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”


Peter and the Inadvertent Racism

Early one morning, Peter opened the gate and went out into the big green meadow.

It was the smallest sort of racism. Subtle, unintentional. A youth ballet company, interpreting Peter and the Wolf alongside a regional symphony orchestra, donned costumes to represent their characters.

On the branch of a big tree sat a little bird, Peter’s friend. “All is quiet,” chirped the bird gaily.

The Bird wore a bright, feathered tutu; the Duck, a yellow-plumed tiara. And the Wolf was covered from head to toe in a mask and gray furred costume, complete with a tail.

The Bird and Duck argued and flapped their wings; the Cat skulked and stalked; Grandfather waved his cane and scolded Peter, who brashly ignored his grandpa’s warnings to stay away from the dangerous meadow. At the climactic moment, Peter and his forest friends captured the Wolf using a rope lasso lowered from a nearby tree.

Just then, hunters came out of the woods, following the wolf’s trail and shooting as they came. 

A phalanx of ballerinas — likely 12 or 13 years old — emerged from stage right, wearing black stealth leotards, night-vision goggles, and caps camouflaged with bits of flora. The resulting aesthetic was less Elmer Fudd and more paramilitary. They performed a lighthearted dance with their plastic rifles in tow, cocking them and popping imaginary bullets to the rhythm of the timpani. Suddenly sighting the Wolf, they spun around and pointed their barrels at the predator-turned-prey.

But Peter sitting in the tree said: “Don’t shoot! The bird and I have already caught the wolf. Now please help us take him to the zoo.”

The audience couldn’t see the dancer portraying the Wolf; she was completely hidden by her costume. So does it make a difference that this dancer — whose character is physically captured and bound by a rope tied to a tree, wielded by a white male; and who is held at gunpoint by what, for all appearances, could be a junior SWAT team — was the only Black dancer on stage?

It might be a stretch to point out far-removed imagery of lynching and police brutality in a regional children’s production of Peter and the Wolf. Maybe I’m a snowflake — oversensitive, bleeding-heart, a bit too eager to cry “Problematic!”

Or maybe the decisions we make in performing music — especially when performing for an audience of children — carry deeply rooted social meanings, however unintentional, that convey powerful messages beyond what our white-privileged minds can foresee.

Continue reading “Peter and the Inadvertent Racism”

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”

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 AC 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,” pianist Sara Davis Buechner wrote in an article for the New York Times.

Continue reading “Slightly less terrible”

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 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.”

Continue reading “Thoughts and Prayers”