How Racial Anxiety Conquered an Orchestra and Crushed a Career

How Racial Anxiety Conquered an Orchestra and Crushed a Career

Most people haven’t heard of James Zimmermann, but most have heard him. A decorated musician with a long string of acoustic accolades, Zimmermann, 39, has made the sound of his clarinet difficult to avoid. He played at President Barack Obama’s second inaugural, has recorded tracks for best-selling video games, and helped create Walt Disney World’s new theme.

Zimmermann was also the principal clarinetist of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade—that is, until the orchestra fired him last February over accusations of racial harassment. To hear his accusers tell it, Zimmermann had insulted, intimidated, and even stalked his black colleagues, going so far as to menacingly drive by their homes. Human resources had already warned the clarinetist in 2019 that his behaviors could be grounds for dismissal, the orchestra claimed in its termination letter to Zimmermann. His refusal to heed that warning was ostensibly why he was fired in 2020.

But six of Zimmermann’s ex-colleagues and the orchestra’s own documents tell a very different story. They suggest that Zimmermann himself was the target of a witch hunt, instigated by a black oboist whom Zimmermann had stuck his neck out to help.

Zimmermann was also never warned that he could lose his job, according to one of his colleagues, Brad Mansell, who had accompanied Zimmermann to HR. “I was there,” Mansell said. “The termination letter flat out lied.”

That alone would have been grounds for the orchestra’s union to file a grievance, and most likely for Zimmermann to have been reinstated. But the union took no action on his behalf.

Instead, Zimmermann became an early victim of the ideological cold war that turned hot in the summer of 2020, when accusations of racism knocked journalists, poets, and political scientists from their loftiest perches. This is not a story of heroes and villains—crude categories that hardly capture the major characters —so much as a story of institutions: an orchestra roiled by racial anxieties, a human resources department deputized to soothe them, and a union caught in the crossfire. It is also a story of how misunderstandings can snowball into moral dramas, gaining momentum with each successive snafu.

That snowball was set in motion when Zimmermann stood up for merit-based hiring at the symphony. From New York to London to Vienna, orchestras around the world have faced calls to diversify their ensemble, sometimes through race-conscious means. Anthony Tommasini, a New York Times music critic, has even called for ending blind auditions.

The Nashville Symphony was not immune to these pressures, having embarked on several grant-funded diversity initiatives in 2017. After the orchestra broke its own rules to hire an oboist many regarded as unqualified, Zimmermann took an almost obsessive stand. The result was a hushed discontent that crescendoed into crisis, as the orchestra tried and failed to contain the tensions it had created.

At the center of those tensions was Titus Underwood, who would become the first black principal oboist at a major U.S. orchestra. His rise marked the start of Zimmermann’s fall. It also marked the triumph of tokenism at the Nashville Symphony, which denied Underwood a chance to succeed on his own merits. In an ironic twist, it was Zimmermann’s zeal for meritocracy that helped Underwood rise in the first place.

Underwood joined the Nashville Symphony in 2017 as a temporary replacement for the outgoing principal oboist. To get the job permanently, he needed to win a blind audition held in March 2019. Underwood’s playing had been inconsistent since his arrival at the symphony, members of the Nashville Symphony’s woodwind section told the Washington Free Beacon, but he would now be given a chance to prove himself without any baggage—provided he remained anonymous.

But Underwood was inadvertently outed in the final round of the audition. The audition committee, including Zimmermann, had narrowed it down to one candidate, but whoever was behind the curtain hadn’t impressed. That meant they had two options: send the candidate home and hold another audition, or give the candidate a trial period and make a decision at the end of it. Before they could finish deliberating, a violinist—having misjudged the need for anonymity—burst out from behind the screen and announced that the candidate was Titus Underwood.

