Urbanities

Dana Mack
Multicultural Disharmonies
Spring 1992

This winter, New Yorkers had the opportunity to see a new multimedia work written by jazz composer Leroy Jenkins. Mother of Three Sons featured dancing, poetry, and film as well as music. Loosely based on an African folk tale, it had something for just about any patron of the avant-garde: contemporary jazz and African rhythms, a long underwater film sequence featuring nude men, and an enigmatic central character, the Mother, who shatters sexual stereotypes by abandoning her husband and murdering her daughter. “What’s so amazing” about the production, according to its director and choreographer, Bill T. Jones, is that it presents “a world where the men are kind and nourishing [sic] and the women are adventurous and opportunistic and cold.”

It is hardly surprising, given its political content and avant-garde pretensions, that Mother of Three Sons was funded by a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. But what might raise eyebrows is that this piece of politically correct “multi-art” was a production of the New York City Opera. Classical ensembles are increasingly producing works like Mother of Three Sons. They are the result of a concerted effort by the NEA and its Albany counterpart, the New York State Council on the Arts, to promote a new multicultural ethos, in an effort to attract minority audiences to classical music.

In this age of politicized art and heightened racial sensitivities, government arts administrators have come to view classical music as something of an embarrassment. They believe it appeals to a privileged elite and reflects a “white, male paradigm” (in the words of an NEA-sponsored 1989 report by the National Task Force on Presenting and Touring the Performing Arts) that no longer deserves a preeminent place in an increasingly multicultural nation. The NEA is so apologetic for its support of classical music that in a 1991 report to Congress, the agency took pains to point out that its support for “traditional Eurocentric” opera did not come at the expense of less-sophisticated forms of musical theater or of minority musical endeavors. “Whether highbrow or lowbrow, classical or popular, the Opera/Musical Theater Program has challenged the field to address the richness of the American multicultural heritage,” the report declared. In supporting opera companies, it went on, the agency aims to make them “more representative of America in the late twentieth century.”

Over the years, in fact, government arts administrators have devoted considerable efforts to bringing classical music into line with their assumptions about the tastes and predispositions of minority constituencies. The agencies have encouraged classical institutions to market themselves to minority audiences through such methods as community and school concerts, and have pressed classical ensembles to adopt affirmative action programs in the hiring of artists. But there is more to this effort than marketing and recruitment. Recently, government arts administrators have even set out to change the music classical ensembles play, encouraging them to incorporate ethnic and popular works into their programs.

Minority “outreach” has become a high priority, increasingly crucial to funding decisions. James Jordan, director of the music program for the New York State Council on the Arts, readily admits that artistic quality now counts for only “about 50 percent” when the state council decides whom and how much to fund. Like many government administrators, Jordan contends that classical ensembles are unlikely to survive the huge demographic changes predicted during the next few decades unless they engage in extensive efforts to cultivate non-Western immigrant and minority communities. Therefore, in its funding decisions, the council takes into account such nonartistic criteria as an institution’s financial growth and audience draw (indications of its broader public appeal), as well as its public service record in minority communities. And since 1989 the state council has devoted a page of its grant application to inquiries regarding hiring procedures, programming efforts, and audience services that “address the needs and interests of minorities, special constituencies, and people with disabilities.” Applicants are even required to list the number of board members representing such constituent groups, and to “describe how board members are recruited to ensure appropriate representation from all segments of the community.”

This government pressure has the most direct effect on smaller music organizations such as the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Queens Symphony, which depend on government sources for 25 to 30 percent of their budget. Larger institutions are more independent: The Metropolitan Opera, Philharmonic, and City Opera depend on public funds for only 2 percent, 4 percent, and 6.5 percent of their budgets, respectively. Yet they too have gone along with the movement toward “cultural diversity” in staffing, programming, and marketing—in part because the government’s funding priorities influence those of private foundations, and in part because some of the administrators at these institutions share the government’s goals and assumptions.

