American Orchestras Shape Their Future

Classical Music Wrestles With Political Correctness

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

KIMO WILLIAMS, an African-American composer, found the atmosphere at a recent Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert off-putting and the program book downright infuriating.

``The music is what is important to you, so of course you attend, but you feel like an outsider,'' Mr. Williams says. He expected to see an all-white orchestra and to be surrounded by a white audience. ``But what I didn't expect, when I looked at the program book, the notes, the biographies, the advertisements, was to find only one picture of an African-American. And that was a picture of a black man standing on a corner, helpless.''

That picture was an advertisement for a charity, but to Williams it sent anything but a charitable message.

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``I was taken aback by the lack of sensitivity of the orchestra, or whoever put together the playbill,'' Williams says. ``So there isn't one African-American in the orchestra, and the only picture shown is a negative view of us. There should be something that shows us from a positive side, or else don't put that picture in at all.''

A single picture in a program may not seem all that important, except that for Williams it is just another manifestation of what he calls ``the class system within classical music.'' In the past decade or so, the orchestra world has focused increasing attention on overcoming this class system and on trying to reach out to a more diverse audience. Composers and musicians who are not white or affluent have, to varying degrees, been encouraged to participate in the making of classical music. And orchestras have sought new means to make their concerts appealing and nonthreatening to new audiences.

Williams is a beneficiary of these efforts. Two years ago, in response to a call for music by African-American composers, he submitted a score to the Savannah (Ga.) Symphony Orchestra. His score was selected for an intensive workshop - with feedback from musicians, conductors, and other composers - and was later performed. The program was put together by the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL), a service organization that includes some 860 American orchestras of all sizes.

Williams is effusive in his praise of the program and the ASOL. ``It wasn't a dog-and-pony show,'' he says. ``They respected our talent and our work. When they performed the work, there was genuine, sincere interest. And they followed up with suggestions of other orchestras that might be open to us. It really pushed me into going ahead with writing and composing. It opened the door.''

Not everybody, however, agrees that this kind of program is a good thing. Some people believe that the only good music is that which rises to the top in the highly competitive music world; they argue that allowing some composers to bypass the traditional routes is unfair and could produce lower-quality music. And some critics argue that these kinds of programs aren't really effective. Others say that encouraging composers from outside the Western European classical tradition encroaches on the traditional repertoire.

Advocates and critics of programs like the one in which Williams participated have had a field day recently. In June, the ASOL released the report of a task force that studied ways of encouraging the longevity and cultural relevance of American symphony orchestras. The result was a 203-page document that has become the center of a remarkably cantankerous debate. ``Americanizing the American Orchestra,'' as the report is called, has injected the volatile vocabulary of ``political correctness'' into the generally sleepy world of classical music.

The bulk of the task force's report is devoted to issues such as management-musician relations, how to use volunteers effectively, and innovations in music education. But running through the report is a strong interest in cultural diversity and in popularizing the orchestral product. The task force asks: How can orchestras be remade to reflect the cultural and ethnic world around them?

Among other things, the report strongly urges that orchestras reorganize themselves to make room for people outside traditional positions of power and privilege. This includes diversifying boards of trustees, administration, volunteers, musicians, and audiences. In a chapter on repertoire, orchestras are urged to consider incorporating music from ``a variety of cultural heritages.''

Among the suggestions in the chapter called ``The Orchestra as Music Educator'' is one that says, ``Develop presentations that use a variety of musical idioms, including jazz, rock, gospel, blues, folk and so forth.''

The word diversity was an instant lightning rod of criticism. In the New Criterion, Samuel Lipman wrote an eight-page attack on the ASOL culminating in a call for the disbanding of the organization. Edward Rothstein, the chief music critic of the New York Times, used his Sunday column to say ``it is thoroughly wrongheaded, an abdication of the tradition orchestras represent;'' he concluded by calling the report ``a disgrace.''

Another Times article, by Bernard Holland, compared the report to the didactic, authoritarian aesthetic of socialist realism in the Soviet Union. Newspapers across the country picked up the story, and it became ammunition in the more general argument over political correctness, popular appeal, and the Western cultural tradition.

Feelings about the report run high within the orchestra world as well. Peter Pastreich, the executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, has been particularly vocal in his criticism. Like several other veterans of orchestra management, he found the report naive.

``I found the whole thing very disappointing,'' Mr. Pastreich says. ``The questions are all worth asking, but the answers aren't there. The answers given were not thought out and mostly impractical. To tell an orchestra that is in trouble financially to go out and consult diverse communities is very misleading.'' Pastreich argues that many of the report's suggestions have already been tried (such as the use of video screens, or concerts devoted to ethnic music), with varying degrees of success, and that while others sound nice on paper, they are not substitutes for more time-tested and proven methods.

Deborah Borda, the managing director of the New York Philharmonic, is considered one of the most innovative administrators in the business, yet she too reacted strongly to the ASOL's recommendations.

``It is a flawed and superficial document,'' Ms. Borda says. ``It opted for political correctness rather than substance, and in doing so it managed to ignore close to a century-and-a-half of achievement in this country. It pandered instead of addressing the true issues.'' Borda says the document lacks historical perspective and appeals to a crisis mentality in the orchestra world.

