and count the colors of faces, you're not really seeing the whole diversity picture by doing so. And you should check out the diversity when the ASYO takes the stage!! That amazing youth orchestra is better than a large number of adult professional orchestras, and they are truly a rainbow coalition! With student programs like these, the ASO will have a large part in the diversification of America's orchestras.

  2. Thanks, Brenda, for the essay on TDP which is a program many people in the Atlanta community support. The ASO musicians put their hearts into this program. As I understand it, they also put up a substantial amount of scholarship money ...

  3. Sally and Brenda - great information and thanks for helping to fill in the gaps the article leaves out! I agree I know very well how much the musicians put into this program - not only time and talent but yes with money as well and tons of good will, love and support