Three posts, in reaction to Spring for Music, an orchestra festival at Carnegie Hall, now in its third and next to last year.

I’ve been to only two of the concerts, because I no longer live in New York. But the one I went to last Friday — the Detroit Symphony, under Leonard Slatkin, playing all four Ives symphonies, which I very much enjoyed  — certainly made me think.

So first my reaction to the concert’s audience, to the Detroitness of the whole thing, because one feature of this festival is the excitement of the hometown audience for each visiting orchestra, which brings hundreds of people (sometimes even more than a thousand) to Carnegie Hall from Detroit. Or Baltimore. Or Toledo. Or Buffalo. Then I’ll talk about a marketing problem. And then about Ives!

The Detroit audience. Hundreds of them, Exuberant, thrilled, even before the concert began. Waving red  banners. A very fine idea — Spring for Music makes banners for each orchestra, in a different color for each. Hometown fans get the banners, and wave them with splashing excitement.

I loved that. Who wouldn’t? How often do we see real excitement at any orchestra event? And for the four Ives symphonies! Not exactly standard orchestra programming. That’s one key to Spring for Music — creative programs. But I’ll talk about that in my next post.

detroit blogBut now I have to be Scrooge, and ask one sad question about the celebration that burst out Friday night on the Carnegie Hall stage. A celebration, I’ll stress, not just of the orchestra, but of Detroit. A city, we were assured, that’s coming back, from what surely are the most dire problems faced in our time by any US city. The arts, we were told — there was celebratory talking before the performance, as upbeat as could be, with two Detroit representatives, one from GM and one a Detroit official (if memory serves) — the arts were crucial for this recovery.

There were just two (unreferenced) problems. First, Detroit seems to be going downhill, if you believe current news reports, not up. In March, the state of Michigan invoked a law allowing it to replace local elected leaders with an emergency manager, if a town or city is heading toward financial disaster. On Sunday, two days after the concert, the New York Times ran a story about a report the emergency manager would issue on Monday, saying that “the picture of [Detroit’s] debt and disarray he paints may be bleaker even than earlier grim portrayals.”

We’re talking here about a city with just about unprecedented corruption, disastrous police and fire departments, and (according to the Times piece) 78,000 abandoned buildings. I don’t claim to be an expert on all of this (though I did read an arresting, if anecdotal, book about it).

I’m also not going to say that the Detroit Symphony hasn’t made an extraordinary comeback from its own near-death experience, or that it’s unconcerned about its city, or that it hasn’t tried to get involved in efforts to make Detroit better.

Nor am I going to say that Detroit hasn’t gotten better in many ways. Look at the revival of the auto industry, or the growth of urban farms and community gardens (wonderful idea for a city with so much abandoned land),  or (admittedly looking toward the future) an eager plan to remake Detroit’s downtown. Or the orchestra’s rebirth!

But it’s also possible for good things to happen while the bad things get worse. Or for a city to go in two directions at once. We had, in the US, before the economy tanked, an economic boom combined with growing inequality, so the boom was very far from benefitting everyone. I don’t want to be cruel, but the revival of the Symphony could reflect something similar in Detroit.

And there’s one more thing. Detroit is a black majority city, hugely so — 83%. So its revival unavoidably needs to be an African-American story. Which we’d never have guessed from the pre-concert festivities in Carnegie Hall. Apart from the orchestra’s very few African-American musicians (I’m told there are four, more than some orchestras have, but of course a tiny number), there wasn’t a black face visible on stage. And very, very few in the audience. Though I’m told, once more, that the Symphony has more African-American ticket buyers than most other orchestras — and that this is something consciously aimed at, with its success being a fine achievement — the people waving red banners were overwhelmingly white.

It’s bad form, I think, to celebrate the revival (or alleged revival) of a black majority city without anyone black taking prominent part. I’ll make more disclaimers — this wouldn’t exactly be the first time African-Americans were publicly ignored in situations concerning them, and it also wouldn’t be the first time people got carried away with small improvements in a situation that might be getting worse.

So what I saw, Friday night, is in part just another installment in the ongoing tale of understandable, not at all uncommon human failings.

But on the other hand, it’s also not exactly new for classical music music, as an enterprise in our society, to be a little blind to external realities, to not fully grasp the world it lives in. Or for the arts to exaggerate their importance, in the face of chilling social and economic realities. Or for classical music, in our time, to be overwhelmingly a white enterprise.

So I think what I saw on Friday is also a classical music problem. To take only the racial aspect of it: It’s hard to think of another field that, at a moment like this, wouldn’t make a point of including African-Americans  — in some prominent way — in what happened at Carnegie Hall. It’s politically tone-deaf not to do that. Also bad form. Also wrong.

But classical music, which for so many years has dealt overwhelmingly with white people, may not quite get this. Despite all its other achievements, the Detroit Symphony (along with Spring for Music and Carnegie Hall, since both organizations could have asked for some action) seemed to reflect that on Friday night.

Next: Spring for Music’s marketing. Including a marketing point one of its leaders made to be when the festival launched, which showed poor understanding of the racial realities of 21st century New York. 

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  1. says

    You know I’ve got to speak up about this one Greg. There’s still a lot to tear down about and within Detroit. I’m glad you can appreciate there’s some growth and potential here. But there actually IS a lot of exciting growth happening right now. Given a unique history, it’s not a city that compares to other large cities. Yet Detroit has its pockets of growth, life, character, arts and potential… in which billionaires such as Mike Illitch and Dan Gilbert and foundations such as Kresge and Knight are investing quite heavily. Most assume the feeling of nascent possibility here because a few people CAN make a big difference.
    I enjoy learning from you Greg and you’re welcome to visit me in my huge, beautiful 1929 Arts and Crafts house on Detroit’s eastside sometime!

    I agree DSO could represent the racial demographics of its city better but the pendulum has already swung far right nationally. Affirmative-action is so 80s and DSO’s never going to program 83% black composers anytime soon. Leonard’s choice was very clever but it was never going to please everyone. And for what it’s worth, I know for fact that four black musicians were indeed playing onstage Friday in the orchestra.

    As a black Detroit composer (and former DSO bassist), I appreciate your call. I believe our time will come but as I’ve observed of this composers’ paradox before, people generally prefer their composers deceased… so they might champion favorite works without the composer “getting in the way”. Most composers aren’t truly valued until they are gone. Until then we have to champion ourselves, esp. in such a competitive market. See you at the conference!

    • says

      Interesting thoughts, Rick. thank you. I know little of Detroit and am glad that there seems to be pockets of growth. The issue of work by living composers is fascinating. It seems to me – at least here in Australia – that quite a few new works are performed once. And never again. As an audience member, that is frustrating – It’s hard to decide on a work with one listening. I wish at least recordings were available of new works.
      I have heard musicians say (semi seriously) that they’d rather play works of dead composers who can’t argue…

  2. richard says

    “Affirmative-action is so 80s and DSO’s never going to program 83% black composers anytime soon.” I know that this is off topic, but Noel Da Costa was one of my comp. teachers in grad school, one of the most understanding and kind teachers I ever had, one whose ego wasn’t overwhelming and allowed his students to develop their own voices,yet able to help clarify our intentions. I’ve been an advocate of his music, to no avail.