In yesterday’s Impromptus, I spoke of our “national god” (with some bitterness, true). That god is race — almighty skin color, to which we all bow down. Virtually no area of American life is exempt.
That certainly includes classical music. Many years ago, I wrote a piece on just this issue: the intrusion into classical music of race. That piece may be found in my 2007 collection, here.
The impetus for the piece was a subscription series of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra called “Classically Black.” Concerts of music by William Grant Still and other black composers? No. (That would be bad enough: segregated programming.) Here’s how it worked:
Say the orchestra had Beethoven’s Ninth on the program. (This is an actual, real-life example.) Say that one of the four soloists, for the last movement, happened to be black. The concert was part of “Classically Black.” See?
The god of race must be appeased. (Whether the Baltimore orchestra still does “Classically Black,” I don’t know. For the sake of progress, I hope not.)
In recent days, I’ve been following a sickening case in Atlanta. According to the Cobb County school system, two of its high-school choruses were denied the chance to perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra because those choruses weren’t “diverse enough.” The president of the orchestra said, “We want the stages of the Atlanta Symphony . . . to reflect the diversity of Atlanta.”
Does a music group have to “reflect” the community in which it performs? Does a sports team? Aren’t music groups and sports teams part of the very “diversity” of a community?
A Cobb County spokesman said that participation in the choruses “is determined on the basis of merit alone,” and that all students are welcome to try out. Parents of the choristers say that what the Atlanta Symphony has done is unfair — terribly unfair. The kids just want to make music. Isn’t that an innocent, wholesome desire, something that ought to be protected from the poison of race?
Members of the orchestra, upset at the episode, and wanting to repair community relations, have offered to perform at the schools, with the choruses, to raise money for those schools. They would do this free of charge.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before in this column a hero of mine, Maestro James DePreist. A long time ago, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra approached him about being its music director. It was clear to him that they were interested in him for his race. (He’s black.) He would have nothing to do with the DSO.
“It is impossible for me to go to Detroit because of the atmosphere,” he said. “People mean well, but you fight for years to make race irrelevant, and now they are making race an issue.”
DePreist, by the way, is the nephew of Marian Anderson, the great American contralto — “the Lady from Philadelphia.”
Let me tell you something about Wednesday evening: I couldn’t get home, because President Obama needed to pass. I’ll explain in a minute.
When you live in New York, you put up with a lot of inconveniences: motorcades and the like. You are often having to take a backseat to VIPs, particularly when the U.N. is having some big convocation.
But there’s almost always an alternative route: You can always get where you’re going, somehow, even if the detour is long and annoying.
Have I told this story before? I’m sure I have. Several years ago, I was having to cover a Sunday-afternoon concert at Carnegie Hall. I was dashing over there, via my usual route — when I found I couldn’t keep going. It was the day of the New York City Marathon. My route was cut off.
In all innocence, yet knowing what I was about to say, I said to a policeman — this was perfectly legitimate — “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” He smiled. He knew the old joke. (“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”) But he also knew I was serious. He told me what the detour was, and I got there in time.
Never before two days ago was I prevented from moving altogether. I was a few blocks from home. (On foot, I should say — same with the Carnegie Hall incident.) The time was 6:40. I had a 7:30 engagement. I needed to shower and change. And I couldn’t move forward. I couldn’t move anywhere. I was penned, by fences and cops.
I said to a man in blue, “I’m trying to get home. What can I do?” “Nothing,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do. You have to wait till he passes.” Who was “he”? Obama. The Big “He,” as Monica Lewinsky once called another president.
Some event at Lincoln Center, apparently. Not sure. There were throngs of people, throngs of pedestrians, who couldn’t move — who couldn’t move until “he” came through. It was interesting to listen to them, as we waited and waited . . .