American Orchestras Shape Their Future Classical Music Wrestles with Political Correctness

By Philip Kennicott, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

American Orchestras Shape Their Future Classical Music Wrestles with Political Correctness


Philip Kennicott, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


KIMO WILLIAMS, an African-American composer, found the atmosphere at a recent Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert off-putting and the program book downright infuriating.

"The music is what is important to you, so of course you attend, but you feel like an outsider," Mr. Williams says. He expected to see an all-white orchestra and to be surrounded by a white audience. "But what I didn't expect, when I looked at the program book, the notes, the biographies, the advertisements, was to find only one picture of an African-American. And that was a picture of a black man standing on a corner, helpless."

That picture was an advertisement for a charity, but to Williams it sent anything but a charitable message.

"I was taken aback by the lack of sensitivity of the orchestra, or whoever put together the playbill," Williams says. "So there isn't one African-American in the orchestra, and the only picture shown is a negative view of us. There should be something that shows us from a positive side, or else don't put that picture in at all."

A single picture in a program may not seem all that important, except that for Williams it is just another manifestation of what he calls "the class system within classical music." In the past decade or so, the orchestra world has focused increasing attention on overcoming this class system and on trying to reach out to a more diverse audience. Composers and musicians who are not white or affluent have, to varying degrees, been encouraged to participate in the making of classical music. And orchestras have sought new means to make their concerts appealing and nonthreatening to new audiences.

Williams is a beneficiary of these efforts. Two years ago, in response to a call for music by African-American composers, he submitted a score to the Savannah (Ga.) Symphony Orchestra. His score was selected for an intensive workshop - with feedback from musicians, conductors, and other composers - and was later performed. The program was put together by the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL), a service organization that includes some 860 American orchestras of all sizes.

Williams is effusive in his praise of the program and the ASOL. "It wasn't a dog-and-pony show," he says. "They respected our talent and our work. When they performed the work, there was genuine, sincere interest. And they followed up with suggestions of other orchestras that might be open to us. It really pushed me into going ahead with writing and composing. It opened the door."

Not everybody, however, agrees that this kind of program is a good thing. Some people believe that the only good music is that which rises to the top in the highly competitive music world; they argue that allowing some composers to bypass the traditional routes is unfair and could produce lower-quality music. And some critics argue that these kinds of programs aren't really effective. Others say that encouraging composers from outside the Western European classical tradition encroaches on the traditional repertoire.

Advocates and critics of programs like the one in which Williams participated have had a field day recently. In June, the ASOL released the report of a task force that studied ways of encouraging the longevity and cultural relevance of American symphony orchestras. The result was a 203-page document that has become the center of a remarkably cantankerous debate. "Americanizing the American Orchestra," as the report is called, has injected the volatile vocabulary of "political correctness" into the generally sleepy world of classical music.

The bulk of the task force's report is devoted to issues such as management-musician relations, how to use volunteers effectively, and innovations in music education. But running through the report is a strong interest in cultural diversity and in popularizing the orchestral product. The task force asks: How can orchestras be remade to reflect the cultural and ethnic world around them? …

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