Leonard Slatkin throws down the gauntlet on race in classical music

African-American pianist Andre Watts blazed a trail for classical musicians of color. Classical music still, very obviously, has demographic issues, both in audience and performers.
African-American pianist André Watts blazed a trail for classical musicians of color. Classical music still, very obviously, has demographic issues, both in audience and performers.

The inimitable Norman Lebrecht points to an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press by Detroit Symphony conductor Leonard Slatkin. Slatkin asks why there aren’t more African American classical musicians in the game.

When it comes to the African-American sector of the classical music workplace, the changes are barely significant. There remain but a few who are in the forefront of the industry. Many attempts to alter this situation have seemed patronizing, and, in many cases, unfair to all musicians.

I’d say, given a music that is rooted in white, middle-to-upper-class European historic tradition (and throw “male” in there, too), it’s unsurprising that proportionately fewer African Americans have found purchase in the classical music industry.

Denyce Graves is a high-profile, high-octane mezzo-soprano in the opera world.
Denyce Graves is a high-profile, high-octane mezzo-soprano in the opera world.

That’s not to say there are zero African Americans (or Hispanic Americans, or insert-your-group here) but looking out at the sea of faces at a Saturday night show is like observing the Great White Musical Consensus.

A quick gander at the audience from the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.
A quick gander at the audience from the stage at the Metropolitan Opera.

Let’s see. Where to start? Slatkin kind of shrugs his shoulders here:

All music is not for everyone, as different people gravitate to what their hearts and souls tell them is meaningful. But each person must have the ability to pick and choose.

Translation: we have failed to garner a significant portion of the audience whose ethnicity and heritage doesn’t jibe with the white-bread pedigree of classical music. And that sucks.

I’m not criticizing Slatkin because it takes courage to write this, to acknowledge there are essential disparities at the heart of his profession. But damn, if this doesn’t tell you we need better programming, a defter touch to our community work, and a new tack when it comes to marketing this stuff, then nothing will sway you.

Classical music is NOT white people’s music. It’s not music for rich people, and it’s not just for high society. What a snooze that list is just to type. If that’s the reason you’re on this trip, get off.

Classical music is democratic. It’s for the people like Wu-Tang is for the children. Classical music is the movie soundtrack you listened to and loved. It’s the string breakdown in the middle of your favorite pop song. It’s a space where friends kick it to Beethoven quartets and get lost in the sound and a cloud of smoke. It’s snacks and box wine on the lawn at the Pops. It’s the best.

Hearing music outside while snacking and hoisting brews is a rarefied, ecumenical experience.
Hearing music outside while snacking and hoisting brews is a rarefied, ecumenical experience.

Good music is good music. It will be self-evident when we get it out there. Slatkin is off to a good start by owning up to some seriously troubling demographic trends. The best news is that we’re basically at rock bottom — nowhere to go but up.

Further reading: head to Norman Lebrecht’s page because Slatkin is mixing it up in the comments section. Here’s Slatkin’s original piece, “How African Americans changed classical music.”

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