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

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Artists of Asian descent have long been the subject of racist tropes and slurs, dating back to at least the 1960s and ’70s, when musicians immigrated to the United States from Japan, Korea and other parts of East Asia to study and perform. A 1967 report in Time magazine, titled “Invasion From the Orient,” reflected the thinking of the era.

“The stringed instruments were physically ideal for the Orientals: Their nimble fingers, so proficient in delicate calligraphy and other crafts, adapted easily to the demands of the fingerboard,” the article said.

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.

“You get written off as an automaton,” said Akiko Tarumoto, the assistant concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Tarumoto, 44, who is Japanese American, said that musicians of Asian descent in the Philharmonic are sometimes mistaken for each other, and in other ensembles she had heard fellow musicians refer to new hires simply as “Chinese girls.”

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