Dissent

On August 3, the Kennedy Center announced the recipients of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors.  The KC Honors are one of the most prestigious artistic prizes in the world, with past recipients ranging from Martha Graham and Tennessee Williams, to Johnny Carson and Georg Solti, to Martha Argerich and the Eagles.  Since the award’s inception, the Honors have recognized the lives and work of artists across cultures and disciplines; the only criterion holds that recipients must have made “lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts — whether in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television,” according to the Kennedy Center’s 2017 press release.  Recipients are honored each year in a reception at the White House, followed by a televised gala during which they are seated alongside the President and First Lady.

To claim that the Kennedy Center Honors have ever been anything but political would be naive.  Art is political in its mere existence, be it free from censorship, in defiance of censorship, or in collusion with it.  Creation is inherently a political act; any human activity — painting, dancing, banking, coding — is influenced by, and influences, the political systems that surround it.  That’s not exactly a revelation.  But the Kennedy Center’s very existence is political, given its role as the United States’ national performing arts center, a federally funded “living memorial” to JFK.  That art and culture could — in fact, should — contribute to an American nationalism was one of President Kennedy’s recurring talking points.  In a 1963 speech at Amherst College, he said:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.  I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.  And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

It is significant, then, that when the Honors are awarded in the Kennedy Center Opera House on December 3 of this year, the man seated in the President’s chair — the man who will welcome the Honorees into the White House, and sit beside them in the Opera House balcony — will be a man who has repeatedly criticized and silenced artists; threatened to slash federal arts funding; and systematically demeaned, harassed, and in some cases literally endangered people who are women, queer, immigrants, religious minorities, people with disabilities, and people of color — all of whom consume art or create it, and all of whom have without question contributed to American culture as much as any Kennedy Center Honoree.

It is significant, as well, that this year’s Honorees are Carmen de Lavallade, Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Norman Lear, and Lionel Richie.  That’s four people of color — including one refugee, Estefan, whose family fled from the Cuban Revolution, and who has advocated for refugees’ rights — plus outspoken Trump critic Lear, a Jewish war veteran who spent his career in television amplifying and normalizing the stories of communities of color.  De Lavallade, a legendary dancer and choreographer, was one of the first African-American dancers to take the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.  LL Cool J is the first rapper to receive the award, amplifying a marginalized art form built on Black narratives; he’s also been vocal about causes affecting marginalized communities that have largely been ignored or dismissed by the Trump administration.  And Lionel Richie, while a celebrity friend of the President, once advised Trump to “do everything the opposite of what you said you’re gonna do.”

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Slightly less terrible

This week’s headlines have been tough, and they’re only going to get tougher.  To recap: millions of Americans soon might not be able to afford to, you know, stay alive; and thousands of brave U.S. military personnel are set to lose their right to serve their country and, accordingly, receive veterans’ pay, medical care, and honorable discharge.  Scrolling through my Facebook feed, all I see is outrage — rightfully — and there’s a prevailing sense of hopelessness.  Like, all we can do is watch the headlines roll in and post diatribes of caps-lock FURY, because the system is broken and we are angry and we are hurting, but we are also small.

And, at the end of the day, we are comfortable.  It’s hard to admit.  But while people who are transgender or queer or people of color face wildly unjust and dangerous systems, I can quietly write a blog post about it, sip my chai latte, and stroll out the door without a care in the world.  I can proclaim myself to be an ally and petition my senators not to repeal the ACA — but Trump is still president and people are literally dying, and all I have to offer is an oboe and a bleeding-heart blog post.

As the Facebook rants deluge and the helplessness mounts, there’s a question that’s been haunting me.  We’re musicians, my Facebook friends and I.  We’ve dedicated decades and degrees to a craft that is highly competitive and woefully underfunded — there must be a reason for it.  What can we do — music performers, composers, educators, administrators — what can we do to make the many terrible things that are happening, slightly less terrible?

A beautifully written call to action by queer trans non-binary Filipinx-American artist Angela Dumlao asks cisgender people to consider how to engage privilege with genuine, impactful allyship.  “You likely won’t get Trump to stop being terrible,” they write.  “But you can look in the mirror and be better.”

One of the questions for reflection on Dumlao’s list: “Do you intake media by trans people?  TV?  Books?  Articles?  Art?  Music?”

For those of us in classical music, the answer is, Probably not.  Programming and visibility of trans composers is virtually nonexistent in major concert halls — unsurprising, in a world where an opera house can program literally one work by a woman in an entire century and be applauded as “making progress” — while trans soloists have been systematically silenced and oppressed.  “In the United States, once I came out as Sara, I couldn’t get bookings with the top orchestras anymore, nor would any university employ me,” trans pianist Sara Davis Buechner wrote in an article for the New York Times.

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Regarding integrity (Part 2)

(Read Part 1)

The second article that got me in trouble was a review of Opera McGill‘s production of Alcina this past Fall.  The review, “Orientalism is no magic,” takes issue with the production’s use of yellowface — makeup, costumes, and set design appropriated from Asian cultures by white directors and designers, worn by white singers, and performed for the entertainment of a predominantly white audience.

