Thursday, 26 December 2019

Resistance: to change, but also to tradition

Cellist Patrice Jackson performing back in 2002 (Photo: Andrew Sacks for The New York Times)

My first ever post on classical music, written in 2012, was entitled “
What’s the problem with classical music? Apparently none…”. Seven years later, I still believe there’s nothing wrong with the genre itself, but there are many wrongs in the way it is being managed.

A few days ago, an article in the New York Times informed me that women were not “allowed” in the Vienna Philharmonic until 1997. Even today, only 15 of its 145 permanent members are women. And they actually still make a maximum of 30% in classical orchestras in continental Europe.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some orchestras started implementing blind auditions in order to avoid gender bias. Candidates were situated behind a screen to play for a jury that could not see them. According to The Guardian, “Researchers have determined that this step alone makes it 50% more likely that a woman will advance to the finals. And the screen has also been demonstrated to be the source of a surge in the number of women being offered positions.” Still, some details in this process give us a full view of the issues at stake here: female musicians are instructed to remove their footwear (more specifically, high heels) before coming onto the stage, as their sound allegedly influenced some jury members. (Yes, that bad…)

Marin Alsop (the new conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra) was quoted in the above-mentioned New York Times article saying that “Classical music is a very small microcosm of our broader society, and it’s a very conservative microcosm: We’re wearing the same clothes we’ve been wearing for 200 years.”

Lack of diversity is not unique to the classical music field, but resistance to change seems to be stronger. More and more professionals, though, are eager to see their field moving on. Chi-chi Nwanoku, double bassist and founder of the Chineke! Foundation, acknowledged that “historical inaccuracies, unattributed contributions and long-lost gems are being restored and reinstated (…) From art to science and beyond, the work of historically marginalised groups is being gloriously shared. Except within classical music, that is. And to compound matters, the errors of the past are being repeated today.” She founded Chineke! in 2015, Europe’s first majority BME [Black – Minority Ethnic] orchestra, feeling that something should be done “after 35 years of performing on the international concert platform, and becoming too used to being the only black person on stage.” Nwanoku heavily criticised this year’s BBC Proms, which included work by only 29 female composers (out of a total of 160), and where out of the 13 new commissions by the BBC, only one was by a black female composer and one by a black male composer.

Also in the US, where African-American musicians accounted for only 1,8 percent of the country’s orchestra players in 2014, three national organisations - the Sphinx Organization, the New World Symphony and the League of American Orchestras - joined forces last year in order to help more African-American and Hispanic musicians consider a career in this field: “They are training musicians for auditions, pair them with mentors, showcase their work in concerts and give them stipends to travel to auditions.” The urgency in considering these imbalances became even more obvious when conductor Brandon Keith Brown openly discussed his views on implicit bias in the classical music field, where there has never been a black conductor in a top-10 US orchestra; black conductors are being excluded from subscription concerts; musicians may work their whole lives without experiencing black conductors. Brown also reported inappropriate and disrespectful behaviour on behalf of some musicians (such as not playing when cued or at all; talking back/arguing/cursing; refusing correction; changing parts at the concert to cause confusion; not showing up to rehearsals on time or at all). Both Brown and Nwanoku consider that this is the result of a white male dominated field, both at the level of administration and among the musicians. It’s not a secret that environments lacking diversity are prone (and even eager) to maintain monocultures.

Brandon Keith Brown (Photo: Deyan Baric)

Moving on to other “traditions” in the field, one that seems to hold strong is the use of blackface. While opera star Anna Netrebko defended it in her interpretation of Verdi’s “Aida”, last March in St. Petersburg (“Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopien [sic] princess, for Verdi[‘s] greatest opera! YES!”,
Netrebko wrote on her Instagram account in response to criticism), soprano Tamara Wilson refused to do the same in Verona. Some extracts from her interview:

"Classical music and opera have been immersed in tradition for a very long time. Audiences still want to be transported and connect with music that touches their souls, but sometimes our industry clings to these traditions to a fault. Many people in our industry and audience view the original intent of the composer and librettist as paramount, which leaves no room for modern alterations or interpretations. But there are others, including myself, who believe that our art-form should reflect the times we live in. (…) Opera singers today travel the world and meet people of all backgrounds with their own views of how they are and should be depicted on stage. It makes it more difficult to argue that we should maintain historic opera traditions when the people being depicted in the audience may hold different views. (…) I think it's important to have productions that are traditional and depict the history of opera itself, but I also believe we need to have forward-thinking productions to launch the art-form into the new century."

