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.”

Continue reading

Advertisements

The Dream Unfinished: An interview with Eun Lee

The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights is an event taking place July 17 — the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death — in New York City.  Part concert, part rally, part all-around art-meets-society awesomeness, the event will benefit some incredible social justice organizations while bringing the classical music community to the forefront of activism in a social arena in which it has largely remained silent.

This event is a big deal.  Illustrious guest speakers and featured musicians complement a guaranteed powerful program of music by Leonard Bernstein, famously an activist and advocate for music and social change; William Grant Still, one of the most significant African-American figures in classical music; and Jessie Montgomery, a contemporary composer and violinist with a fresh perspective and too many accolades to name.

The project is the brainchild of musician and educator Eun Lee, who was kind enough to answer some questions about her work with The Dream Unfinished, the importance of this event in the classical music and global communities, and how others can get involved.

***

CC: How did The Dream Unfinished get started?  How did you first get involved?

EL: I first had the idea for organizing this event last year, when I, like many of my peers, began to pay close attention to the news as the string of deaths of unarmed African-American men and teenagers were getting publicized.  As more and more articles kept popping up, it became clear that this wasn’t an isolated set of instances but part of a much bigger, larger problem.  I knew that, like others, I could share and disseminate information; march in protest; and donate modestly to activist efforts; but I wondered if there was anything I could do uniquely as a classical musician to respond to these issues.

I also observed that while prominent musicians of other genres (hip hop, folk, jazz) were engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, the classical music community at large remained silent.  Even when the protest was brought to the concert hall, orchestra administrations and musicians have by and large refused to comment or address these issues (the lone exception being the #OneBaltimore concert, which was a joint production between Soulful Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony).  And, to be frank, I know exactly why none of these institutions are speaking out; they have donors and audiences they may be afraid of offending, and they may not necessarily have anything to gain from getting involved.  But, while these institutions may be silent, as I did more asking around, I realized there were a great number of individuals within the classical music community who cared passionately about what was going on in the news and in their own cities, but they had no platform on which to speak out.

So, after a few months of allowing these ideas to percolate, doing some initial research, and conferring with others, last December I reached out to James Blachly, our artistic director, who is known for having curated similar concerts for a cause, and it was from that initial email exchange that the idea grew into the production that is taking shape today.

CC: In your own words, what is The Dream Unfinished?  Why is it important?

EL: The Dream Unfinished is a symphonic benefit for civil rights.  Proceeds from the concert will support the ongoing work of social justice organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights, Justice League NYC, and the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice.  More important than the financial outcome of this concert is the goal of using music to bring together people from all walks of life, both on stage and in the audience, to express solidarity with this movement.

CC: This project is such an amazing and vital intersection of art and society.  What does the interplay between the art and society mean to you?  How can the arts enact change?

EL: As a music educator, I am part of an international movement called El Sistema, which began in Venezuela 40 years ago.  Its basic premise is that through the model of an orchestra, we can instill in under served students the skills and attitudes they will need for future success, and bing about meaningful change to their communities.  It is through my involvement with this movement, as well as my observations of the work being done in organizations like Community MusicWorks, which inspire me to continue finding my own path of using music as a means of public service.

CC: Tell us a little bit about what your own role is in this project as founder and producer.  What have you been up to?

EL: Basically, I have been wrangling a lot of the individuals involved.  I would say, in equal parts, that James (the conductor) and I were the ones who curated the musical program, and I have also been programming the speeches that will be included in the event.  In recent weeks, I’ve been supervising many of the logistical tasks involved to produce this event, which included contracting the orchestra, securing sponsorship, and directing our staff in our marketing efforts and social media presence.

CC: There are some very notable musicians and public figures who have joined in this project.  What was the process of recruiting their involvement?  Did you find that many were interested in the cause?

EL: Being that the organizers of The Dream Unfinished are by and large an “unknown commodity” as one adviser put it, personal connections have been the most effective for getting access to these notable figures.  Once we have been vetted by these contacts and introductions were made, it was a matter of telling our story of why we felt passionate about this cause, and our vision for the implications and possible outcomes of involving classical music with the issues being addressed.  I would say that for every email we sent that was unanswered or rejected, there was another that was an enthusiastic and resounding yes!  There is so much energy around these issues right now, and I think our event is a way for people to channel their interests into something bigger than themselves.

CC: How can others get involved and help this project succeed?

EL: DONATE, DONATE, DONATE.  Even donations as little as $5 or $10 are welcome, as this concert will not happen if we don’t reach our fundraising goals.  We also have a number of smaller-scale events leading up to the headline event in July, so if you’re in town, attend those and encourage others to do the same.  Most importantly, as I know donating is not always an option for everyone, help promote!  Follow us on our social media platforms, share our content, talk about the event with your friends and family, and help us make some noise so we have a full house in July.

***

The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights

July 17 | 7:30 pm | Centennial Memorial Temple, New York City, USA