Underwood’s outing tipped the scales against him. The audition committee had been leaning toward a trial run, but backpedaled once they learned that the candidate had been struggling in the orchestra for over a year. Giancarlo Guerrero, the symphony maestro, was especially sour on Underwood, according to three members of the committee who stressed that principal oboe is one of the most important seats in any orchestra. At Guerrero’s urging, the committee agreed to send Underwood on his way without telling him what had happened.

Sickened by what he described as a “disgusting” breach of fairness, Zimmermann urged his colleagues to stick with their initial inclination and offer Underwood the trial period. “If Titus had remained anonymous, as he should have, he would have been given [a] rightly earned opportunity” to prove his mettle, Zimmermann wrote in an email to the committee the next day.

The orchestra relented and gave Underwood a two-week trial period, in keeping with terms of the orchestra’s union contract. If the committee was satisfied with the oboist’s performance during those two weeks, he’d be awarded the permanent position. However the committee ultimately voted, Underwood now had a chance to win the job based on merit, by the book.

But a vote was never held.

After the first trial week, Guerrero unilaterally appointed Underwood without the consent of the committee, a direct violation of the orchestra’s own rules. This unprecedented step, several musicians said, seemed to have been motivated by Underwood’s race.

Earlier in the week, Guerrero had called the entire committee into his office and urged them to vote early for Underwood, before the trial period was up, according to three members of the committee. When the committee refused, Guerrero began calling committee members into his office individually. “[M]eetings that were supposed to be about artistic merit and feedback turned into something else,” the president of the orchestra union, Dave Pomeroy, wrote in an email to colleagues.

That something else was “diversity,” said Jeff Bailey, a trumpet player on the committee. He and Zimmermann both recall a frazzled-looking Guerrero saying they “needed to trust him” and implying that outside pressure was being applied.

“I’d never seen him that stressed,” Bailey said.

Guerrero and Underwood did not respond to requests for comment. The president of the Nashville Symphony, Alan Valentine, declined to comment.

Things in the orchestra were tense, and members of the audition committee were furious—especially Zimmermann, who says he made “zero efforts” to hide his frustration: not at Underwood himself, but at the procedural chicanery that had boosted him.

Underwood’s intonation issues added fuel to the fire. Woodwinds often stay after rehearsal to tune difficult passages, and the principal oboe is the leader of the woodwinds. Since Underwood was struggling in that role, Zimmermann frequently ended up asking him to stay late to finesse a section. Underwood seemed to take that personally, one woodwind said.

With tensions in the symphony rising, Underwood lodged a human resources complaint against Zimmermann.

The complaint described an incident that had taken place over a month before the botched audition and, as far as Zimmermann was concerned, had already been resolved. In early February 2019, Zimmermann had asked Underwood whether it would be ok for him, a white person, to use the N-word in his rendition of a rap song. Underwood said yes, but Zimmermann nonetheless apologized after singing the slur—”the N-word did not feel good,” he recalls telling Underwood.

Zimmermann explained all this over the course of two meetings with human resources officers, neither of which resulted in disciplinary action. But racial tensions had spiked just as the bureaucratic apparatus for adjudicating them was expanding. In November 2019, the orchestra hired its first “equity manager;” two months later, a newly christened “equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging” team held a luncheon on the “racial power dynamics in American orchestras.” In an audio recording of the lunch, Underwood can be heard saying that all Americans “live in a system of white supremacy” that’s persisted since the founding.

The orchestra was also hiring more musicians sympathetic to this worldview, one of whom, Emilio Carlo, seemed to take an immediate dislike to Zimmermann, the clarinetist and other members of the orchestra said. An alum of various diversity programs and a close friend of Underwood’s, Carlo rebuffed Zimmermann’s efforts to get to know him, Zimmermann said. When Zimmermann mentioned Carlo’s dog, for example, Carlo responded: “Yeah, and he’ll fuck anybody up.” Zimmermann told the Free Beacon it felt like a threat.

Carlo did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Soon, Carlo and Underwood seeded a new narrative about Zimmermann: that he was not just racially insensitive but potentially predatory. The narrative was seeded behind Zimmermann’s back, beginning with an unofficial HR complaint about which the clarinetist was never notified.

