Professional clarinetist James Zimmermann joins the pod to discuss how he was canceled and fired for challenging woke ideology at the Nashville Symphony. James and Inez also discuss how ideological concerns and excessive catering to the lowest common denominator are eroding the beauty of classical music and undermining meritocracy in our nation’s symphonies. James defends the enduring value of classics by Dead White Men.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. Welcome to 2023 and the new year. My first guest this year is going to be James Zimmermann. James Zimmermann has a remarkable history as a clarinet player. He was the principal clarinetist at the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade, for 12 years, to be exact, and he played at Barack Obama’s second inaugural. He’s done the impossible, in a sense, he has made a good living and a career as a musician, which is very, very difficult to do. You may not have heard his name, but you’ve probably heard his clarinet at some point in your life.
But unfortunately, he was also at the center of a controversy, let’s call it, at the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which is why he is now a freelance musician, because that orchestra fired him. We’re going to talk about that, about his experience getting canceled, but we’re also going to talk about the direction of symphonies and classical music and how this ideology that’s unfortunately seeping into all of our institutions is affecting the symphonies of America and beyond our borders and how it’s affecting music, and specifically classical music. Welcome, James Zimmermann, to High Noon, it’s a pleasure to have you on here.
Thanks a lot for having me. I appreciate it.
Let’s just go through your story in terms of how you lost your job with the symphony. There was this long back and forth, but at the end, you were accused of things that you didn’t do. The backdrop to all of this was this ideology, this anti-racist harassment training, quote unquote, and the ideology in 2020. This all went down during and after the summer of 2020 when, of course, there was the so-called racial reckoning, so what happened? You had been playing there for 12 years, what happened to make you lose your job?
Well, the interesting thing about the cancellation is that the entire thing took place and culminated before the pandemic hit. The entire episode transpired before the mainstream really knew that this stuff was going on and then when the orchestra went into its blackout period during the pandemic, they used this cancellation story as a means of staying relevant and on people’s radar, because they weren’t playing concerts for a year and a half. Just keep in mind as we go through the story that this was happening in an era before George Floyd, before the pandemic, before the huge racial reckoning, which made it very difficult for me to convince anybody that this ideology was problematic and that if we were to pursue the direction that was being advocated by the critical race theorists that we were going to have some real problems.
Like you said, I joined the orchestra in 2008. I had a great run here in Nashville, which is a medium-sized orchestra. It’s not the New York Philharmonic, it’s not the Chicago Symphony, but Nashville has a vibrant music recording scene, a vibrant teaching scene, so I was always interested in having a diverse musical career, not just being a symphony player, but also a session player and a teacher and getting to play on all kinds of different types of musical projects, from country to advertising, to television to film, to pretty much anything imaginable, so I really liked living in Nashville as soon as I got here. It’s still my home; it’s where I’ve raised all my children, and it’s a wonderful place to live if you’re a family man like I am. The turning point in the Nashville Symphony’s ideological takeover was the election of Donald Trump, which led to an internal reckoning at the symphony that we were institutionally responsible for years and years of racism and we needed to do something about that.
It was true that the Nashville Symphony was mostly white. You would think that orchestras were heavily represented by Asians, but that’s actually not true. Most orchestras, I think nationwide, the last statistic I saw was they’re about 90% white and 7% Asian and about 3% Black, so we set out to try to do anything we could to diversify the orchestra. The orchestra has about 80 players. This is very difficult to do because the way that orchestras staff their orchestras is by the audition process, blind auditions. This is something that is, I think, the most meritocratic hiring process I have ever seen in any industry. It means that if you want to get a job in an orchestra, you don’t have to have any qualifications besides your playing. It’s like an American Idol contest where you can apply, you can show up. There is some resume screening, they’ll look at your credentials and they’ll look at your pedagogy and your education and see if you can come audition live for this thing.
But once you get there, you’re behind a screen playing orchestral excerpts all by yourself and they do round after round, whittling it down like a sports tryout until there’s only one person left. It’s very difficult to give anyone an advantage or a disadvantage in this situation. Screens are there to protect candidates from racial bias, age bias, gender bias, and it’s highly effective. The only way that you can hand-pick a musician is if you’re going to temporarily appoint a musician and the Nashville Symphony did everything it could to appoint minority players whenever possible. We were making some choices in contract negotiations because musicians are a unionized body and we bargain collectively with management and we were all on the same page that we needed to have fully blind auditions, that we need to talk about how we are going to protect ourselves from accusations of racism and sexism, and everyone in the industry more or less agrees that fully blind auditions are the way to go.
