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.

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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.

Continue reading “Regarding integrity (Part 2)”

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.

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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.”

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Classical Music Round-Up: January through March 2016

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 notable names 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.

Classical Music Round-Up: Star Wars Edition

Harrison Ford shares what it was like to hear John Williams’ music for the first time, while the composer himself discusses the “renewed energy” behind his score to The Force Awakens.

60 Minutes takes us behind the scenes at a Force Awakens scoring session, and the incomparable Gustavo Dudamel played a surprise role in bringing the score to life.

May the cute be with you: From the Top shows us what happens when a Jedi, a princess, and Darth Vader sit down at a piano, and the Boston Pops #throwback to that one time C-3PO conducted the Star Wars theme.

Suggested Listening: “Tenebræ factæ sunt” by Carlo Gesualdo

A 16th-century composer’s violent criminal past sheds light on the eerie dissonances of a liturgical vocal work.

Composer: Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613)
Performer: Nordic Voices

About the Composer:

gesualdo3
Carlo Gesualdo (image via)

Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) is classical music’s darkest villain, a man whose eerie music is matched by a chilling biography comprising adultery and gruesome homicide.  From an early age, Gesualdo was enthralled by music, studying lute and forging relationships with local musical luminaries as a member of an elite accademia, or intellectual club.  Sent as a child to train for the priesthood, Gesualdo watched as his older brother Luigi was designated heir to the Principality of Venosa in southern Italy.  Luigi’s death in 1584, however, paved the way for Carlo’s ascension to power.  In 1586, Don Carlo Gesualdo married his cousin, the mythically beautiful Donna Maria d’Avalos, with whom he had a son and who, not four years after their marriage, could be found with her throat slashed, drenched in blood, in the bed of her lover.  The lover in question, the Duke of Andria, was murdered as well: the official who found the Duke’s body noted that his corpse was wearing “a woman’s nightdress with fringes at the bottom” and was “covered with blood and pierced with many wounds,” while “a bit of the brain had oozed out” of a gunshot wound to the head.  As a prince, a man of great influence and — apparently — violent inclination, Gesualdo was never tried for his crimes; in fact, he fled town following the murders, leaving behind a bizarre legacy: a trail of lurid rumors that to this day inhabit Italian folklore;  and dozens of musical compositions, sacred and secular, renowned for their twisted emotional intensity.

About the Piece:

The question that haunts Gesualdo’s musical legacy is this: was he an abusive genius whose penchant for inflicting trauma and violence against women came to life in the unusual, grating harmonies of his compositions — or, were his unusual, grating harmonies the result of mediocre musical talent, nonetheless thrust into the spotlight by the macabre glamour of his criminal record?  Regardless of the answer, Gesualdo’s music is widely viewed as ahead of its time, pushing the notion of tonality across thresholds of conventionality that most Western composers wouldn’t dare toe until the turn of the 20th century.  In Tenebræ factæ sunt, a selection from his set of liturgical works for Good Friday, six voices croon and cluster in stirring harmonies that progress through tightly adjacent chromatic lines.  Though the pacing is calm — almost eerily so — the piece is marked by surprising shifts of mood, from despair to ecstasy, as the Latin text recounts Jesus’ crucifixion.

Further Reading:

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