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Black artists on how to change classical music

With its main institutions based on white European models and persistently focused on the distant past, classical music and opera have been even slower than American society at large to meet racial inequality. Black players make up less than 2 percent of the country’s orchestras; Metropolitan Opera has not yet added a work by a black composer.

The protests against police brutality and racial exclusion that have engulfed the country since the end of May have encouraged individuals and organizations to regain awareness of long-standing prejudices and provided new motivation to change. Nine black artists spoke to The New York Times about steps that could be taken to begin transforming a white-dominated field. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

The first step is to recognize that these organizations are based on a white framework built to benefit white people. Have you done the work to create a structure that benefits black and brown societies? When this happens, diversity is a natural by-product. There must be the deliberate hiring of qualified black musicians who you know will bring the product to your audience. Intentionally Adding Qualified Black Board Members to Your Organization: It will enable access to these communities you need to enter the circle. Administratively, people who are in the room give different perspectives. Chamber groups like mine, Imani Winds, have the ability to be more agile; we can create our own rules and create our own platforms. As a chamber, you can support groups that provide black and diversity in their programs.

It is the leadership of the podium to be a part of this: who gets hired, what repertoire is played, where the orchestra plays. For example, if you are not willing to have minority music interns playing subscription concerts because they did not play the audition, it does not make sense to me. This person needs the opportunity to play this repertoire; you have to be willing to let that happen, and you can not bow to blowback from the full-time players.

In Philadelphia, for a community concert, they once found a high school that was acoustically inferior; aesthetically no comparison; the choir in the audience behind me. It made no sense, except for the joy it gave the community to have the Philadelphia Orchestra in their garden. They want some sense that they are counted and that they mean something, and by going there it is us who say yes, you do.


I’m in my fifth year on the board of Chamber Music America, and more than half of the board are people of color. It is very evenly balanced when it comes to gender and race; these changes were implemented through consulting work and training and facilitated discussions between the board to ensure that everyone was on the same page. Going through the process has opened your eyes and proves how much time it takes. Now we are equipped to have these discussions about how this can make up for membership and grant opportunities. And I think presenting organizations need to take the time to get to know the artists. Getting to know new artists takes time and commitment; it is a commitment to broaden your perspective.


I would like to make changes in how we train musicians at conservatories and universities. Much of our thinking, and our perceptions of what constitutes good music, are indoctrinated at that stage. I say this because even though I am a person of color, I was guilty of not accepting new voices and styles outside of Beethoven, Schumann, all previous music. When we start with preconceived notions, we limit ourselves. People are afraid of being uncomfortable, but with discomfort comes growth. If students learn about composers like William Grant Still or Florence Price – and their methods of creating music – they will become more versatile. And we will see that change takes place in our programming; Schools will not only produce conductors who want to do Wagner, Strauss and Mahler. I love these composers. But there are more voices to be heard.


In the last month you have seen all these rashes, and it is in these moments when you see: Are we really connected to the communities in which we do this work? At the New York Philharmonic, where I am the principal clarinetist, I think it has been an incentive to collaborate with the Harmony program, which does music education after school. I do the music promotion program at Juilliard; the assignment is about students from inferior societies. It’s being a citizen that way. The new way is actually to get on the ground and teach, get on the ground and have tough conversations about the situation in our field and who we are trying to reach. To be there to help people understand that the orchestra is there for them.


Artistic institutions must be focused on representing and truly serving the communities in which they find themselves. There must be commitment from the community, not across society. Seeking out is something you do sometimes. But you are always getting involved; it is a constant effort. If there are changes in the administration and the composition of the board – every level in every artistic organization – that will be wasted in how this is packaged. This is the beginning of change that can be meaningful. If we reinvent what opera or classical music audiences are, we will not have the differences in employees, people who participate, even what is presented, because you will get different people to come up with new ideas.


It’s like everything else: the organizations must represent what America looks like. Well-meaning people can only wear diapers. I do not see it as an unfortunate conspiracy; I look at what people go with what they are comfortable with. If we had more representation in the leadership, in terms of who goes into projects, you will have more people taking things to the table. What I saw at the Opera Theater of St. Louis – where I did “Champion” and “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”, which comes to the Met – is that these people are open to many ideas. But we have to take the ideas to them. We must open their eyes. I really think in the art music world that people praise something else. When we did “Champion” in New Orleans, this 70’s African-American guy said, “If this is opera, I’ll come.” It was a new audience member that we did not have before. “La Bohème” does not mean anything to him. But these contemporary stories do.


Please, in the future, throw with your heart, not just with your eyes and your ears. Who gives you goosebumps? Select them. Some see a black tenor, and they believe Otello. Or they see a black soprano and they think Aida. “Who wants to see a black Cio-Cio San?” You hear it. But yes, opera is a suspension of mistrust. When someone does “Eugene Onegin”, they will often throw someone Russian or fluent in Russian. It does not have to be the one you expect. There are others who can sing it. When it comes to “Otello” you can paint all blue and paint Desdemona green. When it comes down to it, it’s not about color; it’s about difference.


Some groups of people have felt that they did not belong, because they usually did not see people who resembled them on stage. But even if things look good on stage, what is happening internally at the department? It’s a family type. The person working in the office goes home and tells the people at home, and they usually have other friends. This is how the audience changes. It must be from the inside out. And if the scene reflects society, you can find the best artists to be ambassadors for those who come and put them in front of the people. It can be the administrator, the person in charge of the programming or a member of the orchestra. People need to address the audience to make them feel “I’m one of you.” And you will see: The whole thing will change as if you have no idea.

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