I was very active as a negotiator starting around the time of Trump’s election, when we did not have fully blind auditions; we had unscreened final rounds, which meant when you would reach the final round of an audition and you’d have maybe three players left vying for the same position, the screen would come down, you would read the players’ resumes, you would get a look at these people. We agreed in contract negotiations that this was going to lead to bias, so I advocated for screens to go up in the finals, we did that. And then we had a very strange audition snafu in the year 2019 with a Black player who was temporarily appointed to the orchestra to its most important position, principal oboe. This is the instrument that plays the tuning note at the beginning of every concert in rehearsal, who had performed well, but his colleagues, myself included, had reservations about his being a permanent member of the orchestra based on his musical qualifications, but this player did win the blind audition fully.
During deliberations over whether or not to extend a full probationary year or a short trial period to this minority player, his identity was compromised. The music director — the conductor, music director’s a fancy word for conductor — the music director told the committee of nine of this man’s peers that we were going to send him home empty-handed and never tell anybody about this again and held another audition and look for a better player. To my great shock and awe, every one of the committee members rolled on this player except me. I raised my hand and said, “Absolutely not. If it’s found out that we backstabbed this guy, we’re all going to get sued, we’re all going to go down, and the reputation of the orchestra is going to go into the tank.”
We did reextend a trial period to this player and, despite a very substandard performance by this player, he was hired without the confirming vote of the musicians, and he launched a smear campaign against me because I wasn’t going to go along with his assessment of the orchestra as a racist institution that was trying to get rid of him because he was Black. It was a very difficult situation, which is fabulously documented in the Washington Free Beacon by Aaron Sibarium, who did some terrific reporting on the situation, but that’s the background. It was a blown audition that management and most of the orchestra players on the committee saw as an opportunity to get rid of somebody whose playing they didn’t like.
These questions are so difficult in this current political environment to talk about, because that’s something like… Obviously, there are objective standards of liking or disliking somebody’s playing, they can either be technically excellent or technically poor, but there are subjective elements to art. There are how somebody imbues their playing with one sense or another that a particular audience might love and a particular audience might hate, it’s so difficult to talk about these things in that context. But then you were accused of essentially making insensitive jokes in front of this guy. You’ve defended yourself and everyone can go and listen to James’s side of the story.
The reason I direct you to James’s side of the story is because the orchestra itself put out what is essentially a video patting itself on the back and saying, “We have overcome systemic racism because we have gotten rid of,” they don’t give his name, but they’re very clearly talking about you, James. They’re like, “Basically, we got rid of James and now we are on the way to becoming an anti-racist orchestra.” Why do you think, forgetting for a moment about the personal details between this guy and you, why do you think that the orchestra and essentially the higher-up people in the orchestra that have very little to do with the actual production of the music, how did they behave during all of this and how do you think their behavior was impacted by the larger political context?
Well, good question. The reason that the mob came after me was because I was playing offense. My cancellation was not the cancellation of an innocent bystander; I wanted to get into the arena and fight this ideology in any way that I could. I had my suspicions, having played next to this player who I thought was a really talented player with tons of upside and great pedagogy. The guy had gone to Julliard and the Cleveland Institute of Music, and he was a wonderful player, a little different, which I didn’t necessarily think his different style had anything to do with his Blackness, but he was an unusual, quirky player, but I liked it. I had an interesting vantage point as the principal clarinetist, because if you think of score order from highest-sounding instruments to lowest-sounding instruments, the flute is on the top, then there’s the oboe, then there’s the clarinet right underneath the oboe. He’s right above me in the hierarchy, so I’m literally supporting his sound all the time, which means listening intently to everything this guy does.
I had the suspicion from listening to his nonverbal communication and vibing with him all the time that there was something seriously wrong with this guy’s thinking about his approach to playing. I tested his boundaries with a couple of jokes here and there and none of them landed, so I stopped it immediately. I got this idea that this guy wants to cancel somebody. This guy is really passionate about what he wants to do, he wants to take action. I saw this weird opportunity. This is documented in the Free Beacon, but I do want to tell this one small part of the story since you asked why did he go after me. I grew up not as a classical, classically trained person. I only chose to pursue the orchestra industry because it was going to give me a chance to do the impossible, which is to have a successful life as a musician.
I did not want to be touring, I did not want to be starving. I did not want to wonder where my next paycheck was coming from, so the orchestra, while not my favorite avenue of the arts, was going to afford me the chance to be a good husband and father. I grew up listening to rap and alternative and MTV in the early to mid ’90s. I was a huge fan of the Notorious BIG and Snoop Dogg; this is what I was listening to when I was 12. My parents hated it, but I really, really liked it. This guy who canceled me was one of the only other people I had ever met in the classical music industry with as much knowledge of hip hop as me. We were joking around one time, and I was like, “Man, sometimes after work I’m so tired at 10:30 at night that I just have to blast Biggie and rap along on the way home to stay awake so I don’t fall asleep in the car after a concert.”
