Joshua Katz recently urged City Journal readers to exercise due diligence in their charitable giving. Do not assume, he warned, that the nonprofit you have supported for years remains true to what was once its stated purpose. There is a high chance that it has added “anti-racism” to its mission, however irrelevant such an agenda may be to that mission and however negative the consequences of that redirection for our culture.
Having spent hours over the Christmas holiday performing just such due diligence, I am sharing the results as a sort of prolegomena toward a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for cultural giving.
Many years ago, I decided to focus my donations exclusively on classical music, since it is the most important thing in my life and is struggling to survive. My primary criterion for donation is whether an organization programs music outside the stupefyingly repeated canonical repertoire, a repertoire that probably comprises at most 100 works, out of a tantalizing musical universe of hundreds of thousands of unknown gems. I attend only those concerts now that expand my musical knowledge, absent a strong countervailing reason to the contrary. The canonical works are being played to death, and I am not afraid to admit that my 33rd experience of Don Giovanni does not produce in me anything like the astounded ravishment and obsession that followed my first or even tenth exposure to the work.
Contemporary works may draw me to a concert—I will attend a few New York Philharmonic concerts this year to try, inter alia, to figure out the Thomas Adès cult, having been repelled by the literally dog-whistle writing in his Tempest. But the new music I usually seek is either lesser-known works by canonical composers—instead of The Four Seasons, Vivaldi’s operas; instead of the Rhenish Symphony, Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri; instead of Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck’s ballet music Don Juan—or works by lesser-known composers: Christoph Graupner, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Nikolai Medtner, Andrea Zani, to name a few. Program C. P. E. Bach, and you have guaranteed my attendance at your concert (logistics permitting) and put yourself in the running for a donation.
After that initial new-repertoire cut, my giving to classical music organizations is inversely proportional to those organizations’ embrace of racial-justice rhetoric. I am all for racial justice, as it once was defined. But classical music does not at present have a racism problem. It is colorblind in its pursuit of musical excellence, or was until the post-George Floyd meltdown. No black or Hispanic musician is being denied opportunities today because of his skin color. To the contrary. (The same can no longer be said with confidence regarding white male performers.)
To the extent that a classical music organization does parrot antiracism bromides and accuses itself or the profession of bias, that organization is accelerating classical music’s demise. Classical music’s presence in the culture at large is already marginal. For most young people it is an alien, if not repellent, idiom. Teaching young people to see this sublime tradition through the trivializing lens of race and sex will provide the coup de grâce. If any further reason were needed for a potential novice to shun concert halls and classical YouTube performances, tarring classical music as exclusionary provides it.
Guided by these principles, I diminished my support this past year for an opera company that has embraced land acknowledgements and that has injected anachronistic anti-colonialist themes into its stagings and accompanying educational materials; a public radio show that positions its photographs of young black musicians next to commentary about “representation;” another opera company that has tried to foreground feminist concerns despite performing a repertoire from which female composers are, for historical reasons, nearly absent.
After the Metropolitan Opera threw the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo to the #MeToo harpies, I cut my giving by 80 percent. I should have eliminated my support entirely after general manager Peter Gelb hired a chief diversity officer—formerly a highly paid bureaucrat at Harvard Law School with no background in opera—at a time when Gelb was warning that the Met’s parlous finances threatened the company’s very survival. If the Met has enough money to create a costly new sinecure to fight a nonexistent problem—its alleged racism—then it does not need my money.
But the flesh is weak. The Met seems too important an institution, with too grand a history, to abandon totally (not that my donations matter in any way other than principle). It continues to bring relatively obscure works, such as this season’s Medea and Fedora, back to light, in performances of superlative musical quality. The Met still mounts the occasional gorgeous staging dedicated to a composer’s intent, such as Sir David McVicar’s Roberto Devereux, however much it is ineluctably embracing Regietheater. And to be frank, I value my patron dress-rehearsal tickets too much to go cold turkey on donor support.
Classical music radio in New York City presents an even more painful dilemma. WQXR is the last remaining classical station in the city, down from a whopping three when I first came to New York in 1987. By now, even having one local station where you live is a small miracle. WQXR has had a good run in recent years regarding unfamiliar repertoire; its programming is creative, at least outside of weekends, fundraising periods, and the dreary Classical Music Countdown. I was mesmerized recently, for example, by the off-kilter rhythms of Amy Beach’s Honeysuckle, and by the sensual languor of Poulenc’s Mélancolie, both works that I had never heard before.
But WQXR is under the umbrella of WNYC, the nation’s most influential public radio station. WNYC is nearly a parody of the woke NPR station, complete with a recent revolt by employees “of color” claiming that they had been discriminated against by the station’s impeccably progressive management. Any money given to WQXR goes into the bigger WNYC pot and cannot be segregated. Moreover, WQXR now makes antiracist noises itself in the post-Floyd “racial reckoning.”
However dismaying it is to funnel funds into the donation-magnet that is WNYC, I have not been willing to cut my support to WQXR entirely, out of self-interest and a sense that classical radio must survive for the good of the tradition. In atonement, I give far more to KUSC, the classical station I listen to when I am in Southern California. KUSC has also been on an impressive new-repertoire roll for several years; it is independent of National Public Radio; and it has kept its racial-justice rhetoric to a minimum. (Whether that reticence has lasted under its new director I will find out when I return to Irvine this spring.)
