Out of touch

Sometimes some of us in classical music talk and act as if we know very little about the outside world. This hurts us gravely. Here we are, losing support in the outside world, but unwilling to poke our heads outside our bubble, to learn about the people we so badly want to reach.

Sad example: a very nice man (I know him slightly), who’s been a musicologist, a university president, and the head of a major foundation. At the League of American Orchestras conference last month he received an award for his foundation work, and made what I’m sure he has no idea was a bad faux pas, when he said a few words of thanks.

What was the faux pas? This gentleman of the arts took a moment to deplore what he called the “sports culture” in America. Or maybe he said “the culture of sports.” I don’t precisely remember. 

He made his remark far more in sadness than in anger, in a gentle voice. And I know where he was coming from. This is a familiar trope  —people in the arts often deplore our wider culture, seeing it as shallow, ugly, thoughtless, whatever. This man’s example happened to be sports. I imagine he thinks sports are loud and brainless, and that we focus on them instead of thinking of deeper things.

And why was this a faux pas? I’ll put aside, for now, any question of whether our love of sports is truly harmful. (Spoiler alert: I’m a sports fan.). The faux pas here was simpler. The man, speaking so gently, had no idea how tactless he was. Tactless, because the conference was held in St. Louis, and St. Louis is famously a sports town, a place where people are crazy for sports. 

Speaker after speaker at the opening session praised the city, urging us all to sample its wonders. But now we had someone — though he hardly meant to do this — putting St. Louis down, saying that something St. Louis famously likes is bad for us. I’m sure this man thought what he so gently said was something we’d all agree with. 

But instead — though he hardly meant to do this — he insulted the League’s host city. And that, I fear, was just the start. Many people in the arts in fact love sports, and that includes people in orchestras. It took me 30 seconds with Google to find that the St. Louis Symphony — wearing baseball gear — played a tribute to the St. Louis Cardinals during last year’s National League championship series. (Which, sadly for people in St. Louis, the Cardinals lost.)

If you follow the link, you can watch this on video. With wonderful verve — is David Robertson a baseball fan? — and wearing baseball gear, the orchestra plays a spiffy arrangement of  (what else?) “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” 

So now our speaker has — of course again without meaning to — taken public issue not just with the host city, but with the host orchestra. And with other League orchestras, too. Last Saturday The New York Philharmonic teamed with baseball great Joe Torre (and Mariah Carey) for a charity concert linked to the baseball All-Star Game, which was played on Tuesday in New York. Torre recited the classic baseball poem “Casey at the Bat,” in a musical setting by Steven Reineke, music director of the New York Pops.

pso steelers blogThe Pittsburgh Symphony has a long history with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Max Starks, a  6-foot-8, 345-pound tackle on the team, served on the orchestra’s board. A string quartet from the orchestra visited the Steelers,  played for some of them. One player conducted, another did a hilarious dance. Great fun for everyone.

You can watch that on video, and here you can see a photo of the orchestra waving “terrible towels,” which fans at Steelers games wave to cheer the team on, and which (says Wikipedia), are “widely recognized as a symbol of the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh.” These towels have been taken to the top of Mount Everest and into space. Sales of them have raised $3 million to help people with mental and physical disabilities. Why shouldn’t the orchestra players wave them? Especially — as I can tell you from being in Pittsburgh, and seeing fans throng the streets when there’s a game — the city goes crazy for the Steelers.

Any of us, in a few more minutes with Google, could find many more examples.

 

I don’t want to hit too hard on this. In the midst of a somewhat disorganized conference-opening session, echoing in the big concert hall where the St. Louis Symphony plays, I doubt the remark I’m deploring had much effect. But still it was — so gently — clueless. The fine man who made it clearly had no idea that orchestras and sports have many close connections, or that what he said challenged so many things that orchestras do. And this, at a time when the ruling mantra in the orchestra world is to get close to the community!

