This is a wonderful article by Heather Mac Donald: For the Love of Music. I will say up front what you must first surmise and then be told in a roundabout way. That the person she is profiling has a black skin. And while it shouldn’t matter, and of course does not so far as music is concerned, it does matter here. Because this is the point of the story which is found in the opening para:
Conductor and violinist John McLaughlin Williams has a question for advocates of deblinding auditions: “Why hold an audition at all? Why not just send in a head shot?”
It’s a crushing point if the aim is to have the best performers playing the best music. However:
Williams is scathing about the introduction of identity politics into music. “It will be the death of quality,” he warns. “It will breed resentment from musicians who have worked all their lives to achieve perfection.” An orchestra’s primary reasonability is to make the best music it can with the best musicians available, according to Williams; social justice is not its comparative advantage. “It’s ridiculous to pursue 12 percent black representation in orchestras,” he says. “It’s an unrealistic expectation, given the deliriously difficult level of competition now, especially from Asians.” Moreover, programming and hiring by race will not bring blacks into the concert hall over the long term unless those black audiences have an underlying interest in the music.
This is not just true of music but about everything, except the mechanic who fixes the brakes on your car. And then there is this. His discovery and now mine: Sir Arnold Bax.
His choice of music as a violin soloist has been as iconoclastic as his conducting repertoire. British composer Sir Arnold Bax is rarely, if ever, performed in the United States. Williams encountered some of Bax’s symphonic scores during his library sleuthing. They were a “revelation,” he says: “Strong, biting, hard-edged music of struggle, yet tinged with the wistfulness of one who has known loss. I was hooked.” Ever the contrarian, Williams became “really interested” in Bax’s violin concerto after reading a negative assessment of the work. He tracked down the music in the Library of Congress and gave the concerto its U.S. premiere in 1990—52 years after it was written—soloing on the violin with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Williams’s masterful performance, available on YouTube, digs into Bax’s complicated syncopations with rhythmic flair and suavely shapes the concerto’s melodic lines.
It’s what I am listening to now. Indeed a revelation, but the racist politics of the symphany orchestra is a death wish on classical music. This is the final para:
Williams has not backed down from expressing views that put him at odds with much of the musical establishment, however. This past Fourth of July, he posted on Facebook: “Happy Birthday to the greatest country the world has ever known. It is a place where the humblest and most common can achieve the highest and most respected places in society through dint of hard work, determination, and a willingness to take risks. Our core documents were sagaciously designed to encompass everyone and they do despite those who tried to prevent it.”
His beliefs are as out of fashion as his musical taste, but there is still an underground and we may yet prevail.