What does it take for a 120-year old institution to change? President and CEO of The Philadelphia Orchestra, Matías Tarnopolsky, is determined to find out.
In this episode, hear the veteran arts administrator reflect on the hectic year that saw concert halls close, but made hearts and minds open in new ways. In this candid conversation with host Tori Marchiony, Matías talks about why institutions like his can't sidestep social issues, what blind auditions miss, and the "universal values" that drive him.
Music in this episode:
Noel Dior & Tim German, Editorial Council
Teng Chen, Audio Engineer
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Hello! And welcome back to The HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m your host Tori Marchiony, and this is a space to hear from the artists, activists, and today, administrators, working hard to build a more equitable future- inside and outside the concert hall.
You just heard Michelle Cann with The Philadelphia Orchestra, playing Florence Price’s Piano Concerto No.1, in February 2021.
Now, onto our guest, Matías Tarnopolsky. The former clarinetist and current President and CEO of The Philadelphia Orchestra Association just led the 120-year old institution through one of its most challenging years to date; navigating a pandemic that emptied concert halls in the midst of a clarion call for greater equity in all aspects of society. Where others panicked or folded altogether, he stayed open and committed to making deep change.
Now, the internet was already abundant with praise for Matías’s leadership, musical depth, and vision. But the headline that stood out to me most came from a 2009 article by the late critic Andrew Patner, announcing Matías’s appointment as Executive and Artistic Director at Cal Performances in Berkeley- the post he held for a decade before coming to Philadelphia. It read, “A Good Man Is Found By UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances''.
It struck me, in part, because of how unlikely it is that such a headline would be written today- the bar for “goodness”- particularly among middle-aged white men like Matías- has rightly been raised in the past few years. But the Buenos Aires-born, London-raised, now 51-year old of Eastern European Jewish lineage, still very much identifies with “goodness,” as a foundational character trait.
MATIAS TARNOPOLSKY: The way I was raised was really about, I think, values that transcend nationality, religion, culture, I hope. Principally, they wanted us to be good people who value learning, value friends and family, um, make wholesome contributions, uh, to the world. Are those South American values, are those Jewish values, are those Anglo-Saxon values? Um, I think those are human values. Um, but that's also the kind of thing people say when they don't really know about what their own biases are.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Matias is working to unravel those biases, though. And he’s certainly been a good influence on The Philadelphia Orchestra since coming aboard in 2018, when he inherited an organization that had just accidentally programmed an entire season without a single female composer. Since taking the lead, Matías Tarnopolsky has spearheaded an ambitious turnaround…programming more diverse composers, launching the Our City, Your Orchestra community concert series, overseeing a new partnership with the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and a shift to the digital stage. All the while, interrogating the status quo through the lens of I.D.E.A.S, which stands for Inclusion. Diversity. Equity. Access. Strategies. And he’s still just getting started.
MATIAS TARNOPOLSKY: I love what I do. I never take it for granted. Never. I pinched myself because I feel incredibly fortunate. Um, but you can never relax or rest on your laurels.
TORI MARCHIONY: That’s for sure. As you, you proved in this past year, no resting, no laurels.
MATIAS TARNOPOLSKY: Yes
TORI MARCHIONY: And, you’ve said many times that you believe that music is a fundamentally democratizing force. And I find that really interesting, especially because Western classical music in particular is seen as one of the most elitist and rarefied forums out there. So how do those things co-exist? When I guess my first question is, is elitism actually fundamental to the culture of Western classical music?
MATIAS TARNOPOLSKY: Absolutely not. Okay. I mean, Western classical music is a communal shared act. It is, you know, it has become something that happens on the stage and is sort of delivered from on high to the audience. But everything that we represent is about that connection is about the joy, the transformative power of “music. Um, so, you know, music emerged, you know, music is inherently a communal act. It's not something that, that you can, that you can do alone. Now, has music history been inclusive and equalizing? Absolutely not. And we need to change and we need to change the way we look at, uh, uh, the musical Canon and the choice of composer, the choice of performers, and we need to, we need to change. And that's why you'll see, even on this forthcoming season, um, music by Mozart and Bruckner, of course, alongside music by, you know, Jessie Montgomery, and Florence Price in the same programs, in the same breath as Mozart and Bruckner. And that's what we need to do.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Here’s a bit of Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra on the Digital Stage in December 2020.
JESSIE MONTGOMERY, STARBURST
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Programming is crucial. Celebrating composers who aren’t dead white men is a great step towards making concert music more inviting, and interesting to BiPoc listeners. But once these coveted audience members arrive, they probably won’t see themselves adequately represented on stage. And that’s a big problem.
One technique designed to diversify orchestras and reduce hiring biases is the “blind audition,” in which musicians play from behind a curtain. This tact sort of worked. Since blind auditions became popular around the 1950s, top orchestras have seen an enormous influx of women on stage. Today, U.S. orchestras are around 40% female.
But while blind auditions leveled the playing field for the elite musicians who were already in the audition room, they didn’t open any new doors for those who’d systematically been shut out.
MATIAS TARNOPOLSKY: I don't know, it's a question of why, why do blind auditions not work, but more like, w why does the system more broadly not work? Why are they not, why are there not more musicians of color or BiPoc musicians feeling welcome to the audition process of major orchestras like ours? Um, because it's, that's part, that's part of the issue. Why when they come to the, both the musical profession or even just like opportunities in school for, for music, why, why are so few BiPoc musicians, um, sort of coming through the music education system in a way that eventually they do want to become part of our orchestra? Maybe they look at the orchestra and they see, you know, three, four Black people on stage, uh, in the case of African-Americans. Um, and they think, “well, this isn't for me.” So we need to change that. Is it also that we're not creating an environment where there are as few barriers as possible to come to an audition? And by that, I mean, not just come to the audition, receive the training, to prepare the possibility of a fellowship in a major orchestra, postgraduate training, uh, access to post-graduate training, for example, um, so that, um, we need to make sure that there is real equality of access. Um, and the way that the orchestra is looking at diversity is from, you know, many, many different lenses. So it's not just about, uh, representation of, um, particular one, one or other particular community, but, uh, in particular, uh, but as we're now speaking in particular, there are very few Black people in the, uh, in the Philadelphia Orchestra and that has to change.
