Sunday, July 19, 2020 Black Artists On How To Change Classical Music: Nine performers describe the steps they recommend to begin transforming a white-dominated field

The conductor Roderick Cox.
Credit...Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times

With their major institutions founded on white European models and obstinately focused on the distant past, classical music and opera have been even slower than American society at large to confront racial inequity. Black players make up less than 2 percent of the nation’s orchestras; the Metropolitan Opera still has yet to put on 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 toward new awareness of long-held biases, and provided new motivation to change. Nine Black performers spoke with The New York Times about steps that could be taken to begin transforming a white-dominated field. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Credit...Wayne Lawrence for The New York Times

The first step is admitting that these organizations are built on a white framework built to benefit white people. Have you done the work to create a structure that is actually benefiting Black and brown communities? When that occurs, diversity is a natural byproduct. There needs to be intentional hiring of qualified Black musicians who you know are going to bring the goods to your audiences.

Credit...Casey Wood

It’s incumbent upon leadership from the podium to be part of this: who gets hired, what repertory gets played, where the orchestra plays. If you’re not willing, for example, to have minority music interns playing subscription concerts because they didn’t take the audition, that doesn’t make any sense to me. This person needs the opportunity to play this repertoire; you have to be willing to let that happen, and you can’t bow to blowback from the full-time players.

Credit...Wayne Lawrence for The New York Times

I’m in my fifth year on the board of Chamber Music America, and more than half the board is people of color. It’s very evenly balanced as far as gender and race; those changes were implemented through consulting work and training, and facilitated discussions among the board to make sure everyone was on the same page.

Credit...Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times

I would like changes to be made in how we train musicians in conservatories and universities. A lot of our thinking, and our perceptions of what’s good music, becomes indoctrinated at that stage. I say this because even though I’m a person of color, I was guilty of not being accepting of new voices and styles outside of Beethoven, Schumann, all the usual music of the past. When we start with preconceived notions, we limit ourselves. People are afraid of being uncomfortable, but with discomfort comes growth. 

Credit...Miranda Barnes for The New York Times

Over the last month, you’ve seen all these outpourings, and it’s in these moments when you see: Are we really connected with the communities we’re doing this work in? At the New York Philharmonic, where I am principal clarinet, I think there’s been incentive to partner up with the Harmony Program, which does after-school music education.

Credit...Steven Pisano

Artistic institutions need to be focused on representing and really serving the communities that they’re in. There needs to be community engagement, not community outreach. Outreach is something you do occasionally. But you’re always in the act of engaging; it’s a constant effort.

Credit...Matt Sayles/Netflix

It’s like anything else: The organizations need to represent what America looks like. Well-intentioned people can just have blinders on. I don’t look at it like a sinister plot; I look at it as people are going with what they’re comfortable with. If we had more representation in the leadership, in terms of who is signing off on projects, you’ll have more people bringing things to the table. What I saw at Opera Theater of St. Louis — where I did “Champion” and “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which is going to the Met — is those people are open to a lot of ideas. 

Credit...Jeffery Salter for The New York Times

Please, in the future, cast with your heart, not just with your eyes and your ears. Who gives you the goose bumps? Pick them. Some people see a Black tenor, and they think Otello. Or they see a Black soprano and they think Aida. “Who wants to see a Black Cio-Cio San?” You’ll hear that. But yes, opera is a suspension of disbelief. 

Credit...Miranda Barnes for The New York Times

Certain groups of people have felt that they did not belong, because most of the time they didn’t see people who resembled them onstage. But even if things look good onstage, internally is that what is happening in the institution? It’s a family type of thing. That person working in the office goes home and tells the people at home, and they usually have other friends. That is how audiences change. It has to be from the inside out.

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