Philadelphia Orchestra greats Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy are rolling over in their graves, while former Director Riccardo Muti may be glad that he walked away from the orchestra after its 1991-92 season.

All three conductors were spared what progressive ideologues have done to the world of classical music. This sublime, transcendental world has been infused with critical race theory, cancel culture, identity politics, victim culture, and any other leftist cause you want to throw in. Classical music is now a captive of these powerful cultural forces.

One look at a recent Philadelphia Orchestra program gives you an idea as to the extent of this revolution. 

Here you’ll find a short interview with Matias Tarnopolsky, President and CEO of The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Kimmel Center, formerly the Executive and Artistic Director of CAL Performances at the University of California, Berkeley:   

“Americans were jolted to attention in May 2020 when George Floyd was murdered just as the Covid pandemic was getting underway. We looked at ourselves and asked, ‘Is the classical music world doing enough?’ said Tarnopolsky. ‘And the answer was, not nearly enough. So we redoubled our efforts to make sure that we were representative, in both the music and the musicians who perform on our stages.’”

As if Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler have anything to do with George Floyd. As if Ravel, Stravinsky, Handel, and Bach have anything to do with “systemic racism.” As if Chopin. Liszt, Wagner, or Samuel Barber have anything to do with—well, just name your leftist cause. How about gender equity and the plight of transgender chimney sweeps in Greenland?  (Did you know that Handel is now being called ‘evil’ for his investments in the transatlantic slave trade?) 

The title of the piece, “When Innovation Becomes de Rigueur,” makes it clear that the orchestral repertoire “does not stand on an immovable bedrock of tradition,” but is “built on fertile soil that is continually being renewed by organic growth…” One might argue that this has always been the case with classical music. Granted, the Philadelphia Orchestra in past years often erred on the side of caution when it came to showcasing more avant garde composers like George Crumb, Erik Satie, or Lou Harrison, but Tarnopolsky isn’t talking about that kind of “organic.”   

He’s talking Woke. When he states that the Orchestra’s new season will include new works by living composers, “half of whom are women….Perhaps more important, half of the living composers represented on the season are BIPOC artists (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color).”   

Is selecting musical programs solely on the basis of racial or biological identity really the way to go? In some cases it might be: good art is good art but the new philosophy here seems to be more affirmative action than selecting pieces based on merit. 

In his book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “On a cool Saturday afternoon in January 1954, I set out to drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama. . . . The Metropolitan Opera was on the radio with a performance of one of my favorite operas — Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ So with the beauty of the countryside, the inspiration of Donizetti’s inimitable music, and the splendor of the skies, the usual monotony that accompanies a relatively long drive — especially when one is alone — was dispelled in pleasant diversions.”

No civil rights leader could say such a thing today without getting serious pushback from the Left about honoring (white supremacist) European culture. 

King’s use of the phrase, “pleasant diversions” does not have a political identity, unless of course your musical hero is Theodor Adorno, who conceptualized music in service of social change. 

Adorno, a classically trained pianist, was the leader of the so-called Frankfurt School, founded by the Marxist intellectuals who developed critical race theory. Adorno advocated atonal music, immune to profit-making, although he believed that the popular media could be controlled to revolutionary ends.   

A good orchestra employs the best musicians for the job; if most or all of the new hires happen to BIPOC artists (selected on merit), then fantastic. But this is not what Tarnopolsky seems to be saying. It seems he is subscribing to the latest woke idea to hit the classical music world, that being the adoption of quotas to make sure that orchestras are diverse and multicultural.

Traditionally, orchestras held what were called “blind auditions” in which a candidate plays behind a screen, unseen by the panel of judges, with the sex and skin color of the musician (behind the screen) a mystery.   

Recently, New York Times music critic, Anthony Tommasini, came out and said that “blind auditions” should be replaced by quotas. 

Sucking up to the notion that orchestras should be affirmative action programs, The National Philharmonic committed to achieving a 40 percent quota for soloists and living composers of color. And in Oxford, England, the Faculty of Music there announced that they will be “decolonizing the syllabus” in which composers like Beethoven and Mozart will be pushed aside to make room for African Diaspora Music.

After Floyd’s death, the students at the Juilliard School of music in New York circulated a petition calling for an end to the “almost completely Eurocentric” school and demanded a “complete in-person season of works by BIPOC artists.”

In the Philadelphia Orchestra program, Tarnopolsky has special praise for chief conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. While Nézet-Séguin’s talents cannot be denied, the praise leveled on him by Tarnopolsky is nothing less than hagiographic.   

“We celebrate his dedication to community engagement, recognize his important role as an advocate for human rights, and applaud his commitment to IDEAS (inclusion, diversity, equity, and access strategies) which has dramatically changed how we see the role of the orchestra in society.”

