When Black Conductors Aren’t Comfortable at Concerts, Classical Music Has a Real Problem
To hear soprano Renée Fleming was my dream. The chance came one night at a Chicago Lyric Opera gala concert.
I left at intermission.
As I first took my seat, a plump, heavily jeweled White woman scrunched up her body as if I had coronavirus. “Go sit somewhere else!” she said. That’s not a paraphrase; that’s exactly what she said.
I ignored her and looked straight ahead, my eyes trained on the stage. She must be joking, I thought. But then, she said it again: “Can’t you just go sit somewhere else?” When I told her not to say another word, she piped down, but the damage was done.
The concert hall is a magical place, able to deliver spiritual sustenance through music. Yet, at every level, concert halls make clear that they are for White people only.
I complained to a White usher, but he didn’t believe me until a White couple vouched for me — a different, more insidious kind of White supremacy. Ultimately, the usher offered to move me to a different seat, not her. I wanted my money back, but was too ashamed and angry to wait; at intermission, I bolted into the Chicago night—the frigid winter air a balm on my red-hot face.
Since that night, I’ve never been back to the Chicago Lyric Opera.
The concert hall is a magical place, able to deliver spiritual sustenance through music. Yet, rather than doing that for everyone, classical concerts continue to exist as a sonic refuge of Whiteness. At every level, concert halls make clear that they are for White musicians only.
This is no idle observation. I’m a symphony conductor. I’ve been active in classical music for years, first as a violinist. If I feel this shunned at classical music concerts — sometimes even my own — it’s no surprise that there are so few Black people in the audience.
Sitting quietly and stone-still, cooped up with White folks who question why we’re there in the first place — and paying (a lot) for the privilege. Does that sound like a relaxing Saturday night?
As a concertgoer, I understand how it would be masochistic to pay for the added stress of being in yet another all-White space. It’s just too much. But the feeling of sticking out like a sore thumb isn’t just experienced by attendees; it extends to the artists and conductors on stage. Instead of performing masterworks at subscription concerts, Black artists too often are ethnically pigeonholed into showcase-style variety shows during Black History Month, or whenever White administrators want the concert hall to look and feel “more diverse.”
Although I’m a conductor with a personal and professional investment to attend, I often don’t feel welcome. At times, it feels like everyone wants me to be grateful for the chance to perform at all — regardless of my training and experience. My arrival is always a showstopper. People stop and stare when I enter the stage, trying to figure out why I’m there.
All they need to know is that the journey to my seat was a struggle. I arrive fighting history of enslavement, segregation, Jim Crow, and a ceaseless pizzicato barrage of microaggressions — some of which I’m not even aware of, but are damaging in the aggregate nonetheless.
I don’t leave concerts inspired, spiritually rejuvenated from a transcendent classical journey. I come home weary, irritated, and pissed off by a night of justifying my presence, a laundry list of questions running through my mind.
Why ask for my ticket? You’re not the usher.
Why did she lean far away when I sat? Did I forget deodorant?
Yes, I’m a musician. No, I’m not a singer. No, I don’t play jazz.
I’m not the help, and I’m not your usher. Don’t hand me your keys to valet your car; I won’t hang your coat, stand idly holding the door, or scan your ticket. They’re all important jobs, but they’re just not what I get paid to do at the concert hall.
That treatment, unfortunately, extends across the world — even in supposed multicultural meccas like Berlin. In that city, Konzerthaus is the people’s hall; I’m conducting its house orchestra in March 2020.
Last June, I enjoyed Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky there with Valery Gergiev, a Russian conductor and opera company director. While enthralled in box seating, an old Russian lady started to push my shoe. My crossed leg wasn’t anywhere near her. Judging by her age, blue hair, dated clothes, and shoes, my racial spidey-sense told me she’d probably never been so close to a Black man. Pushing me away was a racist reflex; I didn’t deserve to be at the Konzerthaus sitting next to her.
Tying to be graceful, I ignored her — until the third push. “Black people can sit here, too!” I said in German, in a loud whisper. The woman withdrew her hand onto her lap at a snail’s pace, ashamed to make eye contact. Like a kindergarten bully during storytime, she turned her chair away and leaned over the rail, trying to block my view.
I asked an usher to move the woman and her daughter. Suddenly, the woman only understood Russian, and her daughter denied everything.
“I know a little Russian, too,” I said in German. In my best Russian, I called her a mean old lady (Thank you, Russian college friends!). The usher urged them to move, and they swiftly left.
Relax, Becky. I didn’t come to steal your purse.
I came because Beethoven slaps.
Follow me on Instagram: @brandonkeithbrownconductor