William Neri has been playing on opus 690, a 16 ¼” viola modeled on the work of Giovanni Maggini, since 2018, when he was recommended to us as a loan candidate by Sphinx, the Detroit-based organization dedicated to increasing diversity in the arts. We are long-time supporters of the work that Sphinx is doing, and have been proud to loan a number of instruments to their players. It has been gratifying to see Bill develop as a musician and also to see him develop a voice as an advocate for diversity in his work with NAAS, the National Alliance for Audition Support.
Just after the new year, we had a far-ranging discussion that touched on both his musical life and his advocacy work. In the conversation we touched on an article Anthony Tommasini wrote for the New York Times on July 16, 2020, “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions”. If you missed it this summer, it may serve as helpful background. At Cox Violins, we fully support diversity in the arts, and acknowledge that it is not a clear path from here to there. We hope this can be a contribution to the larger discussion. ~Brendan Taaffe
(Interview by Brendan Taaffe, business manager)
I have to say, thank you so much for everything. The loan of this instrument is an incredible gift. With the viola I was playing on before my Cox viola, I had no idea how limited my colors and options were. When I started playing on this instrument, I realized there was an entire world of sound out there that I had no idea existed. I was like a painter who only knew that half the colors existed, and now I have a full palette.
I should also say that the instrument was on loan through a partnership with the Sphinx organization. I would be remiss not to mention that I have been working as a project manager for the National Alliance for Audition Support, which is an initiative to increase diversity in American orchestras.
I’d love to dive in and start talking about identity in the context of classical music, in part because you came to use through Sphinx and identity is wrapped up in Sphinx’s mission. How do you self-identify?
From a racial standpoint, I self-identify as Latinx. My mother came to the States from Cuba. She married a white guy, so I come from a mixed background both in my racial make up and also in my upbringing. I went to the Sphinx Performance Academy, which is their training program for middle and high-school age students. That was really the first time I was exposed to a professional level of playing. I heard the Harlem Quartet and my jaw was on the floor.
How old were you then?
Thirteen maybe? Around there. From an early age, I was obsessed with orchestra and knew orchestra was the path for me. Having had the opportunity to experience really high quality chamber music and that interconnectivity and the antenna that you have when you’re all in each other’s brains… when you can magnify that feeling to the scope of an orchestra, that’s an intoxicating feeling.
I found my way back into the Sphinx Familia through NAAS. I was a recipient of their support when they first started in 2018, which led to an invitation to perform with the Sphinx Virtuosi.
The focus of NAAS is on audition support for Black and Latinx musicians, is that right?
Yes. It’s called The Unprecedented National Initiative to Increase Diversity in American Orchestras, and NAAS is partnered with the New World Symphony and the League of American Orchestras. The goal is to break down the barriers so that musicians of color can have the access and support that they have needed for a really long time to get to auditions. They have three different grant streams that target different areas of need—Audition Grants, Substitute Grants, and Instrument Grants. The one visit I had with Doug was funded by one of these grants. I had a crack on the instrument and was freaking out, but I was able to fly up to Boston and coordinated with one of his downtown visits. That travel was funded by NAAS, as well as the audition with Central City Opera that I won.
Did you see the piece that Tommasini wrote for the Times against blind auditions?
Yeah, what was funny about that is that I’ve been doing this project manager role since 2019 and it’s my first foray into the administrative world. We were doing our audition intensive—the mock auditions and classes we put together to support musicians—which had 63 participants and 7 faculty (online, of course). The last day of every intensive always has a chance for all of the faculty to come together on a panel and answer questions. It just so happened that was the morning that article dropped. So we spent the entire two hours talking about that, which is a very important topic in this corner of the industry, which seems to be becoming less and less of a corner and more central to what the dialog should have been focused on for a long time. I think orchestras are really taking it seriously and we’re seeing an escalation in the pace that change is being demanded.
There’s a lot of talk about how screens are used, there’s a lot of talk about how the tenure process can be more fair, which is something that’s often overlooked. The big point with the Tommasini article is that he implies that all auditions have been blind all along, which is not true. Really, only a fraction of orchestras have a screen up until the final round. When people think of a truly anonymous, blind audition process, they usually think of the Met, who always hire somebody after every audition, so there are no no-hires, which are frustrating to everybody. The audition panel can’t communicate with each other, which makes them completely focused on identifying the best candidate and not collaborating with their fellow judges, and they’re fully blind for the entire thing. Tomassini was generalizing from that specific example, and it generated a lot of discussion, which is really important, but the idea that auditions have been blind this whole time is just false.
So what do you think the way forward is to addressing that problem?
It’s complex. The big thing I’ve learned with this job, and as a freelance performer, is that every orchestra is different. There’s this underlying idea that these cultural institutions should reflect the communities in which they serve. And the word ‘community’ is difficult to define sometimes. The New York Philharmonic—is it representing New York City? Is it representing the entire area? Is it representing just Lincoln Center? Who are they serving? And that’s a question they may know the answer to, but from our standpoint, it’s really hard to generalize and issue the same guidelines that every orchestra large and small should adopt. We really have to consider the means that orchestras have available to them to institute sweeping changes. Also, every single orchestra has agreements that are agreed collectively with their local unions. There are 600+ orchestra in the league, which means there are 600+ agreements to navigate around. We can’t tear down all these union agreements. So we’re trying to identify recommendations and broad general principles that we think everyone can adopt.