Indeed, when arts agencies began pushing for minority-targeted music programming in the early Eighties, the response from New York’s music institutions was largely enthusiastic. Many saw it as a way to expand their subscription base, and even bought into the notion that demographic trends doomed the classical tradition to irrelevancy. And a leveling trend was already underway, with the marketing departments of Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music using slick advertising campaigns and lighter programming in an effort to attract a larger, albeit more casual, audience.

Thus, classical ensembles have been playing more nonclassical music. Many have incorporated jazz, musical comedy, and arrangements of hit songs into community concert series, a practice known as “pops” or “mixed-genre” programming. Classical ensembles have also invited big names in jazz, blues, and soul to join them in symphonic arrangements of nonclassical works. And with the financial backing of government arts agencies, classical institutions have commissioned “multiethnic” compositions, like Mother of Three Sons, based on Latin American, African, American Indian, and Asian musical traditions. Most such works fall into the category of “crossover” music—symphonic jazz, minimalism, and art-rock—new musical forms that combine elements of classical music with popular idioms.

Such juxtapositions of high art with more commercial works may strike the lover of classical music as odd, even disturbing. The mission of a classical ensemble, after all, is to preserve a delicate, centuries-old aesthetic tradition. If the audience for classical music is indeed limited to a small segment of society, this is all the more reason why these institutions should be shielded from the vagaries of popular taste. But the arts agencies justify mixing genres by simply denying that there is any salient difference between classical and popular forms of music. When asked the current ratio of classical to nonclassical funding, an NEA public affairs officer replied that there could be no answer to the question, since the NEA views the distinction as a false one.

One example of the government’s attempts to erase the distinction between high and low art was the New York State Council on the Arts’ model minority audience development program called “New Audiences for the Year 2000,” which lasted from 1987 to 1989. Both the Queens Symphony and the New York Philharmonic took part in this attempt to popularize the image of classical music and “democratize” its audience. The Queens Symphony focused primarily on reaching middle-class audiences of Eastern European, Asian, black, and Hispanic backgrounds using multiethnic programming. The Philharmonic, on the other hand, concentrated on bringing mainstream classical music to poor audiences in Harlem. These concerts featured such star soloists as Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, and Isaac Stern, alongside the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Yet efforts such as these, according to representatives of the music institutions, have had little success in expanding the audience for classical music. Among New York’s symphony orchestras, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Queens Symphony -the orchestras most dependent on government funds -have maintained the most extensive programs of multiethnic and mixed-genre productions. Eric Klein, operations manager of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, says these programs have failed to attract the expected new audiences. “The government has a lack of respect and understanding for how this business works,” Klein says. “It’s hard to find audiences for classical programming by public outreach.” David Brown, the Queens Symphony’s director of marketing and orchestral operations, says its multicultural programming has led to an increase in occasional attendance, but has attracted few new regular symphony-goers.

What kind of audiences do multiethnic productions draw? On the evening I attended Mother of Three Sons at the State Theater, half the theater was empty, and the great majority of those in attendance were white. The most enthusiastic audience members were college-aged men and women, many wearing nose rings and other accoutrements of postmodernism. There was a well-integrated group of teenagers, who chatted during the performance and kicked the chairs in front of them; perhaps they had come to the opera to fulfill a school assignment. And there were a few well-heeled, middle-aged black couples, who seemed distinctly unenthusiastic about the performance.

So far New York’s classical music institutions have been careful not to risk alienating their base audience by cutting back too much on traditional classical music. Crossover and mixed-genre programming have been common only in community concerts and special music series targeted for minorities. This may change, however. Umbrella organizations such as the American Symphony Orchestra League and Opera America are joining the government in pushing for multiethnic projects. At the same time, government funding cuts are leaving institutions with fewer resources for special programs, so multiethnic programming is increasingly incorporated into the regular subscription series. Bringing multicultural works into mainstream programming may, in fact, be the only way for classical institutions to comply with government directives while sparing themselves the now-familiar embarrassment of low minority attendance at specially targeted events.

