Let's stop pretending classical music will change the world

I’m not a fan of silence. Wait. Allow me, please, to clarify: I’ll take contemplative silence whenever I can, or the silence that comes from crisp mountain air or the hush that befalls your heart when gazing up at the galaxy of stars on a moonless night. Oh, I love that kind of silence. But silence in the face of oppression? Nope. Not a fan. Never have been. Can’t imagine I ever will be. That doesn’t mean that I always know how to speak up, that I always do speak up, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I always know the most effective way to speak up in order to actually invite people to listen, and then – under the best of circumstances – perhaps to actually feel the call to action. No. I’m not an expert in any of those areas. But I can tell you that I at heart, in the very center of my being, not comfortable in staying quiet about causes I am personally invested in. Especially when a person’s inherent dignity is at stake.
That is Joyce DiDonato writing on the eve of her much publicised 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' protest against Russia's anti-gay propaganda law at the last night of the 2013 BBC Proms. Earlier this week a guest contributor wrote very movingly about a courageous voice in India that would not be silenced and paid the ultimate price; so I am justifying yet another post on the subject of classical musician's performing in China by the need to balance a lot of spin with a little information. A recent post explained how I searched in vain among Joyce DiDonatos many tweets for any comment about human rights and freedom of expression in China, where she recently gave two concerts plus one in Chinese administered Hong Kong. On reflection I should not have been surprised that my search was fruitless*, and here is why.

Last year Ms DiDonato moved from Intermusica, the agency she had been with for many years, to Askonas Holt; a move that, according to Christopher Gillett, happened because Askonas Holt could offer her more mass exposure. An example of that increased exposure is the recent high profile Askonas Holt managed tour of Europe that Joyce DiDonato made with the Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra that the agency has a long relationship with. Significantly the opportunity for mass exposure extends far beyond Europe. China is acknowledged to be the world's fastest growing market for Western classical music, and Askonas Holt has a lot of clout in China.

That clout includes representing superstar pianist YUNDI, who is described as "a household name with a huge following in his native China", and the China Philharmonic Orchestra, which the agency brought to the BBC Proms in 2014. Simon Rattle is another Askonas Holt represented artist, and in 2011 he gave three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic in China, while in the same year Askonas Holt stablemates Daniel Barenboim and the West Eastern Divan Orchestra were also behind the Great Wall. In 2013 Askonas Holt presented a Britten in China project at the Beijing Music Festival and masterminded a four week tour of China by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. And in July this year the Askonas Holt represented National Youth Orchestra of the USA makes a seven city tour of China and Hong Kong with the agency's star pianist YUNDI.

It is well-documented that China, like Russia, has a lamentable human rights record record including LGBT discrimination. But conveniently, Russia - which has been the subject of vociferous protests - is no longer an important destination for touring orchestras and star musicians: to my knowledge the last major orchestra to visit Russia was the Chicago Symphony in 2012. Askonas Holt's relationship with China is just one example of the hidden power of management agents. It reflects the inconvenient truth that celebrity classical musicians cannot support their expensive lifestyle without collaborating with ethically compromised regimes in China and the Gulf States, and without accepting funding from ethically compromised global corporations. So please can we just accept that, and stop pretending that classical music is going to change the world.

* Freedom of expression, or the lack thereof in both China and Russia, is at the heart of this lengthy thread. So in the interests of freedom of expression I have asked Joyce DiDonato to respond to my posts, and she has agreed to do so when her schedule permits. Inconveniently On An Overgrown Path disappears into a communications black hole in a few days while I travel for some weeks off-grid. So if there is an undue delay in airing Ms DiDonato's response I apologise.

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billoo said…
Have to be sceptical when someone says: "at the very centre of my being".

As always pli, a great bit of writing.


sobolev said…
Do Wiener Philharmoniker, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and London Philharmonic Orchestra count as major orchestras? They all've gone to Russia in the past two years. I'm probably missing some, since I'm not living in Moscow anymore and pay little attention to St Petersburg music scene, which traditionally dominates classical music here. There's been no shortage of great performers and conductors recently coming to Russia too, from Paavo Jarvi, Daniel Barenboim and Esa-Pekka Salonen to Leif Ove Andsnes or Truls Mork or Leonids Kavakos. I have no idea where you've got the fact that Russia isn't an important destination to star musicians and orchestras.

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