Unlike the Don Giovanni interview, this article was 100% written by me, and I stand by it 100%.  The review was a joint project meant to accompany “An open letter to Opera McGill” by Sarah Shin-Wong, a recording engineer who worked behind the scenes on the production, and whose perspective as a student of colour sheds vital light on why, exactly, the Alcina production was so infuriating:

Yellowface is when a non-Asian person wears makeup and/or costumes to look what they think is “Asian.”  Thus, the entire 2016 principal cast of Alcina was performing yellowface.

It is offensive because essentially it is wearing ethnicities as a costume.  It homogenizes, exotifies, and objectifies various Asian cultures and puts them under the umbrella of “Orientalism.”  It dehumanizes Asian people and makes Asian cultures a superficial trend or aesthetic.  In addition, it propagates inaccurate stereotypes and derogatory caricatures.  It can be likened to blackface.

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Regarding integrity (Part 1)

To Whom It May Concern:

This is an open letter to anyone who has ever dismissed sexism in opera as an inherent product of the times.  This is an open letter to anyone who’s ever stumbled upon criticism of racist practices in classical music, and done nothing but shrug, dismissing those criticisms as the ill-informed ramblings of a starry-eyed Social Justice Warrior.

This is an open letter to anyone who thinks that classical music shouldn’t be held to the same standards of critique, dialogue, and evolution as literally every other art form — who thinks that #OscarsSoWhite might apply in Hollywood, but certainly not in the concert hall.

This is an open letter to anyone who claims that calling Don Giovanni a rapist is a step too far.  This is an open letter to anyone who thinks it doesn’t even matter what we call him, because in the end, it’s only an opera, and can’t we leave politics out of it?

No — no we can’t.  Because opera is never only opera, and politics and art are inexorably linked.  And if you happen to feel otherwise — well, this letter is for you.   Continue reading

Thoughts and Prayers

On Sunday, June 12, a lone gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and slaughtered 49 people, injuring 53 others.  This marks the most fatal mass shooting by a single assailant in U.S. history (though even deadlier massacres against civilians have haunted this nation’s past).

The club was hosting “Latin Night” and spotlighting trans performers, so the shooting explicitly targeted not only the already-marginalized LGBTQ* community, but also a marginalized ethnic community.  Though the media has been frenziedly touting “radical Islam” as the shooter’s motive, there is no denying that the primary force that drove this tragedy — this invasion of a safe space for a community already disproportionately vulnerable to violence, homelessness, and suicide — was, above all, homophobia.

I’m heteroromantic, white, and cisgender, so I won’t use this platform to co-opt the LGBTQ and Latinx communities’ grief.  That’s not what this post is about.  Instead, I’m here to talk about classical music.

Remember the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last October?  Probably not, because it’s been overshadowed by the 200+ acts of mass gun violence that have taken place in the U.S. since then (Orlando included).  Regardless — back in October, Hartford-based classical music critic Steve Metcalf published an article entitled “Imagine Classical Music and Gun Control: It Isn’t Hard to Do,” which he later adapted as a radio piece following December’s attack in San Bernardino.

In the article, Metcalf talks about the trope of “thoughts and prayers,” words that are often expressed sincerely yet empty of intent or ability to take action:

I was struck this time by how many people, including President Barack Obama, made the point that they were so very weary of conveying their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims’ families and friends.  The phrase is sincerely offered, of course, but increasingly seems inadequate to the task, particularly when we’re called upon to use it so often.

Metcalf then points to the classical music world’s equivalent of the “thoughts and prayers” paradigm — the famous quote by Leonard Bernstein, noted pacifist and champion of civil rights, penned following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963:

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

The Bernstein quote has been widely circulated on my social media feeds ever since Sunday.  The Orlando Philharmonic even posted it on their Facebook page.  And I’m no less guilty, having shared it on Tumblr last night.  As Metcalf writes, “It has become the classical music world’s automatic, default response.”

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Classical Music Round-Up: January through March 2016

I’ve been on blogging hiatus for almost two months.  Here’s the low-down.

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Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (photo via)

It was announced that Gianandrea Noseda will take over the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra next season, while Jaap van Zweden will join the New York Philharmonic at the podium.  Two more white men in charge of major American orchestras?  No big surprise there, but Marin Alsop might have something to say.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be the City of Birmingham Symphony’s new leading lady, at only 29 years old.  *applause*  And another young conductor on the rise: 25-year-old Jordan de Souza will be heading up Komische Oper Berlin.

We lost some greats in recent months: business mogul turned self-taught conductor Gilbert Kaplan; pioneering composer Pierre Boulez; Pulitzer-winning composers Leslie Bassett and Steven Stucky; Dallas Symphony leader Louis Lane; conducting pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller; and — just today — maestro Nikolas Harnoncourt.

