Anyone who has been to a classical concert recently, especially at a conservatory, will note the ever-increasing number of Asian musicians, what some call an “Asian Invasion.” In 2006, of the nine new musicians hired by the New York Philharmonic, six were Asian. At the noted Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, fully three-quarters of the piano students are from Asia. A new study from Temple University Press, Musicians from a Different Shore, by Mari Yoshihara, analyzes the phenomenon.
Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim recalls, during an interview transcribed in the book, that when he studied at Juilliard in the 1970’s, “Eastern European and Jewish students were diminishing and Asians were just coming up.” Kim adds: “Right now at Juilliard, it’s like all Asian.” Yoshihara asserts that in fact only 30 percent of Juilliard students today are Asian, yet the impression remains. Many Asian families seem willing to make any sacrifice in order to advance their offspring’s studies. At ten, Kim made bi-weekly flights to Juilliard from his family’s home in South Carolina, so he could study with legendary pedagogue Dorothy DeLay. Classical music enjoys great prestige among educated families in China, Japan, and Korea, akin to that routinely felt a century ago in bourgeois households in Middle and Eastern Europe.
Another interviewee, the eminent Taiwanese-born violinist Cho-Liang Lin (profiled on contentions earlier this year) points out that nowadays Asian music students all want to be solo stars instead of ensemble musicians; most do not “want to play the trumpet, they hardly play the clarinet, but they have to play a solo instrument, piano or violin, or maybe sometimes cello, but bassoon, out of the question, you know.”
Despite the indisputable number of talented Asian performers, Yoshihara points out that Asians remain severely underrepresented on a management level, on boards of trustees, and in other power positions in the classical music world. On the boards of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Asians are as rare as hen’s teeth. And even when it comes to musicians, misunderstandings still remain. Joel Tse, principal flutist of the Toledo Symphony, recounts that when he plays school concerts in Ohio, students ask him, “Are you related to Jackie Chan?” When the violinist Muneko Otani, who teaches at Columbia University, tours in Oklahoma, people ask her about Pearl Harbor, as if her Japanese ancestry sufficed to make her a ranking expert on the faraway subject. The viola player Junah Chung relates that when his blonde wife, also a musician, auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, she was told by another string player: “Oh thank God, a blonde violinist! This orchestra is starting to look like the Shanghai Symphony.” Even setting aside blatant racism, it is clear that Asian musicians still have some ways to go before they are integrated fully into America’s classical music scene.