For better or worse, the events of 2020 have brought classical music and the performing arts as we know them to a near standstill. For worse: due to the pandemic, season programming at countless institutions has been canceled or indefinitely postponed, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars in revenue, while freelance musicians have struggled to eke out a living through online performances.
But for better? Many have pointed out that the pause in business as usual has necessitated long overdue reflection on institutional and cultural values – especially in the wake of the protests brought about by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans.
What will classical music look like when it’s finally deemed safe to return to concert halls? Is there reason to believe our arts institutions will return with greater value placed on the artistry of historically underrepresented voices? I spoke with four leaders in classical music about how their organizations have responded to the current moment, and how, in their most optimistic moments, they could envision what our musical communities could look like five to 10 years from now.
Founder and executive director of Play On Philly
Our field has always struggled with self-examination. How do we uplift and promote people into positions of authority and leadership? What music do we put on our stages? What communities do we engage? How do we take our donors on a journey of self-discovery?
I finally think that there are enough ingredients in the pot to [allow institutions to] take that close look in the mirror. I hope that they’re bold enough to take those steps and get their supporters around them. Quite frankly, if I were some of them, I would be nervous.
They should be nervous that there are some creative, compelling leaders in their own marketplaces. Build[ing] a new chamber orchestra is so much easier than trying to dismantle one that already exists. There are people cooking up ideas that have access to the same funders, and over time those new things might chip away at the support of legacy classical music organizations.
More music composed by people of color needs to be presented. Beyond just being performed, the musicians that perform it and the audiences that hear it will need to go through a process where they better understand how it fits. If you get people like Yannick Nézet-Séguin to say, “This music is important,” the room will believe it.
More music composed by people of color needs to be presented. … But people will need to be taken to church on this.
But people will need to be taken to church on this, and reminded frequently. Because these organizations have been playing music by people of color; it hasn’t stuck, though. People don’t feel that they are sincere. So it also would be great if these concerts did not happen the month of February or around MLK Day. And that they’re hiring conductors because they’re good, not because they’re Black or brown.
The other thing is that a good number of organizations can diversify their board. There are enough professionals of color working in finance and insurance, working in community causes, that they can have those voices around the table. And many of these people of color have money. They can pay $25,000 board member fees. In cities like Chicago, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Baltimore, Philly – the list goes on. There’s just no excuse.
I have nothing but hope and optimism that things will change. I probably have 30 more years in my career. I’m really looking forward to being able to retire, and things feeling a lot better than they do today, [or] than they did 30 years ago.
Executive director of activist orchestra The Dream Unfinished
We call ourselves an activist orchestra, and like all ensembles that’s predicated on live performance. This year, one of [our] hopes was having voter registration at each of our events.
We realized that we had to switch to video content … and in some ways it’s actually pushed us to create this content which I don’t think we would have otherwise. I think we’re probably reaching a broader audience.
We have so far created three or four videos that are all focused around voter registration in the state of New York. One example is the [video on] felony and misdemeanor charges, where you see footage of a violinist playing a concerto; it sounds very classical. She comes onscreen and talks about how you can vote with a felony or misdemeanor charge in New York. Then she says, “Well, why am I telling you this while I’m playing this concerto? Well, it’s by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who was an Afro-French composer in the 1800s – who was incarcerated and involved in the French Revolution. If Chevalier can be fighting for voting rights in 18th century France, let’s exercise our voting rights now in the 21st century.”
I would like to see the desegregation of mainstage programming.
There would be maybe 80 people showing up to that chamber concert, which is still great. But our voting remote video has something like 25,000 views on Facebook.
As for the next five to 10 years, I would like to see the desegregation of mainstage programming. If there are programs of concerts by practitioners of color, it is usually in the education and community wing [of an institution]. There’s an implicit statement: “This is a concert that’s free and for Black and brown people, but the ‘real programming’ is going to be in the mainstage of this venue.” It’s a very different audience.