If minority audiences respond to outreach efforts with indifference, minority musicians greet affirmative action hiring programs with outright hostility. They fear the stigma of racial quotas, the perception that they owe their position to special dispensations rather than to their artistic ability. In 1989, for example, the Michigan State Legislature passed a law tying the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s funding to the hiring of African-American instrumentalists. Black artists vehemently opposed the measure. In a letter to the New York Timed, Michael Morgan, assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, wrote:

To negate our hard-won achievements and carefully developed skills by suggesting that we should now be hired by color is to render meaningless an entire life’s work. No one maintains any status in this field without ego, and no ego can withstand such an affront.

Most musicians, regardless of race, view affirmative action hiring as a subversion of fair audition practices only relatively recently won. Today, auditions for permanent performance contracts with symphony orchestras take place behind a screen, at least until the final round. This practice was introduced precisely in order to protect artists from discrimination in hiring.

Despite musicians’ objections, the New York State Council on the Arts adheres to guidelines established in 1980 that direct music institutions to establish affirmative action programs aimed at the “elimination, through remedial action, of employment practices that have a disproportionate effect [of] screening out minorities.” James Jordan says the council’s efforts have increased minority participation in both the artistic and administrative activities of all of New York’s classical music ensembles, as well as the appointment of minority members to the boards of such major institutions as the New York Philharmonic.

Because of the sensitivities involved, administrators at New York’s major music institutions are notably reluctant even to discuss affirmative action. For the most part, however, they have resisted pressure for affirmative action hiring from the government and umbrella organizations. Of the major institutions located at Lincoln Center—the Metropolitan Opera, the City Opera, and the New York Philharmonic—only the Philharmonic actually has an affirmative action recruitment plan. That plan is kept as quiet as possible.

Discomfort with affirmative action is especially acute in the field of opera. Though affirmative action is high on the agenda of Opera America, the national clearinghouse for operatic ensembles, both the Metropolitan Opera and the City Opera are impatient with queries as to whether they recruit minority members. Representatives of these ensembles eagerly point to their impressive lists of black singers as proof that they neither discriminate nor indulge where African-American talent is concerned. And who could fail to believe them? In the past decade, for example, the Met’s roster has included the likes of Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Simon Estes, and Vinson Cole. At the City Opera, such talents as Thomas Young and Eugene Perry have proven indispensable to the company.

New York’s symphony orchestras, however, have far fewer blacks. Indeed, African-American orchestral musicians are so scarce that a myth of residual discrimination persists. Jordan, for example, insists that racial stereotypes regarding what blacks “do or don’t do” actually militate against their hiring in symphonic and chamber ensembles. The belief is pervasive, he says, that there are few qualified black instrumentalists, and even fewer black string players.

Such stereotypes about black instrumentalists, however, are not the product of racial prejudice; rather, they reflect cultural realities. In 1987, less than 2 percent of conservatory students majoring in instrumental study were black. Although no statistics are available on the proportion of blacks among vocal students, 6 percent of all conservatory students are black, suggesting that blacks are represented among vocal students in a proportion roughly equal to their share of the population. The simple fact is that when blacks set their sights on a career in classical music, they tend to pursue vocal rather than instrumental study. Thus, the audition pool of black instrumentalists is very small.

The inclination to a specific area of musical study is hardly unique to the black community. Other racial and ethnic groups also show predilections for particular areas of study, most likely rooted in their cultural traditions. One thinks of string-playing Russian Jews, for example. Nobody seems to mind that Asians, who have made significant inroads into the string sections of professional symphony orchestras, are conspicuously absent in the field of opera. But the small number of blacks choosing instrumental careers has unleashed cries of racial discrimination and injustice.

