Shostakovich Wants YOU To Vote

“Rehearsal did not take place. Srabian is dead. Petrov is sick. Borishev is dead. Orchestra not working.”

Thus read the log records for the Leningrad Radio Orchestra in 1941, as German forces held the starving city under siege. The following summer, when rehearsals began on Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, only fifteen musicians showed up. An oboist took her instrument to be repaired; the repairman requested payment not of money, but of a cat to eat.

The remarkable story behind the premiere of the Leningrad Symphony is chronicled in Jason Caffrey’s BBC article, “Shostakovich’s symphony played by a starving orchestra.” Caffrey concludes by quoting Soviet-born conductor Semyon Bychkov:

In the end [the Seventh Symphony] was composed for humanity. And the best proof is that today we still need it, we are still listening to it.

Here in the U.S., our relationship with Shostakovich is often one of reverence. Our program notes position him in brave defiance against Soviet censorship. Writing about the composer’s Symphony No. 10 for the San Francisco Symphony, James M. Keller observes that the 1945 Ninth Symphony was denounced for insufficiently capturing the glory of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany; and that, in 1948, Shostakovich was accused of “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies in music, alien to the Soviet people and its artistic tastes.”

My music history classes and multiloquent maestros all told the same story: Shostakovich was anti-Stalin, anti-censorship, anti-regime. His music was criticized and persecuted. He lived in fear and paranoia; following State-sanctioned criticism of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he carried around a small, packed suitcase, expecting to be deported to Siberia at any moment. Continue reading “Shostakovich Wants YOU To Vote”


Music from Sh*thole Countries

Unsurprisingly, the President of the United States has said another racist thing — granted, in white supremacist language slightly less veiled than some of his previous, if equally horrifying, gaffes — and perhaps we can agree that the only sh*thole country in this equation is the U.S. But, to be honest, I might not have decided to write about the “sh*thole countries” comment — this vile and dangerous rhetoric, now so painfully normalized that I actually rolled my eyes when I first saw the headlines — if I hadn’t spent the past two weeks obsessing over Ladilikan, the debut collaborative album from the Kronos Quartet and Trio Da Kali.

It was — as so many great albums are — an unexpected discovery, brought about by an algorithmic rabbit hole: one YouTube video recommended another, and what started out as Salome score study found me, hours later, perusing the never-ending treasure trove of live performances uploaded by Seattle’s public radio station, KEXP.

Trio Da Kali comprises vocalist Hawa Diabaté, lutenist Mamadou Kouyaté on ngoni, and balafonist Lassana Diabaté. The trio are Malian Mandé griot — musicians, storytellers, praise singers and oral historians. During their performance, KEXP host Darek Mazzone asked, “What is the role of the griot?”

“If something isn’t going right, it’s our responsibility to step in for the greater good,” Lassana Diabaté replied.

Mazzone nodded. “We could use that here.”

Classical music is — in case you weren’t aware — overwhelmingly white. Audiences, composers, performers — the whole system promotes and protects white participants.

The counterpoint skeptics are itching to point out: of course classical music is white; it’s from Europe, which is also white.

Besides the obvious fallacy that Europe is or ever was without communities of color, there’s another danger at hand in this misguided belief: in accepting classical music as a white art form, we abandon any possibility of changing that. “Complacency breeds complicity,” journalist Zack Ferriday writes in an article for VAN Magazine. He explains:

Between outright nationalism and the slightly less visible institutional racial bias, classical music has been — wittingly and unwittingly — instrumental in the propagation of racist narratives over its hundreds of years. Even for The Guardian, the “biggest issue of all” surrounding Herbert von Karajan was how he produced his performances; his membership of the Nazi party tucked neatly away between parentheses.

Ferriday describes how the neo-Nazi web forum Stormfront hosts a discussion thread hundreds of pages long, its members celebrating classical music’s whiteness, denouncing atonality as a Jewish invention, and issuing bizarre and hateful declarations like, “listening to the classics FORCES you to be white.”

“The idea that classical music provides some kind of sanctuary for somebody with [Holocaust denier Vincent Reynouard’s] views (and the views shared by the Stormfront membership) should be completely unacceptable,” Ferriday writes, “and, moreover, should be something actively fought against.”

Continue reading “Music from Sh*thole Countries”


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.  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 then–President-Elect Trump to “do everything the opposite of what you said you’re gonna do.”

Continue reading “Dissent”