What's the most important thing about opera singer Luciano Pavarotti?
(A) He used his vocal gifts to bring joy to millions;
(B) He was white, and not black or Latino.
If you're a normal person, you'd choose option A. But if you're the New York Times chief classical music critic, Tony Tommasini (or some other equally lousy person), you choose B.
Tommasini last week published what might be the single worst arts piece ever published by the formerly revered, now auto-cannibalizing Gray Lady. And since I have no word limit on this column, I might as well add that in my imagination, the backstory to Tommasini's piece (about which more below) goes something like this.
Only a few more steps of Manhattan sidewalk, a quick right turn, and the weekly ritual would begin. Again.
"Is my tie okay?", asked Tony.
"Stop", said Benjamin.
Squaring himself to his partner, Benjamin directed an urgent OCD gaze toward Tony's silk accoutrement (knotted as always with a modded half-Windsor, which Tony proudly believed he had invented all by himself, and that he alone on earth used).
Reaching out, Benjamin shifted Tony's custom-knotted tie precisely .87 millimeters to the left, patted his partner's lapels, stepped back, and smiled. "There. C'est magnifique!".
"God...I love it when you speak French", Tony cooed. Moistly.
Rounding the corner, Tony and Benjamin – one of New York's (that is, the world's) top power couples, with bonus-point gay cachet to boot – merged with streams of other self-important people draped in mink and gold heading toward the front doors of the Lincoln Center. It would be yet another evening of seeing and being seen, aristocratic chit-chat right out of a Tolstoy novel, and eventually, watching the world famous New York Philharmonic perform. What Tony didn't know as he strolled into the building was that everything was about to change.
The program began typically enough: a Ravel piece; a Copland piece; a screeching atonal piece of avant garde garbage written only the month before by an Albanian communist no one had ever heard of, etc.
But when the orchestra's principal clarinetist, Anthony McGill, rose to perform...Tony felt something snap inside.
It wasn't McGill's felicity of phrasing, his emotive dynamics, or the transcendent beauty of the melody which so affected him.
No. For Tony – a wealthy, highly-educated man born into privilege – it was McGill's skin color. It was chocolate...but all the other players' skin was...well, it was wrong. Even the tapioca-to-teak skin tones of the Asian musicians now seemed to blend into the now-intolerable Dairy Queen whiteness of the rest of the orchestra.
Only one of them...but four dozen whites, thought Tony. No. No no no no.
Tears of indignant rage welled in his eyes – sharp, stinging, Tabasco tears.
What...the actual f***...have I been part of?!
Tony was shouting silently to himself now, his thoughts racing.
How did I not see this before? NO. This is WRONG. F*** this music! F*** everything about this whole f***ing thing! There's only ONE, um, African black American, um, of colour! That poor, poor man!
He looked around at the audience. Almost all white. That was the last straw. This is like a **** KLAN RALLY! THIS MUST END!
For the first time in Tony's 72-year long life, a geyser of bitter gall, guilt, shame, and fury exploded within him, consuming him...And in that moment, the music stopped mattering to Tony. The only thing that mattered anymore was devoting his life to a cheap, destructive, ultimately meaningless, colour-by-numbers social justice game which required "correct" distribution of skin tones, in every time and place and situation - including orchestras.
And that, my friends, is how it came to pass, that Tony Tommasini just wrote the worst arts piece in the history of the New York Times.
Well, maybe it didn't come to pass that way. I actually made most of that up. I made up the necktie anecdote, I have no idea if Tommasini's husband, Columbia University professor of psychiatry Benjamin McCommon, actually accompanies Tommasini to the Philharmonic's performances. I can't read Tommasini's mind. I don't know of any screeching atonal compositions by Albanian communists (although there must be a few). And I don't even know if it was an Anthony McGill performance which turned Tony Tommasini into the pernicious buffoon he is today.
I just imagined the backstory based on a few slices of information from his New York Times article. But I am delighted to confess my imaginative ramblings, because indulging them places me squarely within current, fabrication-encompassing, "big league journalism" standards – including the collapsing standards of the New York Times itself. (See, just for starters, here, here, here, here, and here).
So, to the actual article.
Tommasini begins his piece, entitled "To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions", by decrying the racism and sexism which, he claims, kept the orchestras of yesteryear predominantly white and male. He then pays tribute to the simple practice that helped erase that racism and sexism from orchestra hiring procedures: the blind audition. Starting in the late 1960s, orchestras began ditching traditional face-to-face auditions in favour of auditions that took place behind screens. With orchestra administrators no longer able to see the race or sex of the orchestra applicant, conscious and unconscious bias in hiring choices became impossible. Musical skill became the sole criterion for winning one of those prized professional playing positions.
This meritocratic turn, Tommasini argues, proved especially beneficial to female players. Whereas in 1970, women made up only 6% of orchestras, they now make up somewhere between a third and half of an average orchestra.
I add that audiences also benefited from meritocratic hiring processes as orchestras played increasingly brilliant renditions of the classics. Those improved performances also showed greater reverence for the original composers themselves. In short, the blind audition was a big win for all lovers of musical excellence – players, living composers, and fans alike.
So why on earth would anyone now call for their abolition?
Tommasini answers this way:
"Blind auditions changed the face of American orchestras. But not enough. American orchestras remain among the nation's least racially diverse institutions, especially in regard to black and Latino artists...Ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable".
