Amid more talk of diversity, action is still curiously absent.

A recent article in the Wall St. Journal reported on the awarding of a $400,000.00 grant from the Mellon Foundation to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Normally this would be cause for celebration: 6 figure grants for performing arts organizations are significant and not easy to win. Orpheus, besides being a top-flight ensemble, seems almost like a bit of a Cinderella story, especially today: formed in the 1970’s by a group of musicians who worked together from the start, building a sustainable organization and driven by their mission, they’ve become world renowned and an important institution in New York City. Yes, a $400,000.00 grant is nothing to sneeze at. The reason for this grant, however, may be cause for cautious optimism at best–and active worry at worst. A significant reason for the awarding of this grant is to hire more minorities–especially, at least ostensibly, latino and black musicians. The article quotes the League of American Orchestras figure which estimates that a mere 5% of orchestral musicians in the United States are of hispanic or black descent. A grant designed to address this problem seems, at first glance, to be a boon to those it may help. After all, bringing attention to the problem is the first step in rectifying it; taking steps to fix it is a logical second step. Unfortunately this sort of thing throws into sharp relief the problems behind the problem–many of which are not addressed at all. Perhaps the first issue is the lack of classical music in the ‘black’ and ‘latino’ communities. It was more than a century ago that one of the musical giants of the Romantic, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, visited the United States. During the four years he lived and worked here he taught, traveled and composed, among other things, his 9th Symphony, the ‘New World,’ which is regarded as one of his finest works (and certainly one of his most popular.) Dvorak also became familiar with the music of Native Americans and freed slaves–the so-called Negro Spirituals. His enthusiasm for this music was genuine, and he advised the American musical community to take advantage of this bounty and incorporate it into the American musical language. No less a person than Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most accomplished and admired classical musician that the United States has ever produced, also argued this point with great fervor, going so far to say in his senior thesis at Harvard, that “(To sum up, then:) American music owes one of its greatest debts to the Negroes, not only for the popularly acknowledged gift of jazz, but for the impetus which jazz has given to America’s art music. This incentive has come in two ways—melodically and rhythmically—with further support from tone color and contrapuntal feeling. Both the scale patterns and the rhythm patterns, as first manifested in jazz itself, were used freely in symphonic composition by men like Gershwin. With more advanced composers or with composers in a more advanced state [i.e., Sessions and Copland after 1929], this initial use—especially of the rhythms—has grown into a new style, which might be called the first tangible indigenous style that can be identified in American music.”  While the particular merits of each argument may be debated in social and scholarly circles, the positions of both men are clear. Yet more than a century after Dvorak’s proclamation and three quarters of a century after Bernstein penned his thesis, the idea of a National Musical language influenced by indigenous and minority cultural experience largely remains an historical footnote. Classical music, unfortunately, remains a prisoner of stereotypes: that it is ivory tower music, elitist, snobby, inaccessible, and perhaps most unfortunately, that it is exclusively white. Blame is ample on both ‘sides’ of the problem: orchestras tend to cater to ‘traditional’ audiences, in traditional (and ‘safe’) venues, waiting for the willing to come to them. Non-traditional communities are ignored, but often don’t take initiative: disadvantaged youth, particularly those ‘of color,’ are not encouraged to listen to Beethoven and Brahms, not introduced to the instruments of the orchestra, and, simply, rarely, if ever, told that they could be a violinist (or pianist, or oboist, or composer) if they wished. It is a poor message to send, and perhaps the cornerstone of the issue. It is interesting to note the presence of high-budget orchestras in cities which have large black and hispanic communities. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, has a budget of nearly $100m, a black population of 9.6% and an hispanic population of 48.5%. Boston, whose famed Symphony comes in 2nd with a budget of $89m, includes populations which are 24% black and 17% hispanic. Orchestras in such cities with large minority populations as Baltimore (no. 15) St. Louis (no. 16) and Detroit (no. 17) are outside of the top 10 in budget size but, with budgets over $20m a season, still have plenty of resources. Orchestra administrators across the country often cite a desire to be more ‘representative (on stage) of the communities in which we play’; but when orchestras in these major cities include minority members whose numbers account for just 5% of membership, one may wonder how great that desire truly is. A second problem is that of the attempts at ‘solutions’ that have cropped up here and there in recent years. From the Sphinx competition to orchestral fellowship programs designed exclusively for ‘musicians of color’ to ensembles comprised of minority musicians, there have been some well recognized ‘innovations’ over the last decade or two. But oh, what problems they come with! A competition designed exclusively for a single demographic immediately attaches a qualification to its competitors–not to mention its winner. Thus the career of a ‘brilliant young violinist’ becomes the career of a ‘talented young black/latina’ violinist.’ Descriptive adjectives and personal pride in ones heritage aside, that sort of qualification can do as much harm as good, if not more. Instead of anticipation building ahead of a performance because the soloist is known for, say, an especially luxurious legato tone or a special way with Brahms, he or she becomes known simply as ‘the winner of this particular competition.’ In short, a musician–a complex human being!–becomes an other, possibly even a curiosity. Fellowships for minority musicians are helpful, but I wonder how they can help but being seen as a sort of affirmative action program. Music is hard enough: getting just the right colors in Debussy, the depth and subtlety of emotion in Brahms and the right articulation and tempi in Bach, for example, are challenges that require the most intense attention to detail. To be scrutinized for those details is difficult enough, particularly in an audition, but to have additional scrutiny because one is seen as the ‘other’ fellow–well, that is another thing entirely. And lastly–the idea of an ‘all ethnic’ ensemble is perhaps the ultimate double edged sword. It certainly runs the risk of reinforcing or affirming the convictions of those who may think that ‘people of color’ have little to no place in a professional symphony orchestra–that it is not ‘their’ music. Orchestras such as the ‘Soulful Symphony,’ performing gospel versions of Handel, could be seen as apologizing for (or even misunderstanding) classical music. Perhaps the best thing to take away from this is that music is designed to break down barriers, not to reinforce them. Beethoven has as much to say to a poor kid in the Bronx as it does to the Wall St. exec or PhD. The kid in the Bronx needs to know that he’s welcome: welcome at the children’s concert, welcome on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall, welcome to take up the violin or the trumpet, welcome to love Beethoven and Brahms–and, perhaps some day, welcome to study at Juilliard and take his place in (or in front of) the orchestra, too. And for all the talk of hispanic and black, heritage and identity, that kid also needs to know this: when the music begins, that’s all that matters. What you are is irrelevant; who you are is important. Yes, there have been more outreach programs recently. Certainly the philosophy of ‘El Sistema’ has taken the country by storm, and programs are springing up all over the country. And of course the purpose served by organizations like Sphinx is noble and useful! But there is more to do–much more. And it really isn’t that complicated. So to Orpheus or any other organization out there that is ‘grappling’ with diversity, here is my advice: forget about diversity. Embrace inclusiveness. Do a runout concert in a rough neighborhood. Send your musicians to give free lessons in a failing middle school or high school. Preach the Word According to Beethoven, and let them know that his music is for them, too. And above all, don’t look at someone dark-skinned as an other, a minority, someone different: look at them as a friend, a colleague, a musician, a member of Schiller’s universal brotherhood. Look, listen, and give them a chance. That is worth far more than $400,000.00, and it’ll cost you far less.