He laughed and he said, “man, I’d love to hear that.” I said, “Dude, I’m not going to do that in front of you because I’m not going to drop the N-bomb in front of a Black guy.” He said, “oh, don’t worry about it, it’s fine.” I said, “Are you serious?” I had the sense that if I did it, he would rat me out, so I did it. It was a terrible decision, but a couple weeks after that was the audition where he won it, got stabbed in the back, and I saved his career and instead of thanking me, he took me to HR and canceled me. That is why he came after me, because I answered his request to rap a Biggie song in front of him. After that, he came up with a retroactive narrative, every joke, every comment that I had made about his hair. The people listening to this who can’t see, I have long hair and I’m a hair aficionado, I’ve done hair modeling; he has fantastic hair. The only other guy in the orchestra who could compete with me about hair.
One time, I made a comment that he really did not like; I don’t even know what it was. We were getting ready for a big concert, and I said, “Man, how are you going to style your hair?” He went to HR and said, “He’s always talking about my hair, it’s racially insensitive,” and it was comments like that. You asked why HR and management and everyone behaved so strangely during the course of this whole fiasco is because no one was willing to admit how deranged people that are really committed to this ideology can become. I was like, “I barely believe this is happening either, but it’s absolutely happening.” I had an army of players around this guy from the orchestra saying, “This guy makes our life very difficult. He doesn’t follow us, he doesn’t pay attention to anything that’s going on around him, he’s solely focused on himself because he feels lonely out there.”
That’s one thing that I really did believe in the midst of this whole cancellation and whatnot, was that when critical race theorists, woke people, I hate the word woke, but it’s easy to use, they really do believe that they are alone. They really do believe that they are oppressed. They really do believe that they are offended by all this stuff. I couldn’t manage to convince anybody in management that is what was happening, so they were left with a real problem on their hands, because there was a racial discrimination lawsuit brewing and there was threats of this lawsuit that if he were not given the job that he rightfully earned, he was going to sue the orchestra. That was going to mean the conductor would get fired and probably the CEO was going to get fired and it was going to be so bad for the reputation of the institution that we would all suffer, we would all go down. There would be pay cuts, there would be just horrendous press.
It was just easier for them to go after the white guy who said the N-word in front of a Black guy. It was much easier to sacrifice one musician who was not going to go along with the ideology than it was to fire the conductor for trying to kick a Black guy out of the orchestra over nothing. I see why management did what they did —
Even though you were the only person who actually stood up for him in that actual moment of, I wouldn’t call it racial discrimination, but I just… In Aaron’s reporting, he’s been a guest on this podcast, but in Aaron’s reporting, he confirms with a lot of other people in the orchestra that essentially this guy was on the bubble. There were a lot of people in the orchestra who thought that his playing was not a good fit for the job and the role he had inside the orchestra, that they were at the end of their rope in terms of thinking this guy is not a good fit for the permanent position, and then essentially, they did actually attempt to subvert a true meritocratic process, not because this guy was Black, but because they didn’t like him before and they were hoping to get a new person to try out.
When they discovered that it was in fact the same person that they had temporarily hired, they really didn’t want to extend that additional trial afterwards and you were the one person who actually stood up for that process, that truly blind and meritocratic process that, as you say, it’s not even duplicatable in a lot of different fields. It’s very, very difficult when you’re doing, for example, in any other field, including mine or in any corporate job in America, you are doing it on the basis of resume plus face-to-face or over Zoom interview. It’s very difficult to hide the identity of the applicants and that’s such a thorough way, but because of the particularities of the job that you were doing, you really could have this ultimately perfectly meritocratic process. It seems like an element of tragedy that you were the one person who stood up for the meritocratic process and for this guy in that process, and then you were the convenient scapegoat to avoid the fallout from what everybody else wanted to do during that process.
It’s worth mentioning about this hiring process that the audition is only part of the process. If you picture there’s a player on stage alone, no one knows who the person is, and they’re playing a solo from a Beethoven Symphony, just an excerpted solo all alone. The real job is nothing like this. When you’re really playing the solo, there’s an audience watching you, there are 80 other people on stage that you have to blend with. An audition doesn’t tell you anything about how good you are at that stuff. When the audition player wins, then they get a probationary year, because this happens all the time that, well, not all the time, but more frequently now than, say, 20 years ago, a player will come out of the conservatory, they have excellent technique, they can play great in a practice room, they can play great in an audition, but then you sit them down in a concert and they have stage fright, they don’t have good social skills, they’re not great listeners, so that’s why we evaluate players for an entire year after the audition.