At the end of the day, if an orchestra just wants to play Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think the issue then is they can’t expect to have that kind of programming and think that it’s going to be embraced. Maybe a better way of putting that is: You can do that, but you need to accept the consequences for doing that.
Afa S. Dworkin
President and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization
The pandemic has thrown our society into a seismic shift, by necessity. As humans, we have adapted our customs, our ways of living, communicating, relating to others, existing.
Our national epidemic of racial inequity should be that wake-up moment, which can and should serve as a springboard for fundamental adaption. We should get deeply uncomfortable and take what could be (unfortunately) considered “risks.” We want diverse staff? Hire Black and Latinx leaders, period. We want diverse boards? Cultivate new community members and truly give them a seat at the table with an actual way of speaking up and offering opinions. We want diverse audiences and programming? Don’t agonize over perfectly crafted hollow statements. Abrogate old ways of booking, planning and programming, and use this time to commit a minimum of 10 percent of your season (I would love to see more like 20 percent) to booking the best Black and Latinx artists. Don’t assemble focus groups and task forces: Make a 10-year plan and get your organization to commit [to it] wholeheartedly, now. Learn from the practice, grow it and bring 10 ally friends along.
Don’t assemble focus groups and task forces: Make a 10-year plan and get your organization to commit [to it] wholeheartedly.
We cannot afford to wait any longer, and I believe that it is our moral imperative to act in such a way that we not permit another story, another life, another image, to become a statistic. The arts change lives, help us grow, learn and evolve as human beings. The arts educate and education does not roll into our lives through repetitive practice of archaic values. It comes through dialogue and change. We have dialogued a while. Time for change.
Five to 10 years from now, I imagine that every opera company and orchestra looks like the communities in which they reside. Their season boasts offerings from diverse living composers, anthologies of repertoire that had been ignored for centuries, our C-Suite leadership is 50 percent nonwhite and every facet of our work is informed by the diverse perspectives which exist around us. Our music schools and conservatories have student and faculty bodies fundamentally transformed in their make-up. Our presenters commit respectable budget percentages (a minimum of 10-15 percent annually for 10 years) to DEI efforts. Imagine a world where we finally understand that we cannot be excellent if we are not diverse. I am still hopeful!
Anahita Abbasi, Niloufar Nourbakhsh and Aida Shirazi
Iranian Female Composers Association
Shirazi: Both the pandemic and the horrific murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other African Americans make it impossible to imagine the artistic and professional life in the same manner. The xenophobic and anti-immigration vibe in different parts of the world adds to the severity of problems.
As musicians, we spend extended periods of time in isolation to create. However, for the past few months, we are reminded time and again that it is impossible to live in this world and not be affected by crises. Therefore, it is our responsibility to stand against ignorance, violence, injustice and anti-intellectualism in any shape or form that we can.
This is a great time to invest more time and energy in areas such as mentorship, virtual performances and meetups that help us connect with our members in a deeper and more meaningful manner. These virtual events that were initially imposed on us because of the lockdown are capable of becoming models to expand and deepen our relationship with our members and bring them closer to each other.
Abbasi: I think we are in a specific moment in history! People are recognizing flaws in the system. Classical music has been focused on Western European and white music for a very long time.
Five or 10 years from now, I hope that we have a different educational system. We are all influenced by everything around us, and we bring that into our compositions. Every culture has contributed so much to the music of our time. For example, if we are talking about harmony, we must also talk about jazz harmony, the definition of harmony in India, in Iran, in Asian and African countries. It’s the same with rhythm and every other musical dimension.
We have a fundamental responsibility to make sure everyone has equal access to … resources for sharing their vision.
Nourbakhsh: If we cannot imagine a better version of life, we might as well not live it at all. We have a fundamental responsibility to make sure everyone has equal access to platforms and resources for sharing their vision, because shaping a better future must be a collective effort. IFCA is fully committed to this goal and for this reason, we are committed to define projects to address the racism that has prevailed in the Iranian community for far too long.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.