We need to do better than that. We need to understand the world we live in, and reach out to be part of it.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. doggyodog says

    A culture that values sports is a healthy culture, conducive to arts and sciences. Ancient Greece, the foundation and, perhaps, apex of Western culture took very seriously its art, drama, music, poetry, philosophy, math and… sports! Debussy’s Jeux, a ballet about a tennis match, reflected the French craze for sports at that very creative epoch. The urge to see how much we humans can achieve, to push our limits, is a spigot that is either on or off, and when it’s on, it affects all of our abilities. So you can’t get one without the other. Places like Switzerland, nice and cultured as they are, don’t give the world great artists for the same reason they don’t give us great athletes. The drive, the fire in the belly isn’t there.

    20 years ago this same orchestra administrator would have said we’re going to hell in a hand basket because of all that crappy pop music, and would expect everyone to agree. These stuffed shirts have at least learned they’ll get nowhere disparaging other kinds of music, and now value cross-over artists as a way to put asses in the seats and revenue into the coffers.

  2. says

    This is so important, and an issue very close to my heart. The sports-arts link is a no-brainer in terms of forging a meaningful connection between organizations that are central to the life of a city.

    But moreover, we ignore the success of these institutions at our own peril. I believe that orchestras (and classical musicians in general) have much to learn from the incredible success of sports, particularly the NFL, which understands better than any other professional sports league how to engage a variety of fans or prospective fans wherever they are: novices, significant others of people who love the game, people who like certain players but not the sport, etc. As in many areas of life, energy wasted on pretension and exclusion could be better spent in myriad ways that benefit all involved.

    I also thought a great deal about this while attending the Sphinx Organization conference this past February, with respect to issues of diversity — onstage, in the audience, and in the boardroom. Aaron Dworkin noted the success of the Rooney Rule in the NFL in increasing the number of minorities in leadership positions, an area in which the orchestral world is far behind. And as one Ravens fan noted during last year’s Super Bowl run, love for the team is one of the few things that truly crosses some of the city’s racial fault lines.

  3. Ariel says

    Of course you are joking and putting us on ! If you for one minute truly believe the above
    it must be the heat ………………….

  4. Laurence Glavin says

    As a resident of a suburb of Boston, MA, and a non-sports fan, first let’s define the subject. During the foregoing, Mr. Sandow and the repliers are apparently writing about team spectator sports, that is, proprietary franchises that gain the support for these franchises by stamping the name of a City (or Region, thus the “New England” Patriots. How many denizens of Newport, VT, Millinocket, ME, or Ledyard, CT live and die based on the exploits of this franchise?) on their uniforms. The players are not only NOT residents of the City whose names appear on their uniforms, but often play there without their having any say since they were often drafted or traded In the Boston area, we just had a story about a football player who spent his off-season at night clubs and bars, not any of Boston’s cultural and historical institutions or natural attractions like the nearby mountains and beaches. Now he’s in jail, probably for life. But I digress. “Fan” is short for fanatic, but sports fandom appears to me to be a more irrational and neurotic obsession than most. We had a woman killed during a demonstration after a Red Sox post-season victory demonstration a few years ago. She’d be alive today if she hadn’t been caught up in the fervor of a game won by people she didn’t know and to whom she wasn’t related. That’s not to speak against actual sports that people play. There’s value in that. I myself have the body of a Greek God (OK, Bacchus, but still…) from decades of time spent on the tennis court dazzling opponents with my deceptive left-handed serve!

    • says

      Amazing, Lawrence. Do you really believe what you’re saying? I live some of the time in Warwick, NY, a small town 70 minutes (on a good traffic day) north and west of the city. Yankees territory. Social scientists did a detailed study of baseball fans in the non-big-city areas between Boston and New York, and found that they could precisely trace the line where, on one side, there was a preponderance of Yankees fans, and on the other side, a preponderance of Red Sox fans. Couldn’t have happened if people in these small areas didn’t care. A similar study was done in New York, pinpointing where Yankees and Mets fans were. Yankees fans generally north and west of the city, in New Jersey and the northern suburbs. Mets fans west of the city, in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. The Long Island part of the study wouldn’t have been possible if your thesis here were true.