Listening to classical music: The concern of a generation.

I have had the chance to go to a few concerts over the last week. It has been refreshing to take part in the wonderful social experience of the concert after a long and busy summer, a time in which the ‘routine’ of concert culture is often broken or unpredictable. 

The concerts were excellent: the musicians played beautifully, the repertoire was fantastic and well chosen and the venues were intimate. There was just one issue: the audience was old. Very old.

Please don’t misunderstand: I have nothing against the chronologically advanced. But it is quite disheartening to see an audience comprised almost exclusively (often but for the family, students and friends of the performers) of senior citizens. Where or where are the 20 and 30-somethings? For that matter, were are the 40-somethings?!

It is an ongoing problem, one which orchestras across the country are struggling to address. From marketing campaigns to special pricing on concerts, from music in the schools programs to ‘crossover’ events, classical music organizations are looking for solutions. The results are heralded in different ways, ranging from the benign (being more active in the community, being a community leader in education) to the boderline-suspicious (Revolutionizing Classical music! Making classical music cool!)

The lamentation of this issue is often met with a chuckle, usually followed by a gentle sigh and shrug of the shoulders as if to say ‘Well, what can we do? Times are changing. Young people don’t have the same interests or traditions their grandparents did.’

I spoke with a friend of mine who is not a classical music aficionado nor a regular concert-goer; however, she enjoys classical music, has a good education, a good career and an appreciation for culture. She’s also in her late 30s. This makes her a perfect example of the ‘type of person’ that we hope to get into the concert hall regularly. I asked her directly: Why don’t you go? What would get you, or your friends or students, to make classical music a regular part of your life? 

