Fix It in the Mix

So the Seattle Symphony had a concert in which a large black man got up on stage and, going against the norm at a symphony hall, did not open his mouth to sing! (I’m deliberately linking to a review where the writer treated this, and the concert as a whole, fairly, rather than just dismissing the whole thing).

A lot of people are bent out of shape about this, or at least just puzzled and maybe a little uncomfortable. I have a couple thoughts on this:

  1. Coming with impeccable, though coincidental, timing alongside talk about bringing the old band—Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Ari Fleischer, William Kristol, assorted management and groupies—back together to repeat the greatest hits of the past decade or so, my intuitive response is that this is an issue of class in our supposedly classless society. We don’t have de jure barons and earls but we have the establishment, with their proprietary lock on who are the right sort of people and what is the right sort of thing to do—you can be 100% right, but if you’re the wrong sort of person, you’ll be shunned. A symphony concert, with the musicians in tuxedoes, is nothing if not a gathering of the bourgeois tribe around a totem of what they imagine is classiness and social status.
  2. If only the Brooklyn Philharmonic got this sort of attention when they had their Bed-Stuy concert with Yasiin Bey, or their benefit concert last year with Erykah Badu. Exactly what Seattle did, but vastly better musically, socially, political, aesthetically, in every way. Partly this is because the arrangements by Derek Bermel and Ted Hearne were so intelligent and strong, both appropriate for the orchestra and completely idiomatic. The original material was also great to begin with, but what really tipped the balance is that this wasn’t the case of putting a pop musician in front of an orchestra, but of the singers and orchestra coming together as a band, making music together—it’s important that the Phil and Bey collaborated on Fred Rzewski’s Attica. The music was excellent, without gimmicks, and ended up simply being new music played by an orchestra. But who paid attention? Now the Brooklyn Phil has evaporated.

The Brooklyn Phil concerts had audiences that arts administrators probably can’t even imagine: all ages, all races, all inclinations. They strive to reach out to new listeners, but they are constantly stuck in the tautology of classical music, i.e. we’re a symphony orchestra so what we play is classical music. They’re desperate to sell Strauss to pop music fans, why don’t they just play some good music of all kinds? I know that’s a huge stretch for them, but it can be done.

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