At the end of this blind audition where we had already played with that candidate for two years and what we were anticipating we needed to do was give him a two-week trial period, that really is a conundrum right there, because everybody, when we found out it was him, said, “Oh boy, why do we need to give him two more weeks? We’ve played 100 weeks with this guy and we already know it’s not going well. Doesn’t it seem like stringing him along unfairly to give him two more weeks if we’re already convinced that he is not a great fit?” My contention in the heat of the moment was, “Look, this guy thinks that we’re all against him because he’s Black, he thinks that the system is rigged against him, but he has just beaten the system. That is going to change his confidence, that’s going to change the way he perceives himself. He can now say, ‘When the screen was up, I proved my mettle against a candidate pool of 200 people, you guys have to take me seriously,’ and we should have taken him seriously.”
All he had to do was come to this week after the audition, knock it out of the park and it would have been a slam dunk, but he did not knock it out of the park. He was a nervous wreck, and he had an army of social justice organizations behind him, management panicked and gave him the job instead of facing a lawsuit. And then this player, after he was given a probationary period, became unstoppable and he went after me, he started holding struggle sessions. People are leaving these struggle sessions in tears during the pandemic. It was truly a disgusting environment. They started hiring new inclusion managers upstairs to initiate diversity trainings, and it was the circus. We went from being a 13-time Grammy award-winning orchestra, which I was very, very proud to be a part of, to a complete circus in the span of a couple months. I’ve never seen one player given so much power and influence, especially when the one player was universally considered to be too weak to play in the orchestra. It was really a fascinating thing.
What happened after that was anybody with any mobility in management started leaving the institution. They went and got other jobs. I tried to do the same thing, I actually tried to quit. A couple days before I got fired, I said to the chief operating officer, “White flag is up, I can’t do this. Just let me come in and we’ll talk about my resignation, we can sign a non-disclosure agreement, and I’ll leave.” I was working full-time at Vanderbilt at the time, at their music school, I had tons of sessions going on in my freelance career. I was really well set up to leave because I saw the writing on the wall for myself. I had invested in a rental property; I was going to be fine, and I tried to quit. But unfortunately, to make a statement and to cool the temperature of the entire dumpster fire, it was just easier for them to sacrifice me, which I am still very burned about, but almost three years later, thinking about it, less and less. Very, very painful to get stabbed in the back like this.
What you’re describing is not unfamiliar, I think, to people outside the music world. It sounds pretty similar to some of the things that happened at The New York Times when they had this series of struggle sessions. It sounds like what’s increasingly happening throughout the private sector that usually, there are new entrants to the organization and usually younger and coming out of universities, and in your case, conservatories, and then there’s this curl up in a bowl reaction. It’s very similar to the reaction of university presidents, there’s this fear of the accusation, no matter how ridiculous the accusation is, of racism, of systemic racism. How do you think, in a broader sense, that kind of fear can be stemmed in orchestras, not just the one that you were a part of, but I’m sure that…
This particular incident was spearheaded by an individual, but now you just listed all these institutional forces that came in behind him. He had the army of the DEI organizations, the symphony then hires these HR managers, starts doing these trainings with these usually outside organizations, consultant organizations, that’s happening everywhere. How do you think that’s going to affect the viability of symphonies and of the continued ability of people to be able to make a living playing classical music and for the audience, the people like me, to be able to pay and enjoy high-quality classical music?
Well, this question you’re asking about how can we keep symphonies viable has been at the forefront of all symphonies as long as I was in the business. The argument has always been the audience is dying. The people that grew up with music in their homes, that grew up with classical music as a part of the average person’s life, that generation is dying off, so how are we going to get people to keep coming to orchestras? How can we keep the lights on? It’s a difficult problem, for sure, because the ever-shortening attention spans of people these days with the advent of social media is really tough. It’s tough to get somebody to sit and listen to a Beethoven Symphony for 40 minutes unless you’re really trained to understand it. During the pandemic, when orchestras worldwide were not playing, in order to stay relevant, they tried to jump on this bandwagon of anti-racism.
Orchestras made pledges because every orchestra was mostly in the same boat, they’re playing music that is mostly by European composers, dead white men is how we describe them in the business. There were a lot of pledges: yes, we’re going to diversify our orchestras, yes, we’re going to play more modern works by composers of color and women and trans composers and all this stuff. That type of programming, I think for the short term, did draw a lot of fundraising, a lot of government grants to keep the lights on in the short term, but now that this has been going on for a few years and wokeness has, well, it’s cemented itself in institutions all across the country, but I think on a personal level, most people have figured out that it’s kind of a scam on a certain level. I don’t see what the newest answer is going to be. The current thing, capital, the current thing, in quotes, has always been something that orchestras have tried to glom onto to stay relevant.