To date, I have not docked any organization for the following gestures toward racial absolution: a conspicuous surge in black performers, inevitably foregrounded in publicity materials; or a conspicuous surge in programming black composers, even such mediocrities as Joseph Bologne and Florence Price. (Though had I been a supporter of the Lucerne Music Festival, this summer’s performance by Anne-Sofie Mutter of a feather-light Bologne violin concerto would have given me serious pause.) There are enough superb black performers and composers to justify such “inclusive” gestures, especially when the composers’ music is little-known.
So what ensembles ranked highest in my due diligence?
The American Classical Orchestra. The ACO is a laid-back period-instrument group in New York City, lacking the missionary asceticism that characterized the initial wave of early music groups. Its affable director, Thomas Crawford, is one of those chatty conductors who introduces the program to the audience from the podium. (Such conductor volubility is one of the few innovations in traditional concert protocol that makes sense.) The ACO does offer concerts composed exclusively of war horses, but it offsets that box-office necessity with rarer treasures. In recent years it has performed C. P. E. Bach’s Magnificat, Mendelsohn’s Psalm 42 (“Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks . . .”), and Gluck’s De Profundis. This March 2023, it will perform an all-Bach cantata program. (The absence of Bach cantatas from the performing repertoire is one of the most tragic lacunae of our time, depriving listeners of an untapped lode of Baroque sublimity.)
I found no reference to racial justice and inclusion on the ACO’s website. Instead, the group simply celebrates music. It does boast of its educational outreach efforts—as it should. More ensembles should spend time cultivating the next generation of listeners. But the ACO does not present its education programs in racial terms.
The Early Music Foundation. The EMF is another period-instrument group in New York City, of a longer pedigree than the ACO. Over the holidays it presented an exquisite program of Scottish, French, Italian, Spanish, and English Baroque Christmas works at St. John’s Cathedral; the most familiar composers on the program were Charpentier and Praetorius, but the majority were either anonymous or such obscurities as Francisco de Vidales. The Spanish works were particularly engaging for their Arab-inflected syncopations. The all-male singers, ranging from countertenors to a bass, often performed a capella; their pitch was flawless, and their expression nuanced; they offered stiff competition to the ubiquitous Chanticleer.
The EMF website also lacks any reference to racial justice; the program notes for the Christmas concert were erudite and apolitical.
Handel House. This small foundation manages Handel’s London residence and promotes his music; its director, musicologist Ellen Harris, has defended Handel against the charge that his brief ownership of stock in a slave-owning trading company compromises his musical legacy. (Handel received the stock as a commission fee.)
The Opera Guild of the University of California, Irvine. UC–Irvine’s modest opera program performed Mozart’s nearly invisible Singspiel, The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor), this summer; one has heard better singing, but the performance was enthusiastic, and the production, updated to include a Texas oil tycoon, amusing. The performance of this early rarity gets super-bonus points simply for existing. No racial-justice rhetoric on the Opera Guild’s website.
The Chamber Music Program at the University of California, Irvine. Its musical values are extremely high, to judge from a June 2022 recital I attended, even though UCI’s music program is hardly prominent among name-brand classical training programs and conservatories. That summer chamber recital included lesser-known works: a movement from a Fanny Mendelssohn string quartet; a flute sonata by Carl Reinecke; the “Tarantelle” from Rachmaninoff’s Suite for Two Pianos, Opus 2. The concertmaster of the UCI Symphony, Joseph Wong, performed the first movement of Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 3 beautifully. Wong, a double major in computer science and music, is one of those impossibly talented combinations of mathematical and musical skill who would never count toward any ensemble’s diversity quotas.
The UCI chamber players wrote their own program notes, a charming variation on traditional program practice.
Readers may have other criteria for giving and may have found other worthy recipients of cultural largesse. Whatever one’s priorities, it’s important to provide counterweight to the financial pressure that every cultural organization faces today: parrot racial-justice bromides or forfeit government and foundation support. Those arts groups that abjure such rhetoric must have made a conscious choice to do so. If, on the other hand, the abjurers are simply so immersed in their traditional mission as not to realize the bonfire happening around them, that innocence, too, deserves support.
Individual donations are unlikely to match what the now-diversity-obsessed Mellon Foundation or New York City Department of Cultural Affairs can provide. But it is nevertheless important to let non-conforming organizations know that their stance, deliberate or not, has an upside. Even that diversity-conditional foundation support for high culture pales in comparison with the largesse that America’s super-rich now direct towards fashionably progressive causes. The cachet that once attended giving to the opera or to the symphony has given way to stigma in some circles, a stigma that justifies the cultural ignorance of our Big Tech elites.
Joshua Katz has the backbone to close his check book entirely to some of his previous charitable recipients. I haven’t been as resolute, though that moment may be coming. Meantime, I will continue to agonize: How does one balance the good that even the most craven of classical music organizations still accomplish (the League of American Orchestras is the one classical organization that has become an unqualified disaster) with the destruction that they are wreaking on our civilizational inheritance? Suggestions welcome.
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