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.”

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TONIGHT: The Dream Unfinished

Courtesy: thedreamunfinished.org
Courtesy: thedreamunfinished.org

The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights is taking place tonight in New York City, and if you are anywhere near NYC then there is no reason not to attend.  Your ticket purchase is a donation to some incredible causes, like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice.

In an era when classical music is struggling to stay relevant, this event represents what may be the most straightforward and vital intersection of this genre and the society it purportedly serves, but so often alienates.  Tonight’s musicians are adding their voices to the #BlackLivesMatter dialogue, a realm where classical music has heretofore remained silent.

I am honored to be close friends with one of the event’s producers, and am so proud of my friend and her hardworking, passionate colleagues on the Dream Unfinished team.  Since my current internship is in Press/PR, it’s a complete delight to see the event garnering the press coverage it so deserves:

So, my dear NYC-based readers, please include The Dream Unfinished in your Friday night plans.  Great music, great people, and a great cause.

To learn about other interesting intersections of classical music and society, check out Classical Conditioning’s ongoing (though somewhat stalled) series, Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers.”

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.

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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.

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The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights

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

Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers #2: A human requiem

This is the second in a series of posts about the intersection of music and society, in support of The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights.  Last week, we learned about Karim Wasfi, the cellist and Iraqi National Symphony director whose impromptu performances at Baghdad bombsites bring beauty and equilibrium to a war-torn community.

This week’s installation of Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers takes us closer to home — to St. Louis and Baltimore, two American cities marred by systemic racism.  The deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, two young African-American men, at the hands of white law enforcement sparked controversy, riots, protests, and much-needed dialogue.  And some of that dialogue took place in an unexpected setting: the concert hall.

On October 4, 2014, the St. Louis Symphony gave a performance of Brahms‘ Requiem — and there’s some symbolism hidden in that repertoire.  A requiem is a type of Catholic Mass — a Missa pro defunctis, “Mass for the dead.”  The full title of Brahms’ work is Ein deutsches Requiem — “A German Requiem” — with text sung not in the elite, inaccessible Latin language of the liturgy, but in the German vernacular of the people.  Moreover, Brahms omitted many references to God and general Christian dogma, resulting in a piece that is mournful and spiritual regardless of religious persuasion.  Speaking with the music director of the cathedral where the Requiem had its 1868 premiere, Brahms stated that the work could just as fittingly be titled, Ein menschliches Requiem — “A Human Requiem.”

During intermission, twenty-three protesters seated throughout St. Louis’ Powell Symphony Hall stood one at a time and began to sing their own requiem — a Requiem for Mike Brown:

Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all.
Which side are you on, friend?  Which side are you on?

Many headlines billed the protest as an unwanted disturbance, with protesters “interrupting” and “disrupting” the concert.  But the audience’s — and orchestra’s — reception of the protest surprised even the protesters themselves: rather than being escorted out by security, they were met with applause and reverent, listening ears.  “It went to show that there are people among that crowd who think that the protests matter and that it’s not okay to just kill black children, and they’d be receptive to hear that message,” Derek Laney of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment told the Washington Post.  “It was a perfect moment.  As we left, people were smiling and reaching out to shake our hands.”

During their requiem, protesters in the hall’s balcony unfurled banners depicting Mike Brown, St. Louis, and the meaning behind their mission.  Thus, the architecture of the concert hall — a space typically reserved for music and not much else — became physically embedded in an artistic and humanistic dimension beyond the auditory.

Laney described the protest as a way to “speak to a segment of the population that has the luxury of being comfortable.”  The luxury of being comfortable — isn’t that striking?  The truth in that assessment is extraordinary — that symphony audiences represent a small yet immensely privileged population (to which I myself belong) that can afford the time and money required to attend symphony concerts; are predisposed by endemic sociogeographic inequity to have the education needed both to appreciate classical music and to earn the aforementioned money required to consume it; and don’t have to worry daily about their sons and daughters being shot by the police.

In another city embroiled in tension and turmoil, over half a year later, the Baltimore Symphony brought music to an audience that perhaps may not have the luxury of being comfortable.  Following the cancellation of two scheduled concerts due to safety concerns in the riot-wracked city — Meyerhoff Symphony Hall being a mere two miles out from the site of some of Baltimore’s more violent outcries — the orchestra announced that it would give a “free concert in support of our community” on April 29, 2015.  The BSO performed outdoors, each musician donating his or her time to create music outside the concert hall — no walls or tickets barring any interested ears.  A post on the BSO’s Facebook page perhaps sums it up best:

“It seems we could all use a little music in our lives right about now.”

Further Reading:

The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights

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

Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers #1: A cellist’s plea for peace

This marks the first post in an ongoing series that I’m calling “Movers, Shakers, and Music-Makers.”  The title comes from the poem Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (which happens to have been set to music by Edward Elgar):

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,

And sitting by desolate streams;–

World-losers and world-forsakers,

On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

Of the world for ever, it seems.

Throughout this series, I’ll be profiling several recent, interesting, and impactful intersections of music and society.  These posts will continue weekly leading up to an incredible event taking place July 17 in New York City — The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights.  I’ll be interviewing the event’s producer next week; until then, visit their website here to learn more about this amazing project that is using music and art as a platform for social change.

Speaking of music and social change… Back in the beginning of May, images of a cellist performing at the site of a Baghdad bombing went viral.

The cellist is Karim Wasfi, the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra — and before I even get to Wasfi’s moving outdoor performance, let’s learn a bit about the miracle that is the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra.

Its first incarnation was as a string quartet founded in 1939, which grew into the Baghdad Philharmonic by the 1950s.  Its members are Sunni and Shiite, Christian and Kurdish, all making music side by side.  The orchestra has played all over the world, from Iraqi Kurdistan to D.C.’s Kennedy Center (a 2003 performance with President Bush in the audience).  Wartime power outages have meant rehearsals in the dark and stifling heat; extremists  who oppose Western and secular art are a constant and very real threat; and several of the musicians have fled to safer borders — and yet, the orchestra continues to give free concerts in Baghdad, its 900-capacity auditorium brimming with supporters. Continue reading