Her reply was quite frustrating, and something I’ve heard before: “Give the kids something they can relate to!” she offered. “You know, you could bring in a hip-hop group and have a violinist play something over the hip-hop beats…and the kids might think ‘Hey, this is cool–now I think I’ll try listening to it with just the violin.’ That could be good!”

I know what the reaction might be to my frustration: accusations that I’m an elitist, a snob, stubborn. But that isn’t it. Not this time. It made me frustrated. It made me mad. And maybe, just maybe, this could be an acceptable response. Why? I’ll tell you why.

There is no reason that classical music itself could not be an independent frame of reference for young people. Why shouldn’t young people–children, teens, young professionals–have a basic knowledge of Beethoven and Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky? These men wrote long before ‘hip hop’–along with rock and pop–ever existed. And they were not living and writing in ivory towers: their message, for lack of a better term, was for everyone. 

And the idea that classical music needs to be made ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’ is insulting. Nobody should have to apologize for Beethoven and Mozart. Nobody should have to dumb it down. Nobody should have to dilute it or allow it to be associated with just one mood. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me Oh, I like classical music…it is so relaxing….

I will not apologize. 

There are other criticisms: concerts–or even single pieces–are too long. The atmosphere is stuffy and formal. There are all these rules. The music is boring and antiquated–sorry, old fashioned.

I’ll give you one of those for free, but I’m taking issue with the rest. Sure, the atmosphere can be stuffy. You know why? Because some people relish the chance to be snobby. Well, that performance was okay, but it wasn’t nearly as good as my Bernstein recording!” Ok, buddy, we get it: you collect records, you know a bit about classical music, and you enjoy lording it over people you perceive to be less educated and intelligent than you are. But you know what? That snobby comment may have just turned a future subscriber into someone who will never set foot in here again. Nice going! And you know what else? Being snobby doesn’t make the music any better. The guy who bravely bought a ticket to his first symphony concert has every bit as much the right to enjoy the concert as you do. So yes: those who allege that concerts can be stuffy, I acknowledge your complaint. We will work on that. 

Now, onto the rest:

Concerts are too long? You can’t sit through a 45 minute symphony? Believe it or not, sitting still and concentrating for extended periods of time are actual, important life skills. Grown up skills. If you can’t concentrate on something for 30 or 45 minutes, the problem may be with you rather than with the music. That doesn’t mean that every 45 minute long piece of music is a masterpiece–but maybe you could take the time to find out. And frankly, these composers wrote about some pretty serious things: life, death, love, faith, desire, war. Those things can’t always fit into a 3 minute song. Sorry. 

Next: The setting is formal and there are rules: well, yeah. First, not every concert is formal. Plenty aren’t. But lets assume you’re at a concert which has a bit of formality involved. Fine. You know what? Putting on the big boy pants, tying your own tie and being polite aren’t the worst things in the world to have to do. Again, these are actual life skills! Consider it practice for your cousin Marge’s wedding. We know you don’t like Marge that much–but trust us, you’ll love this Mozart. And those rules? Sorry, sometimes you have to follow the rules. Sure, trying not to cough, rattle paper, make a call or make other noises at certain times can be tough–but if you can’t at least try it for a couple of hours, again, the problem may not be with the music.

Finally…the music is boring? Excuse me? Boring, did you say? Listen to Shostakovich. The guy lived with a bag packed, looking over both shoulders, waiting to die a long, painful, horrible death for, you know, not wanting to call a violent, erratic sociopath (Stalin) the greatest guy who ever lived. Good ol’ Dimitri defied official orders time and time again; he was brave, and he was honest: this fear (and his love of his homeland) found its way into his music. Listen to the 3rd movement of the 8th symphony. Go, ahead, do it–then tell me that this music is boring. What? More examples? Hm…well, lets see….how about the last movement of Beethoven’s 7th: if you can listen to that and not want to dance, then you are not alive. How about the 2nd movement of Mahler’s 5th? Chaos! Barber’s Adagio–need a tissue? And there are many, many more examples I could give–thousands, quite literally.

Yes, there is work to do. Yes, the classical music world is hardly without sin. But the music needs no apology. I am through apologizing for this great music, this wonderful tradition, this living history. 

It is time for a new generation.