Nézet-Séguin, then, is more than your average orchestra conductor. He is a Mother Teresa, a savior of sorts. In addition, he is praised as a “person of deep humanity and heart, a leader, a teacher….and believer in everything good that the human soul has to offer. “

Was Eugene Ormandy venerated on this level? Ormandy was never seen as being the cosmic embodiment of Good (In fact, Ormandy’s first wife accused him of mental cruelty).   

TIME magazine in 1980 ran a story on Ormandy in which it profiled a typical day in the life of the conductor:

“This coming Saturday will be like any other day for Eugene Ormandy. He will study scores, do some arm exercises, take a nap. After dinner he will walk the few blocks from his elegant Barclay Hotel apartment to Philadelphia’s venerable Academy of Music. There he will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in a typical Ormandy program, the First Symphonies of Shostakovitch and Mahler.”

But wokeness, as Bret Stephens wrote in 2021, “operates as if there had been no civil rights movement, and that white Americans hadn’t been an integral part of it. It operates as if 60 years of affirmative action never happened, and that an ever-growing percentage of Black Americans don’t belong to the middle and upper class. It operates as if we didn’t twice elect a Black president.” 

While it’s a good thing indeed that Nézet-Séguin is committed to showcasing the works of under-appreciated 20th-century composers, things get murkier and suspicious when we read about his dedication to “responding to issues of our time through music.” 

This can only mean one thing: coercing audiences to submit to more and more woke ideologies.

This article has been updated to correct a typographical error.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest will be released in May 2023.

14 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: The Philadelphia Orchestra has gone off the political deep end”

  1. I moved to the Philadelphia suburbs from another state in 1989 in part to enjoy the rich cultural heritage of the orchestra, the ballet, and the museums. Years later, the woke virus has infected every cultural institution, and by taking the train into the city to enjoy its amenities, one risks life and limb. There is no escape from the rot of progressivism and no regard for beauty for its own sake.

  2. If this bothers you (you sensitive snowflake you), then . . . don’t go to the orchestra. The orchestra is free to do whatever it wants. Just pretend the orchestra is a bakery that won’t make a gay wedding cake. If you’re fine with that, you should be fine with this.

    1. Does the Orchestra receive tax breaks or tax dollars while promoting offensive, toxic, racist ideas and policies?

      It’s substantially different from a private small business making choices in their best interest.

  3. This is a very interesting article. Unlike Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski was a courageous, complex, committed artist whose influence is still powerfully felt, even though he’s now given little credit. He was way ahead of his time, and created the Philadelphia Orchestra as a revolutionary ensemble, but always at the service of the music. I’ve just completed a memoir about my work with the Orchestra (I was on the library staff when I was quite young) and my close personal and professional relationships with Stokowski (I was his librarian) and Ormandy, also Mstislav Rostropovich. The book will clarify many misunderstandings — a personal and historical record. We’re at a critical crossroad now, one that can mean the life or death of Western classical music as we know it, especially the orchestral repertoire.

  4. Every orchestra should devote a portion of their time to modern music – and they always should have – and so whatever you want to call that modern music, it should by all means be inclusive. It depends on your market/area, but for most cities, making the ticket sales still means a sufficient dose of classics. But you can blend the new and old in a concert – and have a high quality program.

  5. As Thom points out, no institution, no matter how removed from the current madness in our society it may seem, is immune to the Woke virus and its vectors. This city is paying a heavy price and a dear one for its “leader’s” capitulations to the woke mob that have infiltrated almost every sector and organization. But lo, there are repercussions. And in an institution, such as our Orchestra, long time patrons will express their dismay and disgust at the box office and ticket sales and subscriptions will decline. On the larger front, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and one day, the Champions of woke will find themselves with their backs to a precipice and an unsavory choice.

  6. Not to mention they are unethically adding BS fees to all tickets sales, even when you buy in person at the box office- which is false advertising of the ticket prices.

  7. I will always love Brahms symphonies but the orchestra should be more than a sonic museum. All different kinds of people should be represented in this space, and be able to express themselves. If you hate change, you’ll really hate irrelevance.

  8. Since I have enjoyed much of the music of Florence Price, Louise Ferrenc, Julia Perry and William Levy Dawson (performed and recorded by Stokowski) presented, supposedly because of wokeness, I don’t know why this is a problem. I also find many of the performers, the choice of whom might be described as woke, to be artists who belong on the stage of the Kimmel Center: Randall Goosby and Nathalie Stutzmann are major artists. After subscribing to the orchestra for 26 years. mostly in the last century, I stopped because I no longer needed to hear the same music over and over again. In recent years I have started to attend again since after two decades the old warhorses were somewhat fresh again but mainly because most concerts had something new.

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