I don’t know how we’re going to stem the anti-racism stuff that has been baked really hard into orchestras in the past few years, like you said, through the institutionalization of outside consultancies and players who have been trained for social justice in conservatories. It’s really not going away anytime soon. Orchestras appear to be doing other more lucrative forms of programming, like what you and I were talking about on Twitter a few weeks ago, that instead of playing Handel’s Messiah during the week of Christmas, we’re going to play Harry Potter. Now, nobody is dissing Harry Potter — it’s a great concert, it makes a ton of money — but there’s something demoralizing about, “Hey, Handel and the Hallelujah chorus, take a backseat, we’ll be playing the Order of the Phoenix this week instead.” That’s not what you go to a conservatory to do. You don’t practice hours and hours and hours a day to back up the music of Michael Jackson or the music of Whitney Houston or the music of the Beatles.
You go to play the Beethoven Symphonies, you want to play the Mozart Requiem, you want to play Brahms Symphonies, you want to play Handel’s Messiah as a musician. It’s just demoralizing for musicians and it’s discouraging some of the most talented players that we have across the country and around the world from pursuing the orchestral field as a viable career, because who wants to sit there and get blasted for being white all day? I decided I didn’t want to, and I decided I’d rather go be a computer programmer than be followed around backstage eavesdropping on everything that I’m saying, which is what was happening. It’s not worth it, it’s not psychologically a good environment for me to be in, so that’s why I tried to leave because I did not have the answer to the question you’re asking, how is this going to stay viable? I’ve got to do this for 30 more years before I retire, I’m not sure there’s going to be anything left at the end.
You say it’s affecting the programming, as well. I guess my question is whether either one of these things actually brings the audience. I know what my reaction to it is. I don’t go to the symphony to hear Harry Potter, but clearly a lot of people do, because those kind of concerts, pops concerts, are very popular and they make a lot of money. Actually, the only example I can think of, it’s not in direct symphony, but in ballet where there’s something that is great that it’s overlapping with the pops aspect is the Nutcracker, which probably accounts for some absurd percentage of ballet revenues every year, but is actually a great piece of, and again, not to diss Harry Potter, I like that score, actually, I like listening to it, but it’s not at the same level. I almost feel gaslighted by people, that’s what happened when we were talking on Twitter, there’s a bunch of people underneath saying, “Well, actually, this is a really complex thing to play. This is just as serious a piece to either play or to listen to as Handel’s Messiah.”
That’s just sad.
Sorry, I’m getting lost in what I actually care about here personally, which is really just irritating to me. But my question to you would be, does either one of these things actually work over the long term? Because the fear would twofold, one, that on the woke side, it will erode the quality of the orchestra and the musicians in the orchestra. As you said, really talented musicians are going to end up going elsewhere, whether because they’re being harassed through this wokeness thing or they don’t like the programming anymore and, of course, getting rid of meritocracy, to some degree, will always compromise the quality at the end of the day.
There’s that track of it and then also this pops track of it, it seems like a really good way to temporarily make some money, but it doesn’t solve the long-term problem, which is there’s still not a lot of people who are actually investing in classical music. I don’t know. I’m rambling a bit here. I know that you said you don’t have the answer, but I think you said you don’t the answer as a musician, that’s why you got out. If you were king of the universe in classical music and you were writing a best practices for funding and running an orchestra, what do you think would be some solutions to try to this problem, before they all disappear?
Well, you mentioned quality and you mentioned the difference between pops music and classical music. When I first got into the symphony game in the late 2000s, the professional symphony game, pops concerts were a hybrid of classical music and pops music. Say we would play a concert of Broadway show tunes, we would always begin the concert with some kind of serious overture, some kind of Mozart overture or maybe even a concerto of some kind to show the audience, “Hey, presumably you showed up to this pops concert because you want to hear pops, but what we really do is classical music here. We’re going to just play you a couple things, just bear with us for the next 10 minutes while we play the Magic Flute Overture. If you like this, you should come hear our real stuff.” Orchestras approached pops as a lesser quality art form than the classics.
That changed at some point in the mid-2010s to we didn’t play overtures anymore, we didn’t do concertos, we just played pops. We didn’t try to alienate the audience by saying, “Hey, you’re here at our second-rate product, we want you to come to our main thing.” There was even internally inside the business, a flattening of the quality of the repertoire. The result of which is what you and I were talking about a few weeks ago like, “Hey, John Williams’s Harry Potter is just as complex and wonderful as Handel’s Messiah,” which, I disagree completely. That’s not a slight against John Williams, he’s a wonderful composer. He’s arguably done more for the symphony business than any one person has in the last 10, 20 years because every orchestra plays the music of John Williams concerts. But the effort to use that as a wide net to cultivate symphony appreciators, that effort has been abandoned. Just thought that was worth mentioning, that the orchestras have changed the way that they see programming, they’re just desperate at this point.