In other words, the low number of black and Latino classical musicians means orchestras need to re-institute the old-time racial discrimination Tommasini began his article by decrying. Orchestras need to know which applicants are white and Asian precisely so they can refuse to hire them on that basis, no matter how skilled they are. Blind auditions make racial discrimination impossible, so they must be scrapped. American orchestras, writes Tommasini, should stop "passively waiting for representation to emerge from behind the audition screen". Instead, they must realize that "removing the screen is a crucial step".
To summarize: For Tommasini, it's not just that justice requires injustice. It's that justice is injustice (injustice in the form of racial discrimination). And if that reminds you of the official slogan of Orwell's Ministry of Truth in 1984 – war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength – you're not alone.
Everything about this way of thinking about the world – and music in particular – is wrong and sick and grotesque. Musical excellence, the whole shamanic spell that great musical performances can create, has nothing to do with skin colour. That's why the late (black) blues guitarist B.B. King named (white) Eric Clapton and (white) slide player Derek Trucks as two of his favourite guitarists. That's why Clapton and Trucks in turn loved King and a raft of other black guitarists.
It's why white opera fans loved (black) soprano Leontyne Price, why Asians loved (white) John Denver, why the French Roma flamenco band The Gipsy Kings loves The Eagles (and even covered "Hotel California"), why all kinds of people like music created by other kinds of people.
In the moment music touches you, moves you, takes you somewhere else, and binds you together with the performer and composer and the other fans... no one (aside from racist ideologues) cares about race or skin tones anymore, if they even ever did.
And what that means is that Tommasini has declared war not just upon music, but upon an important part of what it means to be human. That sucks.
To help mask his assault on the musical experience, Tommasini includes an obligatory qualification that all he really wants is for "musicians onstage to better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve".
The problem is that everyone knows that if, by this time next year, the New York Philharmonic had dismissed all their white and Asian players, and was now 100% black and Latino, Tommasini would be cheering. Which is to say, his obligatory qualification is disingenuous: it's not that he wants orchestras to look like the surrounding communities. It's that he's given himself over to a weird, hierarchical, racial taxonomy that attributes greater intrinsic worth to blacks and Latinos than others. He wants to institutionally favour some races over others, just like any other garden-variety racist. At the very least, his control-freak race-quota fantasies mean far more to him than musical excellence or experience.
But beyond that, Tommasini's demands rely on indifference to the exact percentage of black and Latino youths currently aspiring to professional orchestra careers in the first place. That seems like an odd thing to ignore. After all, if only 2% of applicants for orchestra jobs come from a particular demographic group, then it's hardly an injustice per se if that group winds up with only 2% of the positions.
But Tommasini has no time for nuisances like critical thinking. He only knows – and only wants to know – that whereas 13% of the population is black, only 1.8% of orchestra jobs belong to blacks. On that basis alone, he demands racist hiring policies to get the black (and Latino) numbers up, even if only a relatively small percentage of blacks and Latinos are even interested in – let alone qualified for – a career as a professional oboe or viola player.
And as you might expect, Tommasini expresses little concern about the qualitative effects of orchestras replacing better players with worse players. For him, the musical experience doesn't really matter anymore. Only his personal race obsessions do.
Now, you might view this all this as academic. So, some awful New York Times snob has some lousy ideas. So what?
Well, here's what: It's not only New York Times snobs. The orchestras themselves are now getting in on this. They too have joined the procession of self-flagellants, desperate to atone for sins they've not only never committed, but couldn't have committed if they'd wanted to precisely because of the blind auditions Tommasini now wants to destroy.
And so we now have the New York Philharmonic itself posting the following on its own website:
"We begin with the recognition that we have much to learn about the history of racism in our nation historically, in the moment, and in ourselves. It is time for us to unlearn so very much and to establish a new way forward...
"We must begin by examining ourselves and our institution...We are dedicated to the highest ideals of racial justice, diversity, and inclusion.
"As soon as possible, we will implement anti-racism training for our Board, Orchestra, and Staff. This will give us the tools to understand the damaging effects of racism, whether unconscious or not, in ourselves and our institution.
"...We will implement programs to amplify voices of Black artists, composers, and community. These will range from programming to employment, to governance, to performance...
"We ask that you join us in taking this opportunity to honor the spirit of Juneteenth by intentionally reflecting on the racial injustice still prevalent in our society and the necessary work of anti-racism ahead for us".
I'm no virtuoso, but I did grow up playing and singing in classical ensembles at university, in high school, in the community, in church. So I admit I might be unusually sensitive to the displacement of musical merit and the diminution of musical experience by race obsessions and political ideology. That displacement and diminution feels like something out of communist China (which banned Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms), the Soviet Empire (which banned Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the overtly Christian composer, Arvo Pärt), or Nazi Germany (which banned Jewish composers like Mendelssohn, Mahler, and even Debussy, on grounds he had married a Jewish woman).
Actually, no, strike that. This doesn't "feel" like that. It is that. It's the same old rotten, thuggish, conscription of everything – film, sport, love, family, history, literature, science, everything – into the service of some hideous, ultimately inhuman, ideology.
At some point, someone, something has to stop The Destroyers. But who, or what, and how?
Let Tal know what you think in the comments! Tal Bachman is no doubt familiar to Club members as a special guest on our first two Mark Steyn Cruises. He'll also be joining next year's Mediterranean voyage, alongside Michele Bachmann, Douglas Murray and of course Mark Steyn himself. Book yourself a stateroom here. For some revelry with your fellow Steyn fans year-round, consider taking out a membership in the Mark Steyn Club.