It’s Time to Make Orchestras Great Again — By Making Them Blacker

Classical music is unsafe in White hands alone

Photo: suteishi/Getty Images

Music of the Black diaspora is thriving, while Western classical music is dying. Yet, orchestras wish to remain White and poor. Why?

Exclusivity through White supremacy is classical music’s raison d’être. Unable to separate ethnography from artistry, American orchestras repeatedly hire White European male music directors, equating quality with geographic proximity to the music’s source. Still, they fail both economically and artistically.

But the Covid-19 pandemic and economic fallout prove White musicians playing White composers for only White audiences isn’t sustainable.

Worldwide, orchestra seasons continue to shrink. Prior to the pandemic, the Berlin Philharmonic played only three nights a week. London’s Southbank Centre and its orchestras are going bust. Indianapolis Symphony musicians were penniless without health insurance, while the Metropolitan Opera will sing silent nights until at least January 2021, losing millions. In common are majority White musicians, audiences, composers, administrations, and racist nonprofit boards.

Deutsche Welle Interview: Classical Music Can Change the Racial Conscience of Society (Video)

Classical music is infected with isms. The music has been replaced with a quartet of capitalism, classism, sexism, and racism, effectively denying Black cultural membership. American orchestras are privately funded. They don’t practice music, but cultural conservation through capitalism, sequestering a microcosm of White people weekly in concert halls.

Only reforming the industry will reshape the broken system.

If your business only functions to serve a small hyperselected group of White people, then you’re not in the business of music; it’s White supremacy. No exceptions.

Why should London’s people of color care about orchestras if they care nothing for them?

Although American orchestras are precariously profitable at best, “Beyoncé money” doesn’t interest them. Maintaining White comfort and excluding Black audiences seems to be more important. Beyoncé is probably planning her next tour right now, while orchestras, opera companies, and artists’ management teams struggle to keep the lights on. What’s working for Mrs. Knowles-Carter? She represents and shares empathy with all people, not just the bourgeois.

Out of sight, out of mind

What happens to White people when all they see around them looks exactly like them? They feel no sense of loss for Black people in their lives.

Their kids develop monocolored tight-knit social circles, perpetuating racial inequality. Contagious, malignant scripts of racism, stereotypes, implicit bias, colorblind racism, egalitarianism, meritocracy, entitlement, and neoliberalism orchestrate their young minds. They only know Black people from TV, lately through murder porn. After a lifetime of social distancing, will they welcome Black people into their workplaces and neighborhoods?

The meritocracy myth

Black people work twice as hard to achieve half as much.

Black conductors rarely conduct masterworks programs, yet these concerts are the main events of every orchestral season. Our absence reflects perceived inferiority, and the racial bias that we’re incompetent.

Music education isn’t an equalizer. Black conservatory students are far more likely to work through school, sacrificing hours of precious practice to pay for rent, utilities, strings, reeds, and clothes. We endure racial trauma and discrimination from faculty, staff, and fellow students (see San Diego Symphony cellist Matthew Chen). Lacking legacy wealth saddles us with student loan debt. Financially hobbled, we leave school spiritually and emotionally broken, marginalizing our artistic efficacy.

Self-worth for sale

Orchestras sell their definition of high culture and worthiness, not music. High culture is synonymous with White culture.

Orchestras only know how to play for White, middle class, educated audiences. Yet only 20% of the population is middle class. Economic success requires 100% of the people to fit into 20%. Classical music must expand its membership outside the 20%. Those outside the concert hall shouldn’t be condemned to cultural damnation.

London Bridge is falling down

London orchestras refuse to welcome new vibrant immediate communities of color through representation in their orchestras, programming, and direct community access. Instead, they continue to divide society by race and class, catering to Whiteness that no longer represents the city of London.

Suddenly, the Southbank Centre can’t sustain its annual overhead. Incredible British musicians, who are already demoralized by low pay and itinerant freelance contracts, may find themselves jobless. Meanwhile pipe dreams still exist for a new privately funded hall to replace the poor acoustics of the Barbican.

Why should London’s people of color care about orchestras if they care nothing for them? They shouldn’t.

A vanity affair

Classical music is unsafe in White hands alone.

Audiences age and die. Empty seats are symbols of racism and classism. It’s too late for orchestras to replace them in their current state. Nobody cares. They’ve got Beyoncé.

White audiences line up to buy ice cream cones of worthiness and sophistication at classical concerts, packed with the flavor of the week White composers and guest artists. It’s all too vanilla.

Give Black a chance

After the uprisings about anti-Black racism, a slew of U.S. orchestras made statements in support of racial equity. Some were even brave enough to choke out the words “Black” or “African American” (thanks for the bone!). Others ride out the anti-racism hype, hoping to get right back to Beethoven’s anniversary year — and he was probably Black! None admit to White supremacy, and establish a plan for change and assessment.

Despite much lip service and online sessions on racism, the League of American Orchestras hired Simon Woods, a White middle-aged British man, as the next president. No one has said a word. Why not a Black woman if they’re really committed to racial equity?

Until statements are confirmed artistically and fiscally, these are lies and patty-cake games with Black musicians’ lives.

So what’s a start toward orchestral racial equity?

  • Orchestras should hire their first Black music directors. The top 15 U.S. orchestras have never done this.
  • Take down the audition screen. We must counter White networks, cronyism, and decades-long segregation. Affirmative action in the audition and tenure process must favor Black candidates. No more advantaged teachers’ pets, and section players greenlit to the final round.
  • Hire Black conductors for masterworks programs. Let the industry know we are capable arbiters of classical music. We’re not only good for MLK Day, Black History Month, and holiday concerts.
  • Release orchestra principal musicians’ pay with racial and gender demographics.
  • Release guest artist fees with racial and gender demographics.
  • Composers and masterworks programming must reflect a community’s racial demographics. It signifies cultural membership and that music from the hands of POC matters. The songs of dead old White men are a broken record!
  • Annually and publicly report complete racial demographics of audiences, guest artists, composers, executive and artistic administrations, boards of directors, and orchestra musicians compared to their immediate community’s racial demographics.
  • Recording agencies must publish the racial demographics of artists.
  • The National Endowment for the Arts must deny grant funding to all orchestras and musical institutions that refuse to comply entirely with the above.
  • Orchestras that don’t comply should lose nonprofit status and get taxed at a higher rate. White-only nonprofits are private clubs; therefore, nonprofit status shouldn’t apply. The government has provided tax shelter for nonprofits who practice White supremacy for long enough.

Not doing at least all of the above maintains White supremacy, and affirms that the lives and work of Black artists are deemed meaningless.

Classical music is poor in the absence of Blackness.

Noted sociologist Wayne Marshall described the music of the Black diaspora as the greatest identifiable export of American culture. If given a chance, Black musicians could make classical music great again.

Until then, it will continue to die.

Brandon Keith Brown conductor/Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra

Prize-Winning Stick Waver/Slinger of Sounds| Speaker | Educator | ARTivist. Engineering Society from the Podium | http://ko-fi.com/maestrobkb

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