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 LGBT community [1], 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 LGBT 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

Pierre Boulez: ‘Courage, innovation, creativity’

The incomparable maestro, whose compositions, texts, and interpretations sparked an entire era of musical boundary-breaking, passed away yesterday at the age of 90.  France’s prime minister Manuel Valls paid tribute to Boulez’s “audace, innovation, créativité” — traits which defined not only the man and his works, but also the weird, wild, spellbinding world that we know as New Music, in which Boulez was a trailblazing pioneer.

Boulez’s passing comes a little over three years after that of Elliott Carter, another New Music legend.  These two men were characters in my music history textbook, filling the final chapters — the late 20th and early 21st centuries — with their music, vibrant and vicious.  The fact that their lives and deaths overlapped with my own lifetime makes me wonder: if their era has ended, what era has begun?  In fifty years’ time, who will occupy the final chapters of my granddaughter’s music history textbook?

But then, in music, is there ever truly a final chapter?

R.I.P. Pierre Boulez, 1925-2016

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#MakeItHappen: Jon Stewart, Alan Gilbert, and some thoughts on being a woman in classical music

NO.

NO NO NO NO NO.

Though Stewart’s announcement is almost a month old at this point, it still stings to imagine a 2016 election cycle without his brilliant, biting, and entirely necessary perspective.  I’ve been watching the Daily Show for literally half of my life — longer even than I’ve been playing oboe — and it’s going to be sad to watch him go.

As per usual, the Internet reacted to the news with a whirlwind variety of thoughts and opinions, and I was particularly struck by one sector of the online community’s call to action:

That Guardian headline gets it right — “It’s time.”  Isn’t it time?  Female representation in late-night comedy is deplorably low, moderated by a systemic, male-dominated bias in the popular media.  A white-male-dominated bias, I should add: Larry Wilmore of the Nightly Show is currently the only African-American late night comedy host on TV.

But I’ll leave a discussion of racial diversity for another day — today, it’s all about women.  Happy International Women’s Day!

Mere days before Jon Stewart announced his departure, another great man in the entertainment industry announced his impending resignation: Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic for the past eight years.  Though Gilbert won’t actually be leaving until 2017, his departure will leave a particularly prominent job position open for applicants.  I therefore offer the following proposal:

Alan Gilbert’s replacement should be a woman.  It’s time. Continue reading

Who Runs the Show?

Back in June, a tidbit of old news went viral — the ill-received 2013 attempt of one classical concertgoer to crowd-surf during a performance of Händel’s Messiah.  Here are some of the headlines:

Händel is not amused. (image source)

“Crowd surfer carried away by Handel thrown out of alternative Proms” (Independent)

“Audience ejects crowd-surfer from classical concert” (Telegraph)

“At Handel’s Messiah, he was a very naughty boy! Leading scientist kicked out of classical music concert after trying to crowd surf” (Daily Mail)

“Scientist Tries To Crowd Surf To Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ Gets Kicked Out Of Concert By Concertgoers” (Huffington Post)

“Punk As F–k Scientist Ejected From Concert For Crowdsurfing to Handel” (Gawker)

All these articles tell more or less the same story.  A year ago, an American scientist named Dr. David Glowacki attended a performance of Händel’s Messiah as part of the Bristol Proms, a non-traditional classical concert series based at Bristol’s Old Vic theatre that encouraged audience members with the following guidelines: “Enjoy a beer in the pit, chat when you like, clap when you like, whoop when you like, engage with the music as you like, and no shushing other people.”  Despite the latter directive, when Dr. Glowacki was so moved by the music as to begin “lurching from side to side,” the audience bristled for his removal from the venue.

It’s easy to read these headlines and laugh.  Just picture it: crowd-surfing at a classical concert?!  The incongruity of the image is, objectively, funny.

But this begs the larger question: why is the image so incongruous?  Why should a behavior that expresses uninhibited enjoyment of the music seem so out-of-place in a concert hall where the goal of the people onstage is to produce music for the audience to enjoy uninhibitedly?

For the answer, we turn to Dr. Glowacki’s own response to all the hubbub — “Handeled during the Messiah,” a June 24 post on his personal blog.  It’s definitely worth reading in its entirety, but for now I would like to quote just a bit from his concluding thoughts:

It is the audiences (not the director, and not the performers) that run the show.  They have internalized the norms and they enforce the norms.  The norms that they have internalized might only be a few generations old, but they are very strong.

What does this mean, exactly?  Let’s break it down, starting with the last sentence — “the norms that they have internalized might only be a few generations old.”  Continue reading

What We Live For: Some recommended reading

A couple weeks ago, Alan Fletcher, CEO of the Aspen Music Festival & School, delivered convocation remarks to kick off the festival’s season.  Aspen has long been one of the most celebrated and prestigious classical summer festivals in the U.S., and every year welcomes hundreds of talented young musicians who represent the future of the classical music world to learn and perform in a rigorous artistic environment.  Their website boasts “300 events in 53 days.”  Their faculty includes performers and professors from the world’s top ensembles and conservatories.  It’s kind of a big deal.

Mr. Fletcher’s remarks can be read here — this particular transcription of the remarks is provided by NPR’s brilliant classical music blog Deceptive Cadence, and includes informative links to past NPR articles on some of the topics Mr. Fletcher addresses.  The text is also available here on Aspen’s website if you’d prefer — the page promises a video of the convocation to be posted soon.

READ IT.  Seriously.  Pretty please?  But in case you don’t, I’ll recap the important parts below.   Continue reading

The State of the Music: or, Is classical music really as bad off as I keep saying it is?

Throughout my posts on this blog, I have taken a particularly fatalistic view towards the apparent “decline” of classical music.  I hadn’t quite realized this until sparking a super interesting, thought-provoking comment thread on my post What Not to Wear, in which G. H. Bone (whose blog offers really intelligent, fascinating analyses of all sorts of music that you should definitely check out) described a classical concert experience very different from my own, and pointed out the role of media and technology in disseminating classical music to the masses:

I’m highly suspicious of the idea that classical music, in general, is in a parlous state, and that audiences are rapidly dying off.  There are huge audiences for classical music.  The problem that I have, for example, is that in order to get in to concerts, I have to book up so early (sometimes more than a year ahead) to be sure of a good seat.  At the same time, the availability of music (including obscure and specialist music) on CD is absolutely booming, and there’s a huge amount of TV and radio programming about music that quite simply was not available in previous decades.  I don’t say that everything is rosy, but whenever I hear people lamenting the frightful state of classical music, I have to say they seem to be talking of a world I simply don’t recognise!

This comment really got me thinking, and inspired me to look at the changing musical landscape in a more positive light.  Though in my own experience not once have I feared a classical concert selling out before I could purchase tickets the day of, there are certainly many ensembles that do play for a sold-out audience.  And though classical concert attendance is statistically lower than it was ten years ago, iTunes and Spotify and YouTube have made classical music more accessible than ever before, with the digital audience counteracting or perhaps even reversing the decline in live-concert attendance.  Yo-Yo Ma has been interviewed on the Colbert Report, a privilege usually reserved for pop culture icons.  The London Symphony Orchestra performed in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony for an audience of hundreds of millions.  Gustavo Dudamel has more likes on his Facebook page than the Spice Girls do on theirs.  With all this in mind, is the classical music situation really as bad off as the naysayers (myself included) seem to think?  Continue reading