I hope that it won’t be solely based on what Alex Lang calls musical athleticism—who can run the fastest and jump the highest—these very quantifiable assets that a player has. There isn’t one clear answer, but there’s a lot to hope for. I think we can all come around to the idea that a diverse make-up on stage can add a lot of warmth and belonging to the audience and will generate a better feeling for the arts in general. I think that’s really crucial in the 21st century. Hopefully we can adopt something that will make people feel a little bit more at home.
Coming into this conversation, I was wondering about looking at this issue from a different angle. Here’s my premise: that what we’re talking about now, even if successful, leaves the basic project of an orchestra the same. It will perform in the same place and have the same structure. The music itself is universal, but the structures around the music are white, northern European, upper class structures: the idea of how performance happens, what your expectations are of the audience, from the most basic expectations of waiting to applaud until the whole piece is over, to how you dress and what you drink. So if we were to envision a structure around this same music that was more relevant to different communities, what would that look like?
Dude. Good question. People have referred to American orchestras as cover bands for dead European white guys. Like long, long dead. But there’s still something there. It’s the product of Enlightenment, and there’s the influence of many generations of change in art and music. And so we can take pride and joy in the role it’s played in history, but the rules attached to it can be stuffy. I think some institutions have done well in trying to modernize the vehicle of how we communicate music and art.
At the end of the day, our interest is in trying to say something that words can’t do justice to. I think there’s still something to be said through a Sibelius symphony or a Strauss tone poem. There’s plenty of relevance that we can adapt to what we’re feeling today from that music, but I feel we’re not coming together on what we want to be saying. Is classical music, is the symphony orchestra, are they going to say it? Are they going to quench that thirst?
In Europe, I feel there’s a very prevalent pride they have in their art and music, that kultur that they have in Germany. If you go to a concert there, it definitely has a different feeling of intention. They’re listening. They’re hanging on to every word. Brahms and Strauss and Mozart are their bread and butter, voicing their feelings and concerns in a way that speaks to them. In America, I don’t know that we’re taking the same sort of pride in what Americans create. My fear is that we’re just consuming it. Uniquely American art forms like comedy and film and TV are huge. Cinema and TV and comedy and, of course, jazz and blues and everything that came from them is uniquely American, but the way that we take it in has been commodified by corporations and industries to turn it into money for them and keep us hooked. I think we’re missing something with having pride versus merely consuming what’s recommended to us. I saw some stat that over 75% of YouTube videos are clicked on by the recommended algorithm, not what you intentionally want to see. We’re giving up our free thought, as much as we think that we have the most freedom in the world. It’s an attention economy, and big organizations in classical music have a lot of work we can do to match the other competitors we have in the field.
A thought sparked by what you just said: in an American context, I think you would find the kind of pride you’re talking about is in the small sub-cultures of traditional music. There’s a huge amount of pride, for example, in West Virginia about the history of West Virginia fiddle tunes. Or Norteño music on the border with Mexico. But I definitely agree that it’s not widespread as a broad American identity in the way that a broad German identity takes huge pride in Beethoven.
Yes. I’m not from West Virginia, but I love that music, and I don’t think it’s impossible for people to have that same sense of foreign intrigue into classical music if they’ve heard it before. It’s just having the freedom to find that. We have to have some hope that it is something people can discover and fall in love with, but the cards are stacked against us because we’re up against these titans like Facebook and Instagram and YouTube who have a leg up in the attention economy. We have to find a way to help people discover this beautiful, this objectively transcendent and genius craft but, importantly hope that they discover it on their own, rather than being forced into it, because that’s how they’ll really hold on to it for eternity.
How have you been practicing during the pandemic?
I’m trying to learn more American music. I’ve been working with recordings. What I’ve been doing is listening to the recording, printing out the music, and challenging myself to learn the symphony. Then I play along with the recording. That’s been a way for me to learn new music. Maybe one day I’ll play it again with an orchestra. I’ve done that with Janicek, Sibelius, and Brahms this year. Sibelius somehow is just so perfect for the winter; that Finnish winter landscape, you just hear the snow falling on the ground in the music.
You were talking earlier about having something to say. When you return to playing some of these pieces with an orchestra, what is it you want to convey?
It’s so hard to say—I’m on this weird balancing point, because as a performer I feel like I have little to no authority. As a freelance performer, unless you’re making your own thing, there’s little ownership in what you do and I’m realizing that I really want to have more of that. On the other side, with the work I do with Sphinx, I feel like I’m part of something that’s changing things. So I want to take that idea into everything I do.
I really want to surprise myself. I really want to explore more of the marginalized music that hasn’t really been played. With Sphinx Virtuosi, we did a Bourgogne piece from the 18th century as well as a piece by Jessie Montgomery, who’s getting a lot of the respect that she deserves right now.
I’m envious of one-man shops out there. People who are podcasters and people who are soloists or you-tubers, this new generation of communicators out there that don’t have to answer to anybody and even that don’t have to worry about being heard. That’s some of the best creativity. It doesn’t serve anybody. It doesn’t even serve yourself. It’s not to get me food or even put a roof over my head. I feel like I’ve never had the privilege of experiencing that. I’m trying to cultivate that, but you can’t really force it. I can’t flip a switch and say, now I’ll stop caring about external factors and find my voice. You have to grow into that.
I wonder if it’s a different challenge for a violist whose core musical experience is as a supportive voice rather than the lead voice.
That’s a good point. We’re an inner voice, and I like that a lot about viola. In a lot of music, I’m drawn to the inner voice and passing harmonies. I love being the glue and bridging the gaps in the harmonies. Even with that, it’s still your own. You’re supporting, but still communicating independently with what’s around you.
I’m thinking more generally about communication and art, and on a large scale, how an individual, regardless of instrument and background, can still stand out and communicate in a way that people can relate to.