I particularly appreciated Wilson’s positioning. She is not unaware of the past and its context, but neither is she unaware of the current contexts in which her field operates. She doesn’t choose to arrogantly ignore one side in the name of tradition. Arrogance eventually translates into irrelevance; ignorance does too. Can the classical music world afford it, especially in the case of opera, the art-form often referred to as “dying”, which receives more public funding than any other, from wealthy Norway to poor Portugal?

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon.

I left for the end the “traditional” relationship of the classical music field with its audiences, which I have tackled on a number of occasions on this blog (links at the end of this text). We are talking about a tradition that makes the Calouste Gublenkian Foundation believe that it is OK to ask people not to cough during concerts (suggesting that coughing demonstrates lack of respect and coming with a full set of tips in order to avoid it!); or that makes La Scala believe that it is OK to send people away when they show up on warm summer days in shorts, sleeveless T-shirts or flip-flops (another demonstration of lack of respect? To whom?); or that makes it OK to seriously reprimand, humiliate and scare any member of the audience who might feel enthusiastic and clap between movements (a rule invented in the 20th century that help separate those who have the right to be in the room from annoying intruders).

Some cultural organisations become trapped and only seem to care about their traditional audiences. All I see in these processes is arrogance and the intention to exclude in order to feel exclusive. Is there a “right way” of listening to classical music? Undoubtedly, some people will say “yes”. Fine, they are entitled to enjoy things the way they prefer. Can they impose their way on others, though? And should cultural organisations support this imposition and not create space for others?

Aubrey Bergauer was until recently the Executive Director of California Symphony and coordinated the team responsible for the orchestra's significant turnaround. (Photo taken from Southwestmag)

There are cultural organisations that make huge efforts to convey that people can dress as they like, they´re welcome anyway (in 2012, the English National Opera made a whole campaign called “ENO says undress”). More recently, Opera Theater of Saint Louis (USA) heard from a lady in a focus group that she didn’t attend because she didn’t have a ball gown… Supported by the Wallace Foundation, the Opera Theater has tried to identify the reasons why many people don’t attend. To the belief that one needs a ball gown to attend, we may also add the assumption that operas are all in Italian or French or another language people don’t know (“Opera wasn’t just for the highly educated - it was for the excessively educated”) or what Opera Theater considers one of the most heartening discoveries, that is that young audiences want to see a diverse cast onstage (“And this request wasn’t just coming from young people of color, but from everyone”). Joe Gfeller, former director of marketing and communications, said that “At its heart, communicating what Opera Theatre was about in this space isn’t about saying ‘you’re welcome here’. It’s about saying we value you. And conversations, issues, things that you care about are things that we care about also.”

It makes sense. Building this new relationship is not about claiming “I want us to be friends”, but about questioning “What will it take for us to be friends? Why were we not friends so far?”. It takes much more than stating “We are open to all”; it takes an honest and profound introspection that may lead to the much-needed change. The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has taken this path, questioning what it does, how it does it and for whom and testing and evaluating new ways of building new relationships. Other organisations – such as the California Symphony, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment or the Classical Revolutionhave also gone through this introspection and looked for other ways of engaging and being relevant to other people.

In her book “The art of relevance”, Nina Simon defines relevance as “a key that unlocks meaning. It opens doors to experiences that matter to us, surprise us, and bring value into our lives.” We don’t create meaning by just inviting people in, much less by telling them that they are welcome only if they dress in a certain way, behave in a certain way, enjoy things in the exact way other, more knowledgeable, people do. Arrogance does not build relationships, neither do policies that support exclusion.

Classical music writer Olivia Giovetti recently signed an article entitled “To save opera, we have to let it die”. And she explained: “Calling for the death of opera doesn’t mean calling for the Met to close. Nor does it mean the wholesale abandonment of composers such as Mozart and Puccini. It does, however, mean we must no longer romanticize the bygone eras of opera’s so-called golden age so much that we fail to imagine the genre’s future.”

More readings

Laura Fraser (2019),
Shake up the symphony

Sophie de Merteuil (2017),
Opera’s race problem

More on classical music on this blog

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