It hasn't been easy for either Pastreich or Borda to go on record against the task force's recommendations.

``If one dares to say something, if one dares to say `Gee, I disagree with parts of this,' you will be identified as a backward, racist manager,'' Borda says.

Pastreich also resents the way the report has polarized the field. ``My observation is that people fall into two camps. They think that this is a swell report and agree that the orchestras are racist, or they think it is a terrible report and that their national league is incompetent.''

The negative reaction to the report generally falls into three categories. First, there is the question of method. The task force worked from a series of round-table discussions towards a broad overview that, at times, has the bland feel of a committee document. Phrases such as ``change takes place over time'' and ``think transformationally'' crop up now and again. It's not surprising that some professionals have ridiculed it as unscientific brainstorming by bureaucrats.

Second, the report has ruffled feathers by focusing attention on one of the deeply troubling realities of classical music: It is an essentially elite entertainment for a self-selected audience of mostly white people. The debate about how this might change touches a nerve. Some people have taken the report's discussion of the issue as a call for affirmative action.

Particularly worrisome to some observers is the suggestion in the report that ``orchestras may need to examine their hiring practices.'' They worry that this would spell the end of blind auditions (the current and accepted practice of auditioning candidates behind a screen to avoid gender, age, or race discrimination). Not surprisingly, the ``Detroit thing'' - an incident several years ago at the Detroit Symphony when public funds were withheld by local legislators until the orchestra hired an African-American musician - has been much discussed.

The report itself takes no stand on the issue, but merely raises the questions. But emotions run high. By suggesting that one of the goals for the 21st century should be greater inclusiveness, the report seems to imply that orchestras are currently ignoring the problem. Most agree that this is not the case, but that efforts to diversify have been frustrated by the relatively small pool of minority musicians and administrators within the field. They say that orchestras do not look like the society around them because of demographics, not conscious racism.

But the most significant criticism of the report is about the very definition of the orchestra's mission. Should social, political, and community goals be included along with the primary purpose of making music?

Borda says no. ``I think there is a real danger in turning an orchestra into a social-service institution instead of an arts institution,'' she says, echoing a pervasive feeling that orchestras are not equipped to take on societal problems.

For the most part, defenders and detractors of the report agree on the problems - financial, demographic, and artistic - but when it comes to the orchestra's mission, they part company.

It is generally agreed that the core repertoire of Western art music should be retained. And no one has argued that orchestras should do anything that might make the quality of their music suffer. Should orchestras be evolving and expanding into a new role that takes into account things outside of the pure realm of arts? Should they be lobbying for the arts in general? Should they form partnerships with nonmusical groups, such as museums, schools, and ethnic and community centers? Should they, for example, use their influence to raise money for AIDS and cancer research?

Gwen Cochran Hadden, a board member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a participant in the task force, states the evolution issue succinctly. ``I've got news for them: It's already happening,'' she says. ``If symphonic music is going to reach out and be viable, then it also has to be inclusive of greater portions of the society. It was OK for the focus to be Western European music as long as the audience, the society, was Western European. But that's not the case anymore. The most successful orchestras in this country sit in the middle of big cities, and they ought to have some relationship to the people around them.''

One of the difficulties in discussing the report's central thesis - that ``The new American orchestra serves a variety of cultural, educational, and social needs in its community'' - is that it is so easily parodied.

Numerous music critics around the country have painted lurid ``brave new world'' pictures of the 21st-century orchestra. They envision an institution bogged down in day care, recycling programs, frantic educational efforts, and dissolute ``pops'' programs replete with video screens, musicians in costume, and conductor-entertainers. The worst excesses of popularization and trendy political causes are imagined together in a tacky nightmare.

But this composite picture is put together from the kinds of quick-fix solutions that will most likely become more sophisticated as orchestras discover what really works and what doesn't.

Video screens in the concert hall may sound like MTV glitz today, but as composers start using video imagery in the composition process it may become more credible artistically. Encouraging composers to look to ethnic music for inspiration may not produce great music today, but it may well lay the groundwork for a completely new musical idiom in the future.

The brave-new-world picture is also being used as a scare tactic to maintain the status quo. Defenders of the report point out that not only is maintaining the status quo impossible, but also that efforts to maintain it may well spell the ruin of American orchestra life altogether.

``Orchestras are important and deserve to be preserved and celebrated in the future,'' says Catherine French, president and CEO of ASOL. ``But much of this report deals with the behavior of the institution, with its responsibility within the community. The public holds its not-for-profit institutions to a high level of performance, but the society will not tolerate subsidizing them to the extent that they are narrowing and diminishing their role.''

French, and others, point out that orchestras in this country rely on a diminishing reserve of public and private funding. They compete with other not-for-profit organizations in a society that is increasingly concerned with its social problems. Without a broader mission, orchestras may be seen as irrelevant and expendable.

Whatever its flaws, ``Americanizing the American Orchestra'' is forcing the orchestra world not only to examine the way if fulfills its artistic mission, but also to consider whether its artistic mission is sufficient to ensure survival into a new century.

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