The interesting thing also about blind auditions, I think you might be interested in this, that is a relatively recent innovation in the hiring process. 50 years ago, there were no blind auditions and orchestras were almost all male. The union says, “We need to give every musician that’s in our union an equal chance to be employed by a symphony, let’s put screens up,” and very quickly, the distribution between men and women reached 50%. I think actually, many orchestras are more female than male now. It didn’t help minorities, though, so what does that say? That was one of my questions that I had the gall to ask when we were really trying to dig down deeply into these issues during contract negotiations, like, “We put up screens, it helped women, but it didn’t help African Americans. Why is that?” The woke people will say, “Well, that’s because there’s still some racism somewhere, because if we don’t get equal outcomes, that’s the evidence of the racism.”
I said, “Maybe there was real sexism that needed to be solved by a screen, but we have other problems that are blocking Black players from having the right opportunities.” You see universities picking up the slack by giving more scholarships and better opportunities and there are diversity programs at universities all over the place, and orchestras have fellowships for underrepresented minorities, that’s been the approach. My confusion was I thought orchestras were doing this just to stave off the accusations of racism as opposed to fixing real racism. I never really believed that there was any systemic racism at the Nashville Symphony because we had done so much in our communities, in our schools, and showcasing Black soloists, up-and-coming young Black people that are super talented, we had great relationships with all of these organizations, but it still wasn’t enough. We really just needed to fire somebody and make a statement and virtue signal as loudly as possible. I don’t think that’s the long-term solution.
So, what would I do if I were managing orchestras? I don’t know, I still just don’t really know. I’ve tried not to think about it, because just thinking about the business is too painful still. I don’t mean to play the world’s smallest violin for myself here, but it’s kind of difficult to hear the sound of classical music. Even if I’m out in public and I hear the Nutcracker, I’m just like, “Damn,” it doesn’t feel like Christmas unless I’m playing the Nutcracker 15 times in December, that’s part of Christmas for me. Like you said, that’s a wonderful piece of repertoire that is a revenue cash cow for ballets, you’re absolutely right. If I’m not mistaken, don’t quote me on this, but almost all of the Nashville Ballet’s revenue comes from the Nutcracker. That funds their more risky programs that they do all year long that don’t make as much money, but are artistically totally worth doing, but we just need something to pay the bills.
A lot of orchestras, I think, are saying, “Well, we need to turn them into more part-time groups, which are made up of more freelancers and we can’t really pay health insurance anymore, we can’t fund a full-time group, so we need to just put together temporary orchestras from freelancers,” but what’s that going to do to quality? It’s like saying, “Let’s have the New York Yankees, but let’s just use a bunch of dads with regular jobs to bat lead-off.” It’s not going to be good for the quality of the team. You need to have people that are devoted fully to doing this job, practicing hours and hours a day. They don’t have to have other jobs; that’s how we have a good orchestra is to make it full-time. But I see in the future, just a return to amateur hour, which that was enough for me to bail.
I’m really happy with the level of expertise I’ve amassed, and I gave everything from age 16 to 25 to have a chance to do this. I auditioned against 300 people for my job; I think that indicates that I’m a quality player. I was put on tenure track, I had no trouble getting tenure, I had no trouble getting all kinds of accolades, doing all the things I wanted to do. I always thought that that was because I was a good player, not because I’m a white man, I thought it was meritocratic. But now the tables turn, and all these players are being told that we’re in the orchestra because of privilege. Yeah, I was privileged growing up, I had show business parents. I was in a Broadway show when I was nine. I did jingle singing, I did acting, I was a professional dancer. I have just a ton of privilege. I’m an only child. My parents in the Jersey suburbs drove me into New York to do all this stuff, take lessons at Julliard, Manhattan School of Music, tons of privilege.
I also practiced for eight hours a day for a decade. That’s meritocracy, a combination of privilege and grit. I don’t really know what to say to this guy in the Nashville Symphony that really beat the system and then got screwed. I’m sure somebody like that really does feel like there is a problem in the system, but the problem wasn’t in the system, it’s in the individuals running it. But like I said earlier, holding people accountable who are at the top of the food chain is a disaster for the institution. It’s easier to sacrifice somebody at the bottom. That’s a ramble, too, but I really do feel in my heart some sadness about the industry at large, because like you said, I love symphonies, I love the music, I love the sound of an orchestra in $100 plus million concert hall we have here, there’s absolutely nothing like it. As much as I never listened to classical music recreationally, when I’m there in the building with all those vibrations flowing through my body, that’s why I devoted my life to it.
I’m pretty sure I could have been successful in a way that would have earned me a ton more money. I probably could have been an investment banker or a lawyer if I wanted to. I had good grades, I could have gone to an Ivy League, maybe, I was on the bubble for that. But I chose to do quality music at the highest possible level, not for money. That’s a prerequisite for being an artist. I just thought I figured out this genius way to make art and not starve and it was an orchestra. Really, looking back on it, I do have some pride about having accomplished it, because like you said at the very beginning, it is kind of the impossible. I love to tell my friends every time I move to a new city, people are like, “What you do?” “Oh, I play clarinet in the orchestra.” They’re like, “Is that even possible?” It’s like, “Yeah, let me tell you how it’s possible.” “How did you even get into the orchestra?” “Well, I went to school, I auditioned for it.”