The dearth of black instrumentalists has been a nasty bugaboo of symphony orchestra management for more than a quarter of a century. In 1969, two black musicians charged that the New York Philharmonic’s audition practices were discriminatory. Although the Philharmonic was exonerated from these charges, they prompted the orchestra to institute its first affirmative action hiring plan. Officials at the Philharmonic refuse to discuss the details of that plan or the orchestra’s current recruitment practices. But the methods used today were outlined in a 1990 American Symphony Orchestra League study entitled “The Participation of Blacks in Symphony Orchestras.” According to that report, the Philharmonic has a three-tiered affirmative action program: identifying black musicians who might be encouraged to audition for the orchestra, allowing any black musician to play for the music director (a privilege normally reserved for those who make it to the final round of an audition), and recruiting blacks as extras and substitutes. This rather modest combination of indulgences is typical of those granted by most American orchestras that have affirmative action plans.

These plans have proven remarkably ineffective in increasing the number of blacks on permanent contract with symphony orchestras. In 1990, the American Symphony Orchestra League surveyed its membership, and found that blacks held no more than 1.4 percent of orchestral chairs, about the same proportion they held in 1974. The persistence of this statistic has not escaped the notice of prominent black musicians. Two critics of affirmative action, Eileen T. Cline, dean of Peabody Conservatory, and James DePriest, music director of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, took up the issue in their addresses to the New York Philharmonic’s 1987 conference, “Toward Greater Participation of Black Musicians in Symphony Orchestras.” Both pointed out that while the existence of affirmative action programs did much to injure black pride, neither the $160,000-a-year Music Assistance Fund nor a myriad of other affirmative action plans have significantly colored the complexion of America’s symphony orchestras.

It appears that the primary effect of affirmative action recruitment has been to create a respectable pool of black extras and substitutes who can be called upon to populate orchestras on those occasions when it is felt that color on stage must complement color in the audience. Both the New York Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Philharmonic make supreme efforts to put minority musicians and soloists in the orchestra for school and community concerts. The Brooklyn Philharmonic, in fact, has a contractual obligation to produce an orchestral body of 25 percent black and Hispanic players for the purpose of public school performance and instruction programs. Permanent players gladly defer such performances to noncontract colleagues. In fact, it is usually the privilege of “principals” (the leading players in their sections) to be exempt from such exercises.

It seems, then, that while the very notion of affirmative action hiring unleashes a host of ethical problems and racial embarrassments, in practice these plans have been rendered innocuous. Indeed, they add up to a happy political arrangement. They accommodate, first and foremost, a big bag of air for the arts policymakers; they satisfy the interests of white union musicians who are only too happy to have more leisure time; and they give black free-lance players more work. The hiring of blacks for school and community concerts has, in fact, become an easy way for classical music institutions to satisfy government directives on minority visibility without greatly jeopardizing either labor-management relations or musical standards.

If affirmative action and multiethnic programming have failed to fulfill their goals, can anything be done to increase minority involvement in classical music? In his keynote address to the 1987 New York Philharmonic conference, James DePriest lamented the decline of musical education in public schools:

There was a time when the public school music programs were ports of entry to instrumental instruction. All-city junior and senior high school orchestras gave us an early taste of the magical symphonic literature and its wondrous sound. The program in the Philadelphia of my youth was peerless.... That was then, and this is a far less rosy now for public education.

In preparation for the Philharmonic conference, nine black musicians under permanent contract to American symphony orchestras were interviewed about their studies and careers. Almost without exception, they said their early musical experiences in the public schools were crucial to their artistic development. Several blamed the decline in the quality of music education for the lack of interest in classical music on the part of black youths.

Jerome Ashby, who plays principal horn in the Philharmonic, attributes much of his musical success to the instruction he received in the Sixties in the public schools of Manhattan and the Bronx. But the system that nurtured talents like Ashby’s no longer exists. Many elementary and middle schools, lacking both music specialists and an administrative commitment to a well-defined arts curriculum, have abandoned music instruction entirely. Dr. Bernard Fischenfelder, music consultant to the arts and culture office of the New York City Board of Education, says public school music programs have declined steadily over the past twenty years. The All-City Orchestra and Band, ensembles which turned away applicants in the Fifties and Sixties, are now forced to coordinate rehearsals so they can share wind players. Instrumental, particularly string, programs in the schools have almost completely disappeared. “Even at the High School for Music and Art, there are serious problems with the level of music able to be performed,” Fischenfelder says.