  5. says

    I suspect that what was being summarized as a “culture of sports” was a prioritization of winning and hyper-competitiveness, and not the community-pride or -building aspect of sports. It’s not difficult to find examples of winning-at-costs infecting our society, from politics to business to having the best car or the nicest house. That part of sports doesn’t serve the arts well, which, ideally, bring people together. (No, not all art does that.) Rooting for sports teams is a form social glue, but there’s always a loser, and arts groups shouldn’t buy into the winner-loser mentality any more than they already do. A love of sports can be healthy for a community, but it’s also not a sure thing. Walk through Wrigleyville four hours after a Cubs game if you need proof.

  6. says

    I can’t help mentioning here that composer Phillip Bimstein’s “The Bushy Wushy Rag” is an excellent example of new music engaging the sports world. This aural portrait features the delightful, funny, and genuine Robert Logan, known as “Bushy Wushy the Beer Man,” who sold beer in Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, for more than forty years. Bimstein began The Bushy Wushy Rag by visiting Busch Stadium, recording the crack of the bat from behind home plate, the ball slamming into the catcher’s mitt, and other baseball game sounds. He then combined these sampled sounds with stories told by the charming Bushy Wushy, all tied together with a score for wind quintet. Listeners will also hear echoes of music associated with baseball and St. Louis, such as The Maple Leaf Rag written about 100 years before by Scott Joplin in St. Louis. Yes, the work was a “hit.” More at PBS: http://www.pbs.org/harmony/community/proj_mo_stlouis.html

  7. Patrick says

    Interesting discussion. I have no interest in sports and am a lifelong classical music ‘fan’. Music is a human activity that, at its best, does not involve competition, but rather cooperation and egalitarianism. (I detest music competitions for this reason.) The commercialization of sports is a huge turnoff, being another aspect of shallow material culture.

    • says

      Ah, yes, shallow material culture. As opposed to the deep truth of the arts.

      So here are two comparisons. The first one takes us back to 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers made history by signing Jackie Robinson to a major league contract. The first black player to play in the major leagues. An epic moment in American social history. Meanwhile, across the river, the Met Opera had never had a black soloist. Someone asked its then-director if, in the wake of the Dodgers, he might engage one. “Don’t you think I have enough trouble already?” he weakly replied. The Met didn’t have a black soloist on stage until 1955, eight years after the shallow, materialistic, only-caring-for-money world of baseball had led the way.

      Second comparison. Toward the end of his career as — very likely — the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan announced that he’d now play baseball. He started playing in the minor leagues, for one of the teams in the Chicago White Sox system, since the same man owned the White Sox as owned the Chicago Bulls, Jordan’s basketball team. This was a huge media event, featuring one of the most famous celebrities alive.

      And what happened? The shallow, materialistic culture of sports proved to be anything but. Fans saw right through Jordan, who, great as he was at basketball, couldn’t play baseball well at all. Which lead to fascinating, detailed, even scientific discussions of why he couldn’t, of why even a great athlete needs to develop skills in a sport from an early age to have everything he needs worked deeply into his mind and body.

      In the arts, meanwhile, Placido Domingo, whom nobody would say isn’t one of the great opera singers of our time, decided he’s a conductor. And conducts in leading opera houses, not just in the companies he’s run (Washington and Los Angeles), but even at the Met. He’s terrible. Musicians and some critics see right through him, but the public doesn’t, not the way they saw through Michael Jordan. So Domingo continues to conduct, doing terribly, and not being called on it the way Michael Jordan was.

      Funny how that happened, since sports are so shallow and dumb, and the arts so deep and intelligent.

