May 15 4:30 PM

Brill, Phil! New York orch names first African-American principal

Clarinetist Anthony McGill has been appointed as the first African American principal of the New York Philharmonic.
Hiroyuki Ito / Getty Images

The great clarinetist Anthony McGill has made history by becoming the first African-American principal, or section leader, in the New York Philharmonic, effective this fall. His appointment is among several changes at the symphony reported this morning by The New York Times.

McGill and bassist Timothy Cobb were both poached from New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where they served as first chairs. The Philharmonic will announce several more hires in the coming months, including a violinist to replace outgoing concertmaster Glenn Dicterow.

Although the Philharmonic is regarded as the standard bearer of American orchestras and has recently updated its image with contemporary repertoire and multimedia staging, under the leadership of young conductor Alan Gilbert, it has made slow progress in terms of racial diversity. In 1962, violinist Sanford Allen became the first full-time African-American member, and there have been few people of color, other than Asians or Asian-Americans, since.

As I noted earlier this year, young black musicians are changing the face of classical music.

After a half-century of desegregation in performance, U.S. orchestras are still overwhelmingly white — though increasingly Asian. A mere 4 percent of orchestra members are African-American or Latino.

And the lack of representation in the Western classical world goes beyond the musicians:

According to survey data from the League of American Orchestras, in the early 1990s, blacks and Latinos made up 1.6 and 1.5 percent of symphony members, respectively; today both groups have surpassed 2 percent. The figures for conductors are considerably better, for orchestra CEOs, considerably worse.

While there are many ways to theorize this vanilla state of affairs, the dearth of high-profile role models is certainly a contributing factor. And in a country where whites are expected to be a minority group in just 30 years, even traditional classical ensembles must get with the times. According to Aaron P. Dworkin, president of the Sphinx Organization and a leading advocate for inclusion in classical music, McGill’s “talent and artistic excellence exemplify the future of America’s classical music landscape.” 

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Any views expressed on The Scrutineer are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.


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