Minority students would be among the biggest beneficiaries of improved music programs in the schools: When students were asked about their preferences among extracurricular activities and elective courses as part of the 1981 National Assessment of Educational Progress, black and Hispanic children were 30 to 40 percent more likely than whites to prefer music-related activities.

Education is, in fact, an important component in the outreach efforts of New York’s major music institutions, but not one that enjoys especially generous financial support from the government. And unfortunately, many of the educational programs sponsored by classical institutions are based on the assumption that school-age children are bound to find classical music boring. This is illustrated well by an advertising brochure entitled “Growing Up with Opera,” published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s family program, which stages classic operas rewritten and set in contemporary times. This season’s brochure featured a cartoon scene of a typical family of four on its way to an opera performance, carrying “smelling salts ... to keep from dozing,” roller blades “for fast get-aways,” and a Walkman “to drown out Puccini”!

The “Growing Up with Opera” series is directed at a predominantly white, middle-class audience. When the Metropolitan Opera Guild sets out specifically to target minorities, it takes its know-nothing approach to even greater extremes. Asked about its affirmative action and minority-outreach efforts, a spokesman responded with a press release on a new children’s opera the guild has commissioned in collaboration with the Kennedy Center, set to premier in the spring of 1993. The composer of this “opera”? Carly Simon.

Then there is the guild’s “Creating Original Opera” program, which sends resident artists and specially trained teachers to 17 New York City schools. The program involves children in all the production aspects of opera, from the composition of a story and music to lighting, costumes, and staging. According to JoAnn Foreman, the guild’s educational director, the goal of the program is to “get kids to take responsibility for their own education.” But she does not mean music education. Foreman cites as one of the greatest benefits of the program “the scientific knowledge gained about volts and amps.” Creating Original Opera, however, includes no study whatsoever of the standard operatic repertory. Moreover, it totally ignores such basic elements of musical literacy as rhythm, notation, and the identification of musical form. “Notation is not an important element of music,” Foreman insists. “The important element of music is self-expression.”

Not surprisingly, the “operas” produced by this program have little to do with the classical operatic tradition. For example, at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn, students dubbed themselves the Too Hot to Handle Opera Company and produced a work called “Camp Mars,” using computer-generated and electronically sampled sounds, audiotape loops, and other elements of rap music. It is quite a stretch to call this sort of work an opera, but Foreman does so by the simple expedient of redefining opera: “Anyone who knows anything about opera knows that opera, as an art form, is simply a drama moved by music.”

Not all classical institutions feel compelled to jettison their great musical tradition in order to appeal to young people. The Philharmonic’s “Young People’s Concerts” provide special performances for family audiences, and a program called “Musical Encounters” exposes fourth- through eighth-grade students to the traditional classical repertory by inviting them to a lecture followed by a rehearsal by the ensemble. Young People’s Concerts were once held for school audiences, but the Philharmonic’s administrators believed that New York’s schoolchildren would respond better to a less structured performance in a more intimate setting. Says hornist Jerome Ashby of the Young People’s Concerts, “One gets the impression that most of the kids don’t really want to be there.” And who could expect otherwise, when their exposure to classical music in school is minimal or nonexistent?

If government policymakers truly want to increase minority participation in classical music, they should start by supporting educational efforts that would provide children with authentic musical experiences in the schools. Only if serious music education programs are made available can we expect large numbers of children—of all races—to develop an appreciation for classical music.

In his speech to the New York Philharmonic Conference, James DePriest criticized the government for emphasizing compensatory programs that put “show before substance.” “We may be providing elaborate answers to questions not being asked,” he said. “Our focus and our assistance need to be ... in the early years of that noble addiction to music.”

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