Ann Arbor, MI — Dear A2SO Family:
The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others have sparked a national conversation about racism and systemic oppression of racial groups. At the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, we believe that Black Lives Matter, and that racism has no place in our halls.
On this day in 1865, news of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas—the last slave-holding community in the United States. Two and a half years after President Lincoln’s monumental Executive Order, all enslaved peoples of the United States were finally granted “absolute equality of rights.” We commemorate this turning point in our history with a holiday called Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th each year.
On this Juneteenth I am reflecting on the effects that systemic racism has had on classical music. This year, 2020, we will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Beethoven died in 1827 at the age of 56, 35 years prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It was around this time that music was undergoing a shift from a somewhat utilitarian social mechanism for connection to a “high art” meant to be admired, elevated, and understood in silence and at a distance. Popular music became vulgar, leading to the marginalization of certain composers and to the birth of entire genres. The halls built to elevate this newly defined “high art” were designed for a class of status and privilege—overwhelmingly white—deemed worthy of tackling the complexities of this superior musical idiom. During this transition, new traditions were introduced to help in bolstering this culture shift: darkening the halls to encourage silence, holding applause until the end of a work, and a certain reverence and decorum for this newly sanctified art form. This was a “white space” that blocked all but a few individuals of color from access and entry.
These traditions are on full display at most classical music performances today. We present our art in white spaces built for white European music. While reflecting on these pivotal moments in history, I cannot help but see the paradox of two simultaneous cultural shifts: a movement to legally recognize all humans as equal and the segregation of classical music for an elite group of connoisseurs. The very medium through which we present live symphonic music was built to exclude, silence, and separate—for art’s sake.
For art’s sake, and for humanity’s sake, we must recognize that the classical music we love is tainted by classism, systemic racism, and extreme marginalization of artists who do not fit the prescribed mold. The gatekeepers have, over the centuries, guarded our art form from all but the most pious and reverent of creators, performers, and audiences. Before we can say with confidence that our music is for all and our halls are open to every music lover, we must look deep within ourselves and acknowledge the years of elitism and racism that we have allowed to perpetuate through the guise of tradition.
So to you, I must say I am sorry. As a leader, I certainly have not done enough to face and acknowledge the missteps of my art form that have led to so many to not feel welcome in our halls or privy to enjoy our music. As a gatekeeper, I must apologize for not doing enough to elevate the voices and perspectives of artists who break from tradition, seeking to shape a more equitable musical landscape.
While the classical music industry is steeped in racial inequity across the board, change is on the horizon and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra passionately stands by and commits to leading in shaping these positive movements. Enough is enough; it is time to acknowledge the shadows of the past and look to bold, new approaches to how and why we make music so that it is no longer for art’s sake, but for humanity’s sake. Join me in shaping a future in which we strive for absolute equality both in our halls and in our world.