It’s fascinating. Here’s the answer: we have to make classical music fascinating to people. I just don’t know how to get there, but that is the answer, just to get people excited about it. Because these symphonies of Beethoven, like Beethoven’s 5th, the one that starts ba ba ba ba, that everyone knows, there are themes in that about man versus fate that are never going out of style and understanding how Beethoven 5 works really does enrich your life. I sound like a symphony salesman at this point, but it’s really true. We just have to figure out a way to reinvigorate people’s fascination with the sound of classical music in a concert hall. The experience of putting on nice clothes, sitting down, paying attention, watching these people dressed up in the highest possible form of male fashion, tails, tuxedos, looking dignified, doing something at the expert level, that’s what excites people.
Everyone knows now, and this is a real disservice to Black players, everyone will now assume in 2023 that if they see a Black person on stage that they were shoved in there because of ideology. That’s a huge disservice to Black players because the meritocracy has been defeated and now, we all operate under the assumption that these people are being shoved in on skin color, which to me sounds a little bit racist. I just had so much trouble trying to penetrate people’s thinking about this in the pre-George Floyd America. But when that all went down and I looked on TV and saw my downtown being burned, the courthouse of Nashville, just a few blocks from the Symphony Center and the parking lot covered in graffiti, I said to myself, “See, I told you so. I told you guys that this ideology carries behind it enough force to bring the country to its knees,” and no one believed me. I felt, despite being canceled, unemployed, and totally broken, quite vindicated. But to answer your question, I don’t know how we’re going to keep it viable.
It struck me that you could have said that they’re the… That’s what I think I’ve been trying to get at inartfully this podcast, but you’ve really just brought it together for me. I think these two things are connected, the race away from anything that has in front of it, a barrier, something that’s really difficult, that requires an enormous amount of dedication and skill, yes, and luck, but also combined with talent and skill and competence, those people can only really be selected by a meritocracy. But it’s the same thing from the listener’s perspective, we are now told that ideology is enough, and this is true across so many fields, that we don’t need to do anything hard, because we can excuse away anything that’s difficult by pretending that there’s some kind of systemic barrier about it.
We can pretend that the audience doesn’t want to listen to Beethoven’s 5th, and they want to listen to Harry Potter. We can pretend that’s because it’s a bunch of dead white males, and it’s not, quote unquote, relevant to everyone rather than to say, “Actually, these things have what is perhaps the most relevant, most universal themes,” but it requires some attention and difficulty to get there. It’s not presented as an easy ideological platter where you can just select your reasons for why things are not working out for you or why it’s difficult to sit down for 40 minutes and actually focus on a piece of music that has complexity. I really do think these things are very intimately tied together. In fact, you could have said what you just said, not just about classical music, but about basically anything in the Western canon.
Theater, reading, any of it.
The cannon of philosophy, of literature. There is this really gaslighting feeling of people saying there is no objective hierarchy of quality. It’s not to say that we don’t all enjoy some things that are not of the highest quality because they’re fun and easy. You started out by saying you love to listen to Biggie, there’s great pop music. It’s fun, I like listening to it, but it doesn’t demand of me as a listener the same thing as a piece by Beethoven. It’s a lie to say that that’s true for the musician or for the listener, I think.
What you say about quality, this came up in conversations when the orchestra was trying to understand how to best serve minority players, especially the ones who are saying… Intonation was a real big topic. Intonation, in other words, can you play in tune? Are you sharp? Are you flat? Or even more simply put to an audience that may not be intimately familiar with how music works, do you blend? Do you fit in? Does your sound fit in with what’s around you? Are you playing too loud? Are you playing too fast? Are you playing a secondary role? Are you supporting? This is, you can imagine if someone feels alone and oppressed, types of skills that would be difficult for that person to develop. If you don’t trust anyone around you because of their skin color, you’re not going to expect much in terms of support. You’re going to feel like you’re at war all the time with the people around you.
We were having deliberations throughout the tenure processing, “This player has struggles with intonation and blending.” The counterargument to that made by the players who were signed up for this ideology was that, “Well, intonation itself is racist. To expect us to blend together in a white, Eurocentric tradition is racism.” My reaction to that was, “Get out of here, it sounds awful. Don’t you hear how bad you sound? Don’t you hear that you’re playing too loud?” He says, “Well, who’s just decide what’s too loud? Do you get to decide because you’re white?” I got to say, “I’m saying it sounds terrible because it sounds terrible, because I have good taste, not because I’ve been…” Music is elemental. I don’t mean to sound preachy here, but it doesn’t take any expertise to look at a finger painting in an art gallery versus a Picasso and figure out which one is more interesting or more sophisticated. The constant dumbing down of expectations and standards is the result of this ideology.
