Monday, July 16, 2012
Are classical audiences racist? – no, quite the opposite
Are classical music audiences racist? Candace Allen thinks so based on an unfortunate incident at London's Barbican, and so do others. Here are Ms Allen's words from a recent Evening Standard interview to promote her new book Soul Music: “There are people for whom [classical music] is still very much about class, and their class only, and they can be very rough, extremely snobbish and yes, racist”, and she then says that black people are made to feel unwelcome in some classical venues. Now, On An Overgrown Path has been drawing attention to racism for some time with stories such as 'I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors' and 'Did BBC derail career of black conductor'. And yes, ethnic minorities are under-represented in classical music audiences, and we certainly need to change that. But there is a big difference between being ethnically unrepresentative and being racist. In my experience racism, in either overt or nuanced forms, is not a material problem among classical music audiences, and I will now explain why.
In 1973 I took a young and beautiful East Indian lady to a Festival Hall Concert – Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting Brahms and Stravinsky to be precise. In the 1930s Rudolph Dunbar - the first black conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic - had come from Georgetown, Guyana to London in search of opportunity, and the young lady, who was also born in Georgetown, had made the same journey thirty years later. The concert was our first date, and fortunately she had exquisite taste and married me three years later, a union that lasts happily and unfashionably to this day. To put the timing into perspective, anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in America just six years before we started dating, and the 1976 Race Relations Act aimed at preventing discrimination on grounds of race and colour became law in the United Kingdom in the week we were married.
Our advanced years probably mean we have attended more classical concerts than Ms Allen, and the total certainly runs into four figures. These include receptions and other industry events as well as concerts, and at many my wife was one of the few, if not the only, non-white attending. Yet there was no racism, either overt or nuanced, among the audience at that 1973 Festival Hall concert. There was no racism at Karajan’s summer Salzburg Festival concerts. There was no racism when Donald McIntyre sung Wotan at Longborough. There was no racism at Sir Adrian Boult’s last BBC Prom. There was no racism at the premiere of David Hockney’s Glyndebourne Die Zauberflöte. There was no racism at Riccardo Muti’s Salzburg debut. There was no racism when Rostropovich played at Aldeburgh. There was no racism when a young Simon Rattle brought the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Mahler's Tenth Symphony to the Festival Hall. And there was no racism when Domingo sung in La Fanciulla del West at Covent Garden. In fact neither of us can recall a hint of racism among any audience at a classical concert.
That is my wife in the photo with that great transculturalist Jordi Savall. She has experienced racial prejudice first hand away from the concert hall. But when I discussed the Evening Standard story about racism among concert audiences with her, she observed “Racism among the audience? – no, in fact quite the opposite”. Discrimination on grounds of race and colour is a truly terrible thing, and, undoubtedly, it lingers on in some areas of classical music; so it is good that books like Soul Music are drawing attention to it. But in our experience classical audiences are not where we should be pointing the finger.
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