Oct 3 • 55M

John McWhorter and Don Baton – DEI in the Orchestral World

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Glenn Loury
Weekly conversations on race, inequality, and more, with Glenn Loury. Bi-weekly appearances by John McWhorter.
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This week, John and I change things up a little bit, both in form and content. For the first half of the show, we welcome “Don Baton.” Don is a professional orchestra conductor and the pseudonymous author of the Substack newsletter The Podium, where he writes about the effects of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the classical music world, among other topics. Don is understandably protective of his real identity, so he kept his camera off for this conversation, and we’ve replaced his voice with an automated simulation in post-production.

John begins by asking Don about the work of the black female composer Florence Price. After languishing in obscurity for decades, her compositions are now widely performed and recorded. John asks whether these pieces merit the rapturous praise they’re now receiving. Don confirms John’s suspicions that, while they’re good, they’re not on par with those of canonical composers alongside whom she is now often mentioned. Don describes how the desire for more racial diversity in repertoire and personnel is leading many orchestras to abandon merit-based practices like blind auditions. The political argument for DEI is a familiar one, but some orchestras also claim that more black musicians and conductors will attract larger black audiences at a time when many orchestras are in dire financial straits. Both Don and John find this argument unconvincing. I ask Don why he guards his identity so closely, and he outlines why the dwindling number of jobs for conductors has made any heterodoxy on DEI matters a professional near impossibility. After Don departs, I deliver an impromptu soliloquy on human value, and John and I contemplate the upcoming Supreme Court term and the likely overturning of affirmative action.

One hopes that sometime soon professionals like Don with sensible, reasonable critiques of DEI practices will feel free to state their concerns openly without fear of reprisal. But for now, I’m glad to be able to provide a platform for the important work Don is doing.

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0:00 Is Florence Price’s music worthy of its current popularity?

12:20 The decline of blind auditions

18:27 Do diverse orchestras attract diverse audiences and musicians?

23:26 Why Don is protecting his real identity

27:00 Glenn delivers a soliloquy on humanity

32:06 John: Eliminating blind auditions is “bat shit crazy”

38:22 Should John’s daughters benefit from affirmative action?


Links and Readings

Don’s Substack, The Podium

Don’s series on Florence Price: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3

Van Cliburn’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Anthony Tommasini’s NYT piece, “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions”

George Walker on YouTube

William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony

William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1

Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse’s article “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians”

John’s NYT piece, “Stop Making Asian Americans Pay the Price for Campus Diversity”


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