When we say, “Oh, well, rhythm standards, those are Eurocentric and white. In African culture, we believe more in improvisatory, vibey, imprecise playing.” I’m saying, “Well, that’s not how we roll here. We’re not playing African music. Sure, we can play more, but we have to have some sort of agreement on what artistic standards are,” but the standards are always under attack. It’s a buzzsaw trying to go against it and make any reasoned commentary for or against it is just, you have to be quiet. You can’t say anything or you’re just under the gun, which is what my story and the story of the Nashville Symphony proves, is that it’s an ideological battle, it’s not a quality battle, it’s something so much more sinister.
I’ll say now, three years later, I’m much less sad about my own cancellation and misfortune than I am about the bigger picture, which is the death of the art form. Dying audiences — we figured out ways to overcome that through programming. I don’t know how we overcome this one. This might be the thing that puts the nail in the coffin and, two generations from now, people don’t even know what an orchestra is. It’s just something that’s relegated to the ash heap of racist history, which really just makes me sad.
It makes me sad, as well, and it’s obviously not limited to classical music. There’s a lot of, what seems to me, the greatness of Western civilization that we are throwing in this ash heap. The truly tragic part of it is that there’s plenty in Western civilization for people of all ethnic backgrounds, because there are some really beautiful and true things that have been created, whether in classical music or in literature or other arts or philosophy, that have led to the great success of Western civilization and Western culture and those things aren’t reducible to skin color, so that’s the truly tragic thing. The last question I wanted to ask you, which I hope will not make you even sadder than the conversation that we’ve already had, but I wanted to ask you, what as a clarinetist is your favorite piece to play that or that you have played?
Great question. My favorite thing that I’ve played, wow. I’m a big fan of the Copland Clarinet Concerto. Aaron Copland, he’s considered the greatest inspiration for John Williams, let’s say it diplomatically, which is another way of saying that John Williams lifted a lot of Copland’s style. It’s so classically American. There’s a Germanic tradition and an Italian tradition and a Spanish tradition, but Aaron Copland wrote a Clarinet Concerto for Benny Goodman, who was probably the most famous clarinet player in American history. I can’t remember when it was written, sometime around the ’40s or ’50s, but I played that concerto a couple times with the orchestra. I had a sense like, “This is my piece. Me as an American guy who grew up in the suburbs going to the mall, this piece has my energy in a way that the Mozart Clarinet Concerto does not.” It’s got jazz elements and it’s got sweeping lyricism to open it that makes you think of the frontier, what it must have been like 100 years ago. Man, actually talking about, it just makes me a little bit weepy, because it’s so beautiful.
You can attack me, you can fire me all you want, but you’re never going to get rid of that music. It’s always going to be inked down somewhere in a library for some kid to pick it up and get inspired by it. Those are some of my happiest memories of having the opportunity to play American music in a great American concert hall in America’s music city. There’s a big quote backstage at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center where the Nashville Symphony plays that said — I’m going to try to do this off the top of my head, I hope I get it right. It says, “True music must repeat the inspirations…” I can’t remember the first half. It’s like, “True music must repeat the inspirations of the people of the day. My people are Americans and my time is today.”
There’s something timeless about all this music. Like you said, Beethoven, the themes in that of man versus fate, when is that going to go out of style? When are people going to stop asking about free will? When are people going to stop asking, “What is my purpose? What does my life really mean?” Just because Beethoven was dealing with that in a different context 200 years ago doesn’t mean that it’s out of style. We have an American style, we have an American tradition, and that is bringing everybody together to celebrate the greatness of our art form. For me, personally, to answer your question, what is my favorite memory as a clarinetist? I guess it really is going out and doing the American stuff in my American city, living my totally regular American life, just as a dad and a husband and a guy that goes to church in my community and has as regular life as you can have as being a musician.
It’s a weird job, for sure, it’s not normal, but I did everything I could to live my American values and play in a symphony orchestra, which when I was playing the Copland Concerto, I couldn’t help but think I made it. You can’t get better than this, playing the licorice stick. I have some optimism that I’ll always be able to play them, I’ll always be able to get my horn out for fun. It’s actually been pretty fun post-cancellation. Sometimes I just get out my clarinet and walk around the house playing whatever my kids want to hear. It’s so amazing to have music in your house played by a real person, so that’s how the music lives on in this house, is spontaneously, the way that it used to before we had CDs and Spotify. I have optimism despite this being somewhat of a pessimistic conversation, I guess I do have a sense of optimism that the art will outlive us.
On that note, thank you so much, James Zimmermann, for coming on High Noon and sharing your story and your passion for music with us.
You’re so welcome. Thanks so much for having me.
Thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button, leaving us a comment or a review on Apple Podcast, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.