Now some feel-good stories: a Berlin horn player reflects on collaborating with Simon Rattle before the conductor relocates to London; Tafelmusik’s rendition of Beethoven 9 left one Toronto critic with nothing to criticize; bassist Jane Little just became the longest-serving orchestral musician ever, after 71 years with the Atlanta Symphony; and Ennio Morricone just won his first Oscar after working on the scores for over 500 films.

Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord recital was interrupted by Baroque-head “rioters,” while scholars have discovered that the taxi horns in Gershwin’s An American in Paris might be pitched in the wrong key, and the Yale School of Music launched its first ever MOOC on Coursera.

As 2016 got off to an alarming start (Donald Trump, anyone?), diverse voices shone — from a powerful performance in a Harlem crypt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter; to violinist Rosemary Johnson and the UK’s Paramusical Ensemble making music through disability; to Julia Wolfe’s big-deal commission — a piece about American women in the workforce — for the New York Philharmonic’s 2018-19 season; to composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ open sexuality.

In U.S. politics, WQXR explored classical music on the campaign trail, while Bernie is, apparently, a gifted maestro.  And in the classical crime beat, an opera singer’s “screams” alerted Amsterdam police, a former St. Paul cellist was caught in a massive drug bust, and a rare French horn stolen six years ago was reunited with its owner.

In Iran, the women of the Tehran Symphony face oppression.  In Germany, an emergency refugee camp is filled with the music of a children’s choir.

Gustavo Dudamel led the Youth Orchestra L.A. at Superbowl halftime.  Grammy-winning violist Kim Kashkashian shares the woes of her name.  The Telegraph had a really interesting conversation with Renée Fleming, Anne Midgette profiled musicians who take time off from performing, and drama continues to unfold in the Buffalo Philharmonic oboe section.

A new Mozart opera was discovered and performed, while for the rest of the opera world, it’s same-old, same-old.

And finally, to end this round-up with a smile: watch a Bach duet played by a 90-year-old husband and wife.

Normal People Listen: Bonnie listens to Mendelssohn

It’s time for another installment of Normal People Listen to Classical Music!  In which real humans who don’t usually listen to classical music share their thoughts after listening to a classical piece.

npltcmName: Bonnie

Age: 20

Hometown: McLean, VA

Interests: Short walks to the refrigerator, long walks on the beach, and spending time with friends in comedy clubs

Find Bonnie online! facebook.com/MsBonnieNewton and twitter.com/bonbonfig

Piece: “Allegro assai” from String Quartet No. 6 in F minor by Felix Mendelssohn

Thoughts:

I’d like to say I’m not a COMPLETE novice when it comes to music. I took a music appreciation and a music theory course when I was in high school. However, both classes ended up consisting of listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D over and over and over to the point where my notebooks became filled with angry puns like “Taco Bells Canon” and “Pachelbel’s Canon needs to be a canOFF.” (Heads up, if you hate puns, leave now.) Needless to say, “music appreciation” didn’t really leave me appreciating music all that much, and as I continued on down the path of life, classical music left me feeling more lost than a Malaysian aircraft. (Is that joke still relevant?)

Then, this past summer a beautiful thing happened to me and I began an internship at The Kennedy Center where I was exposed to more art and music than I could have ever imagined. By the end of the summer I would even say that classical music was alleGROWing on me, so when my friend Carly asked if I would guest write a review for her blog I jumped at the chance, and then took 3 months to actually write the review because balancing 2 comedy groups, several theatrical productions, a career as a stand-up comedian, work, and school is hard…Who sleeps? Anyways, now that you know that classical music isn’t really my FORTE, but puns are, I feel like we can get into the actual review.

The video begins by showcasing the venue, Powerhouse Arena, which appears to be a bookstore and performance space all wrapped into one, or in other words: heaven on earth! I mean, books and art are two great things that go great together, its like milk & cookies, peanut butter & jelly, or cake & my face. The world needs more of these things.

Then, the video continues and we see the string quartet. I’m immediately sent into flashbacks from PachelHELL, and I remember one of my old notes that read “Obe! Violins never solved anything!” but I stuck it out, kept listening, and I wasn’t disappointed. The first notes of the song are super fitting for the arena, because they are a POWERHOUSE! I mean these guys just do not REST! If this song were to play as part of the soundtrack of someone’s life it would probably appear the moment after they accidentally touch someone’s butt while walking past them, and are forced to decide whether or not to acknowledge the situation by apologizing, because that is stressful stuff!

The song continues on to fluctuate between sections that feel calm and somber and other moments that feel angry and violent. In some ways it’s the musical equivalent of the mood swings I feel when someone tells me they’re voting for Trump. The song even ends on a both physically and metaphorically “plucky” moment similar to when I get up the courage to voice my opinions.

Final Thoughts: You leGATo listen to this. I also highly suggest watching the video, because the musician’s faces seem to express everything from “Oh no, we’re in TREBLE” to “Is the music drunk? Its SLURring everything,” and even “Does my instrument really smell like that?” I might even listen to it a few more times myself for good MEASURE.