James Oestreich of The New York Times says the Cleveland Orchestra “may (quietly) be America’s best.” But what does it mean to be one of the best orchestras? For the players on stage, it means performing with exquisite sensitivity and responding to the scores and conductors in front of them with unparalleled skill. For the artistic direction, it means leading the ensemble down the path to irrelevance and eventual obscurity.
Oestreich is wrong; the Cleveland Orchestra is not one of the best. In fact, they’re hardly an orchestra at all. Rather than an orchestra, I’d say they’re an ensemble specializing in the performance of music by European men. In much the same way that eighth blackbird plays only contemporary music, or that Apollo’s Fire focuses on baroque music, the Cleveland Orchestra chooses to interpret the music of white men, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries. And they do this very well.
Why would an ensemble choose to focus on such a limited repertoire, and what gives a prominent music critic the license to misidentify the ensemble? The tradition of classical music centers on performing pieces of music written down by composers. This seems harmless, until you consider that the majority of this tradition has been run almost exclusively by European or European-trained white men.
Today, things are a bit different. The context and politics of music change how we understand what the orchestra does. Pop stars continue to recognize the importance of context for their music. For example, the Rolling Stones issued multiple statements disapproving of the use of their music at Trump campaign rallies. The campaign playing their music at rallies morphs the meaning of their music into support songs for the widely detested candidate. Classical music claims to be a more learned form of art, yet in Cleveland’s own concert hall, the ensemble continues to ignore an idea as basic as context.
I’m not the first person to question the trend of uncritically following tradition. Online meme culture has caught on and criticized the Cleveland Orchestra’s artistic leadership. Other prominent U.S. orchestras offer a more American approach to programming; in Seattle or Los Angeles, concert-goers can hear their hometown orchestras play pieces by Americans, people of color, and women. Cleveland continues to ignore the existence of this repertoire.
Alex Ross, in the New Yorker article “Leonard Bernstein and the Perils of Hero Worship” from the Sept. 15 issue, decried the off-putting hero worship he sensed at Leonard Bernstein’s Tanglewood Centenial Celebration. The misguided ideas that promote all-white-male concert programs also produce a culture of hero worship. An important man’s higher status — hero status — trivializes reports of his wrongdoings and dissuades victims from reporting. The #MeToo movement has taken the first steps to empower victims and dismantle the beliefs that prioritize the careers of men above the voices of victims. The Cleveland Orchestra proves that we still have a long way to go.
Sure, demanding the performance of music by women and people of color reeks of identity politics, but doesn’t playing music almost exclusively by white men rely on an even narrower identity politics? This is especially concerning when the identity of the white male is the only identity represented on a concert program. Maybe you’re concerned about losing touch with what many may consider to be the great masterworks of the past. Who told you that these were masterworks, anyway? Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 sounds like stale bread tastes after getting to know Florence Price’s first. Johannes Brahms’ piano and orchestral music is full of intimacy and nuance; however, the intimacy and immediacy of Margaret Bonds’ non-orchestral music makes me long to hear how she wrote for orchestra. And Anna •orvaldsdóttir captures the icy cold better than Hans Abrahamsen, despite his fondness of snow (but Abrahamsen’s orchestral works are still undeniably attractive).
I get why they stick with the familiar: the orchestra must appeal to the Cleveland classical music market to survive. However, an organization this influential has the power to shape the market as much as they must cater to it. Their continued rejection of non-white composers may exclude huge swaths of potential concert-goers. Maintaining an all-white-male status quo raises eyebrows from thoughtful concert-goers; doing so might also reduce the orchestra’s potential audience from the outset.
In a place like Oberlin, with the rich history it treasures, the Cleveland Orchestra feels a bit out of place. We should understand the Cleveland Orchestra’s visit as a way of opening dialogue with an ensemble that operates in contradiction to our core values, opening our ears to a different voice. The Artist Recital Series’ advertisements welcome the ensemble on their own terms, but students can take ownership to frame the performance as what it is: a performance by one of the world’s leading ensembles specializing in music by European white men.