Posted on September 24, 2021

How Racial Anxiety Conquered an Orchestra and Crushed a Career

Aaron Sibarium, Washington Free Beacon, September 22, 2021

Most people haven’t heard of James Zimmermann, but most have heard him. A decorated musician with a long string of acoustic accolades, Zimmermann, 39, has made the sound of his clarinet difficult to avoid. {snip}

Zimmermann was also the principal clarinetist of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade—that is, until the orchestra fired him last February over accusations of racial harassment. To hear his accusers tell it, Zimmermann had insulted, intimidated, and even stalked his black colleagues, going so far as to menacingly drive by their homes. {snip}

But six of Zimmermann’s ex-colleagues and the orchestra’s own documents tell a very different story. They suggest that Zimmermann himself was the target of a witch hunt, instigated by a black oboist whom Zimmermann had stuck his neck out to help.


{snip} Zimmermann became an early victim of the ideological cold war that turned hot in the summer of 2020, when accusations of racism knocked journalistspoets, and political scientists from their loftiest perches. {snip}

That snowball was set in motion when Zimmermann stood up for merit-based hiring at the symphony. From New York to London to Vienna, orchestras around the world have faced calls to diversify their ensemble, sometimes through race-conscious means.{snip}

The Nashville Symphony was not immune to these pressures, having embarked on several grant-funded diversity initiatives in 2017. After the orchestra broke its own rules to hire an oboist many regarded as unqualified, Zimmermann took an almost obsessive stand. The result was a hushed discontent that crescendoed into crisis, as the orchestra tried and failed to contain the tensions it had created.

At the center of those tensions was Titus Underwood, who would become the first black principal oboist at a major U.S. orchestra. His rise marked the start of Zimmermann’s fall. It also marked the triumph of tokenism at the Nashville Symphony, which denied Underwood a chance to succeed on his own merits. In an ironic twist, it was Zimmermann’s zeal for meritocracy that helped Underwood rise in the first place.

Underwood joined the Nashville Symphony in 2017 as a temporary replacement for the outgoing principal oboist. To get the job permanently, he needed to win a blind audition held in March 2019. Underwood’s playing had been inconsistent since his arrival at the symphony, members of the Nashville Symphony’s woodwind section told the Washington Free Beacon, but he would now be given a chance to prove himself without any baggage—provided he remained anonymous.

But Underwood was inadvertently outed in the final round of the audition. {snip}

Underwood’s outing tipped the scales against him. The audition committee had been leaning toward a trial run, but backpedaled once they learned that the candidate had been struggling in the orchestra for over a year. Giancarlo Guerrero, the symphony maestro, was especially sour on Underwood, according to three members of the committee who stressed that principal oboe is one of the most important seats in any orchestra. At Guerrero’s urging, the committee agreed to send Underwood on his way without telling him what had happened.

Sickened by what he described as a “disgusting” breach of fairness, Zimmermann urged his colleagues to stick with their initial inclination and offer Underwood the trial period. “If Titus had remained anonymous, as he should have, he would have been given [a] rightly earned opportunity” to prove his mettle, Zimmermann wrote in an email to the committee the next day.

The orchestra relented and gave Underwood a two-week trial period, in keeping with terms of the orchestra’s union contract. If the committee was satisfied with the oboist’s performance during those two weeks, he’d be awarded the permanent position. However the committee ultimately voted, Underwood now had a chance to win the job based on merit, by the book.

But a vote was never held.

After the first trial week, Guerrero unilaterally appointed Underwood without the consent of the committee, a direct violation of the orchestra’s own rules. This unprecedented step, several musicians said, seemed to have been motivated by Underwood’s race.

Earlier in the week, Guerrero had called the entire committee into his office and urged them to vote early for Underwood, before the trial period was up, according to three members of the committee. When the committee refused, Guerrero began calling committee members into his office individually. “[M]eetings that were supposed to be about artistic merit and feedback turned into something else,” the president of the orchestra union, Dave Pomeroy, wrote in an email to colleagues.

That something else was “diversity,” said Jeff Bailey, a trumpet player on the committee. He and Zimmermann both recall a frazzled-looking Guerrero saying they “needed to trust him” and implying that outside pressure was being applied.


Underwood’s intonation issues added fuel to the fire. Woodwinds often stay after rehearsal to tune difficult passages, and the principal oboe is the leader of the woodwinds. Since Underwood was struggling in that role, Zimmermann frequently ended up asking him to stay late to finesse a section. Underwood seemed to take that personally, one woodwind said.

With tensions in the symphony rising, Underwood lodged a human resources complaint against Zimmermann.

The complaint described an incident that had taken place over a month before the botched audition and, as far as Zimmermann was concerned, had already been resolved. In early February 2019, Zimmermann had asked Underwood whether it would be ok for him, a white person, to use the N-word in his rendition of a rap song. Underwood said yes, but Zimmermann nonetheless apologized after singing the slur—”the N-word did not feel good,” he recalls telling Underwood.

{snip} In November 2019, the orchestra hired its first “equity manager;” two months later, a newly christened “equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging” team held a luncheon on the “racial power dynamics in American orchestras.” In an audio recording of the lunch, Underwood can be heard saying that all Americans “live in a system of white supremacy” that’s persisted since the founding.

The orchestra was also hiring more musicians sympathetic to this worldview, one of whom, Emilio Carlo, seemed to take an immediate dislike to Zimmermann, the clarinetist and other members of the orchestra said. An alum of various diversity programs and a close friend of Underwood’s, Carlo rebuffed Zimmermann’s efforts to get to know him, Zimmermann said. {snip}


Soon, Carlo and Underwood seeded a new narrative about Zimmermann: that he was not just racially insensitive but potentially predatory. {snip}

{snip} Underwood told HR representatives in December 2019 that Zimmermann seemed “obsessed” with him and Carlo. Zimmermann had been asking detailed questions about Carlo and Underwood’s living situations {snip}