TORI MARCHIONY: Yes, particularly important considering 42% of the Orchestra’s home city, Philadelphia is Black, while only about 3% of its musicians are. Now, I want to get into politics versus values because, it’s a charged time and it can be hard to have a humanist, values-based conversation. So how do you navigate that…do you just not have to worry about it at a certain point?
MATIAS TARNOPOLSKY: Yeah. I mean, I think you have to speak the truth and I think you have to be true to your values if others, I mean really, if others want to ascribe political motivations about basic human rights, then you know, so be it, you have to, you know, we're speaking about right and wrong, is it, is it really too much to ask in our society that every, every kid in the Philadelphia school district has access to great facilities, wifi, a hot meal, um, is that too much to ask? I mean, for some of the kids, the only hot meal is at school. Um, you know, and, and we're actually, I mean, what does it say about our society, the level of poverty just here in Philadelphia, you know, to speak up about it as a cultural organization to say, okay, we're going to have programs that shine a light on these issues in our society. We're going to make sure that every Philadelphia school teacher can come to our concerts for free. Um, that's hardly political. I mean, that's, that's just about right and wrong.
DAVONE TINES, SERMON
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was an excerpt of “You Want the Truth, but You Don’t Want to Know,” from X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, composed by Anthony Davis, and performed by Davóne Tines as part of a three-work cycle, “Sermon,” that Tines debuted with The Philadelphia Orchestra on the Digital Stage in May 2021.
TORI MARCHIONY: Did you have a sense as you were coming up through your clarinet learning years and then as you went on for your masters and college and all that, did you have a sense of how vocational the path would become? Like, I'm not clear on when things started to flip, but it's very clear now that like, community engagement is a huge focus of education for up and coming musicians. Did you sense that trend as you were coming up, that it would become, like, it almost sounds like missionary work sometimes the way that it's, it's posed,
MATIAS TARNOPOLSKY: I think I started seeing a shift about, you know, maybe 20 years ago, um, where that explicit connection was being made when school districts started reducing, that was probably 30 years ago now, reducing, um, support for music education programs in schools. And then there were the effects of it and then musical organizations, arts organizations, just had to step up. So, um, it is like this sort of missionary work. You have to have that missionary zeal, and it's fundamentally important. (00:15) You can't be an orchestra and be ignoring what's happening on your doorstep. In terms of kids, access to music, education, live performance, let alone larger social issues that you can shine a mirror on where organizations in the public good. We have musicians who are active in the community, you know, who you bump into at the supermarket, who the kids can see it, schools, um, you know, music is about connection.
WYNTON MARSALIS, IMPROVISATION
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was the improvisation by Wynton Marsalis that opened The Philadelphia Orchestra’s inaugural HearTOGETHER event on June 6, 2020. You may probably remember the potent energy of that time- protests for racial equity were erupting worldwide in the wake of the murders of Ahmad Auberry, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The concert brought the orchestra’s international community together for a healing conversation in music and words, to honor the preciousness of Black lives. It also marked a moment of public recommitment to creating a more inclusive and equitable future. More than a year later, it has evolved into this, HEAR, podcast.
TORI MARCHIONY: My last question is about something that you said, I believe in response to the COVID-19 crisis, um, but that you value being responsive over reactive, and I’m wondering how you manage to stay in that headspace of responsiveness when the stakes are so so high.
MATIAS TARNOPOLSKY: You got to really listen, listen, listen to what's happening around, you. Know, what the environment's telling you... have confidence in your ideas, not so much that they'll be right, but they're going to make things better. Trust your colleagues. I mean, you know, it's not just me, it's a team of people here, you know, and, um, you know, we try and get it right as often as, as often as we can. And, and COVID yeah, on March 12th, 20 needed a reaction. And what was that reaction? Let's get cameras in the house. Let's, let's, um, get this concert online, even if people aren't going to be there. Um, George Floyd needed a response and, uh, it's better to be in the space of response than a reaction because, you know, we're still very early in the rebuilding phase here. Uh, COVID is not over. Um, there is a long, long way to go and we've got to get audiences back. We've got to get the orchestra back on stage fully and properly and welcome everybody back. And every day, take more steps, uh, in that, in that journey, that includes being a more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible organization. Um, and
TORI MARCHIONY: I would argue that your moves to go to the Digital Stage that was actually responsive because reactive would have been going, Ah, and just canceling everything and waiting for it to end. So yeah, kudos.
MATIAS TARNOPOLSKY: All credit to the organization for jumping on the Digital Stage, because that really was the way we stayed connected powerfully with everybody who wanted and needed the solace of music.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Thanks so much for tuning in to the HearTOGETHER Podcast. I’m Tori Marchiony, and we’ll be back next month with more conversations about music, social justice, and all the life in between. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from YOU! Questions, criticism, compliments, and suggestions are all welcome. To play us out is a bit more of Michelle Cann performing Florence Price’s Piano Concerto No. 1. And be sure to stay tuned for another work by Price- her Symphony No. 4- which is a highlight of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s exciting Opening Weekend program as they return to in-person concerts. Till next time! Stay safe and be well.
FLORENCE PRICE, SYMPHONY NO.1