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 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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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

Note: The use of the word “woman” throughout this post is meant to be inclusive of individuals who identify as women, womxn, femmes, trans, queer, and non-binary, and who experience oppression and misogyny on the basis of their gender identity, presentation, or expression.

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?  Representation of women 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.)

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.  Today, on International Women’s Day, 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