Posted on July 28, 2021

Asians Are Represented in Classical Music. But Are They Seen?

Javier C. Hernandez, New York Times, July 21, 2021

As reports of anti-Asian hate crimes spread in the United States earlier this year, David Kim, a violist in the San Francisco Symphony, found himself despondent.

Kim, who is Korean American, was already disturbed by what he saw as widespread racism in classical music. He believed Asian string players were marginalized and treated “like cattle,” as he put it in a recent interview. {snip}

And he felt his white colleagues in San Francisco, who make up 83 percent of the orchestra, did not share his urgency about building a culture more welcoming to Asian, Black and Latino players.


By some measures, artists with roots in China, Japan, South Korea and other countries are well represented in classical music. They win top prizes at competitions and make up a substantial share of orchestras and conservatories. Stars like the Chinese American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Japanese American violinist Midori and the Chinese pianist Lang Lang are among the most sought-after performers in the world.

Yet the success of some Asian artists obscures the fact that many face routine racism and discrimination, according to interviews with more than 40 orchestra players, soloists, opera singers, composers, students, teachers and administrators.

Asian artists encounter stereotypes that their music-making is soulless and mechanical. They are portrayed as exotic and treated as outsiders in a world with its main lineage from Europe. They are accused of besmirching cultural traditions that aren’t theirs and have become targets of online harassment and racial slurs.

“You’re not always allowed to be the kind of artist you want to be,” said Nina Shekhar, 26, an Indian American composer who said her music is often wrongly characterized as having Indian attributes. “It feels very invalidating.”

The number of Asian soloists and orchestra musicians has swelled in recent decades, even as Black and Latino artists remain severely underrepresented. But in other parts of the industry, including opera, composition, conducting, arts administration and the boards of leading cultural institutions, Asians are scarce. A lack of role models has exacerbated the problem, artists say, making success in these fields seem elusive.

“At times, you feel like an endangered species,” said Xian Zhang, the music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Zhang is one of a small number of Asian female conductors leading major ensembles.

Zhang, who is Chinese American, said she has at times had difficulty persuading male musicians to take her seriously, including during appearances as a guest conductor in Europe. “They don’t quite know how to react seeing an Asian woman on the podium telling them what to do,” she said.

{snip}Musicians have formed advocacy groups and have called on cultural organizations to add Asian leaders and to more prominently feature Asian artists and composers.

But classical music has long been resistant to evolution. Deep-seated stereotypes about Asians continue to surface. In June, the eminent violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman was widely denounced after he invoked racist stereotypes about Asians during a Juilliard master class. He later apologized.

Even some of the industry’s most successful artists say a climate of casual racism has affected their careers. Sumi Jo, 58, a renowned coloratura soprano from South Korea, described having several roles rescinded because stage directors thought she was not white enough.


Over time, Asian artists gained a foothold in orchestras and on the concert circuit. By 2014, the last year for which data is available, musicians of Asian descent made up about 9 percent of large ensembles, according to the League of American Orchestras; in the United States, Asians represent about 6 percent of the population. In renowned groups like the New York Philharmonic, the number is even higher: Asians now account for a third of that orchestra. (In Europe, it’s often a different story: In the London Symphony Orchestra, for example, three of 82 players, or less than 4 percent, have Asian roots, while Asians make up more than 18 percent of London’s population.)

Yet racist portrayals of Asian artists have persisted. Some have been told by conductors that they look like computer engineers, not classical musicians. Others have been described by audition committees as too weak and youthful to be taken seriously. Still others have been told their names are too foreign to pronounce or remember.


Female artists of Asian descent say they face additional obstacles, including stereotypes that they are exotic and obedient. Soyeon Kate Lee, 42, a Korean American pianist, said a conductor once described her in front of other orchestra leaders as “cheap and good” and suggested she perform a lap dance.

Xenophobic suggestions that Asians are taking away orchestra jobs or spots at conservatories are also common. Yuka Kadota, a violinist for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, said Asian musicians are seen as “some sort of invasive species, like carp or murder hornets.”


Even as people of Asian descent make strides in orchestras, they remain underrepresented in many parts of the music industry, including conducting, composition and opera.


Arts organizations have in recent years vowed to feature works by a wider range of composers. But artists of Asian descent say that, aside from concerts to celebrate holidays such as the Lunar New Year, they have largely been left out.

Works by Asian composers comprise about 2 percent of pieces planned by American orchestras in the 2021-22 season, according to an analysis of 88 orchestras by the Institute for Composer Diversity at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

The dearth of Asian artists is particularly striking in opera, which has long struggled with a lack of racial diversity. At the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts organization in the United States, 14 of 233 singers announced for principal roles next season, or about 6 percent, are of Asian descent. Four appear in the same production: an abridged holiday version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” (Asians make up about 14 percent of New York City’s population.)

There are now a large number of Asians in important conservatory vocal programs; the Manhattan School of Music said that 47 percent of the students currently in its vocal arts department are of Asian descent. But they are not anywhere close to that well represented on opera stages.


When Asians win spots in opera productions, they are often typecast in roles such as Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly” or the titular princess in “Turandot.” {snip}


Yet significant challenges remain. David Kim, the violist at the San Francisco Symphony who is questioning his career, said he has grown tired of clashing with colleagues over issues like the tone of public statements on racism. He also feels the orchestra does not do enough to feature composers of color.

Kim, who has played in the ensemble since 2009, said he is grappling with a sense of loss after realizing that his work as a classical musician no longer aligns with his values. “I’m not proud of being a part of an industry that is so self-unaware, that’s so entitled and has so little regard for social justice,” he said.

He says he believes change will not come until classical music — “racism disguised as art,” he called it — reckons with its legacy of intolerance.