According to emails in Zimmermann’s personnel file, Underwood told HR representatives in December 2019 that Zimmermann seemed “obsessed” with him and Carlo. Zimmermann had been asking detailed questions about Carlo and Underwood’s living situations, Underwood alleged, to the point that Underwood was “getting concerned about safety.”

The allegations contained a grain of truth: Zimmermann had been asking those questions, but only because he was looking to buy a new house in the area, according to three of his colleagues who had had conversations with him about Nashville real estate.

“James is an odd guy,” Bailey said. “But he’s not a stalker, and he’s certainly not a racist.”

Yet by February 2020 rumors were spreading. One day, a violinist in the orchestra approached Zimmermann and told him there was talk of a stalking allegation. According to the rumor, HR had received a complaint that Zimmermann was deliberately driving by Underwood and Carlo’s houses. Again, this was half true: Zimmermann often drove down Carlo’s street to avoid late afternoon traffic, as did several of his colleagues.

The botched audition, the initial HR meetings, and the ongoing tensions in the wind section had all taken a toll on Zimmermann. Now, news of the undisclosed allegation pushed him over the edge.

“I really think he was just driven crazy,” a colleague said.

At 1:15 a.m. on Feb. 21, 2020, Zimmermann sent an email that sources described as “manic.” Addressed to Carlo and cc’d to human resources, the five-page missive was disjointed, difficult to follow, and—in its choice of words—potentially minatory, referencing a brewing “war” with the prospect of “physical harm.” “I saw it as a cry for help,” said one of Zimmermann’s colleagues, who added that Zimmermann seemed concerned for his own safety. In a paragraph recounting Carlo’s comment about his dog, Zimmermann noted that his family owned a gun.

The clarinetist was placed on leave the next day, and armed guards were stationed outside the symphony. Less than a week later he was fired.

The dismissal sent shockwaves through the orchestra. “Nobody I know thought the right thing happened,” one brass player said. “People were crying.”

Asked whether they thought the email presaged violence, six members of the Nashville Symphony answered no.

“No thread of my being thought [Zimmermann] was violent,” the brass player said. He added that the firing seemed like a way for management to bury Underwood’s audition fiasco, which had become an open secret in the orchestra world.

The orchestra union, meanwhile, refused to go to bat for Zimmermann. Mansell said that union president Dave Pomeroy was “clearly worried about optics,” even though Mansell promised to testify that the orchestra lied about Zimmermann’s disciplinary record in its termination letter. The orchestra’s own file on Zimmermann contains no record of any warnings, corroborating Mansell’s account.

“When they make up these stories and lies, and nobody defends you, it’s scary,” one member of the symphony said. “You wonder who’s next.”

Pomeroy, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, had himself faced accusations of racial insensitivity. When Underwood first told HR about the alleged stalking, he’d insinuated that the orchestra was giving Zimmermann a pass because of its institutional racism. As evidence for that racism, he’d cited a comment Pomeroy had made: “Nobody in the orchestra is racist. This is 2019 and racism doesn’t exist anymore.”

It was now 2020, and the orchestra made it clear that such statements would be verboten going forward. After the Nashville Symphony fired Zimmermann, it went so far as to promote the firing on social media, sharing a video in which Underwood describes the “harassment” he endured after “winning” his audition. When some musicians asked the orchestra to take the video down, Nashville Symphony president Alan Valentine refused. Underwood’s story was “positive” for the orchestra, Valentine said in an email to one woodwind, because it “affirms” that the symphony “does not tolerate racial discrimination.”

Zimmermann agrees with his colleagues that he was railroaded. But he also agrees with the orchestra about one point: At the end of the day, Underwood was the real victim of the whole saga.

“I get to walk away with integrity,” said Zimmermann, who told the Free Beacon he regrets sending the email. But Underwood “has his whole career built on a house of cards. I feel sorry for him.”

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