Hoot(ish): A Great Story, With an Even Better Story Deeper In.

In the October 3 edition of the Inquirer, Peter Dobrin offers up a front-page feature on Joseph Conyers, the first African American musician hired by the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1974.

A lengthy story – after the jump, it takes up over half of a broadsheet page – Dobrin details Conyers path from Savannah to the Curtis Institute, and then to the Grand Rapids Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, and then to Philadelphia.

In addition to Conyers, Dobrin interviewed one of Conyers’s past teachers, one of his current colleagues in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Alison Vulgamore, the president of the orchestra. But this is one of the reasons for the Hoot(ish) – those sources are the entirety of a Page One story. And while the piece pays due attention to how a prominent African American on stage (Conyers is the assistant principal bassist, a fairly visible position) can help cultivate interest from the black community, and how Conyers experience “dovetails nicely in Philadelphia, where the orchestra is on the brink of a major transformation emphasizing community and education,” I’m almost more intrigued by the prospect of that story than by Conyers’s profile.

Dobrin, either unintentionally or subtly, also underscores the slow, ongoing erosion of the status of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which has suffered a lengthy recent history of labor strife and has had trouble attracting a music director befitting its status:

“Conyers is considered such a catch that some observers fear he’ll behired away. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is holding November auditions for a principal bassist, and Conyers, his chops already honed from the Philadelphia audition, represents exactly the kind of high-profile splash that new music director Riccardo Muti might like.

. . . On the possibility of auditioning and accepting a job there, Conyers declines to comment.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra is a genuinely great institution, and is still a great orchestra. Sadly, an aside like this points out that, in the orchestra’s current troubled situation, it may be relegating itself to the minor leagues – especially if young musicians could consider it a stopover job, rather than a destination.

My “(ish)” here is a result of a few things. My interest in Conyers is piqued, but the article, despite its length, is thinly sourced. Dobrin also piqued my interest in the “major transformation” mentioned above, but doesn’t detail that (although that discussion is probably the topic of a future story) at all. Finally, I always want stories like these to offer answers to the systemic issues that seem to be plaguing this orchestra. All news shouldn’t be negative, but the orchestra is going through a persistent, major crisis that would benefit from further investigative attention.

This doesn’t diminish my appreciation for Dobrin’s profile; in fact, I hope he follows it up with a story on how the orchestra is engaging the African American community in Philadelphia. A head start: mandatory school field trips and orchestra visits to schools don’t count. Go.

– Nick Gilewicz

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