  8. says

    Don’t forget too that this summer in St. Louis, Terence Blanchard’s new opera exploring the tragic life of boxer Emile Griffith, who tragically beat fellow pugilist Benny Paret to death after a homophobic slur, premiered, to strong reviews.

    http://www.npr.org/2013/06/15/191709047/terence-blanchard-turns-a-tragic-champion-into-an-opera-hero

    The opera, written in a jazz idiom, centering on the life of a famous black American, and treating a sports story that still remains a topic of discussion, might be the sort of work that would draw in a wider array of potential musical fans. But I fear this gentleman would probably dismiss it out of hand both because of the sports theme and the jazz underpinnings.

  9. Ariel says

    Patrick has given Mr.Sandow a nail on which to hang his hat. That the comment by
    the “very nice man ” has no bearing on Mr. Robinson, the Dodgers .the Met Opera,Mr. Jordan
    and Mr. Domingo is of no matter to Mr. Sandow – he has a premise in mind and will serve that
    premise no matter what . Mr. Sandow takes a comment that he cannot correctly remember
    and window dresses it with his own deplorable interpretation to bolster his premise . It tells
    us a lot about Mr. Sandow but very little else .

    • says

      Ariel, you may know that I allow any kind of comment about me, however extreme. But I wonder just how far you’ll go, if this discussion continues? Clearly it’s struck a nerve with you.

      If people are going to attack what they see as the sports culture in the US, and say implicitly or explicitly that the culture of the arts is far better, then it’s perfectly fair to bring up some contrary examples.

      One reason I think I hit a nerve with you is that you didn’t address what I actually said. Would you care to do that? Would you care — in the interests of reason, if not courtesy — to tell us why you think the Met was so much slower than major league baseball to address a serious racial problem? And why the sports world caught on so much more quickly to how badly a superstar was doing when he tried something new? How would you explain these things?

      You’d advance the discussion here quite a bit if you — or, failing you, someone else — would address this. And I must say that, speaking perhaps only for myself, that I’d think it lovely if you’d veer from your usual practice, and give a reason for something you say. Instead of just writing as if you thought the truth of what you say is so obvious that it doesn’t need explaining. This is the nature of disagreement, you know — people see things differently. When we really learn something is when those difference are explored, rather than simply being attacked.

      I must say, though, that while I can shake my head at the way you discuss things, I can’t even attack you on the substance of our disagreement, because I have no idea why you take the position you’re taking here. So what could I base an attack on?

  10. ariel says

    First let me write that you seem to be the rare male AJ blogger with the testicular fortitude to print an adverse opinion to yours..hats off to you for that . Second , let’s drop the word
    attack..it doesn’t fit here ..no one is trying to attack you, only questioning strongly some of what you write and how you come by some statements . In your second paragraph you deplore a ”
    “nice mans'” comments concerning ” sports culture” in a city that is ” crazy for sports”- did this nice man actually name St. Louis ? What did he say ? minus your interpretation …..did he say
    sports were bad for us ? … or are you editing to suit your premise. What did he actually say ???? You are playing us for dullards when you point out the St. Louis symphony paid
    tribute to the Cardinals , all major city orchestras do that in one fashion or another to show
    that “us classical music lovers ” are just as ordinary as folk as “youse” guys that love sports.
    It’s part of the business of survival … if Mr. Sandow can show anywhere an entire
    baseball team buying a block of tickets to a symphony concert in show of their support of
    “classical ” music we then are in a different ball park … anything from baseball
    football , or hockey teams that show the support of the arts .?…. they know they would
    suffer the scorn of their fans if they did . . The only close connections symphony orchestras have
    with sports is when they suck up to the sports world to get whatever meager recognition may
    come their way.Another point Mr. Sandow – watch the evening news – how many times is
    the symphony world mentioned – zero – but the countless minutes of drivel wasted on barely
    articulate sports stars telling us about their aches and pains beggars description . I have yet to hear on the evening news that Maestro x will not be conducting due to a sore elbow ,though
    he conducted 3 innings of symphonies not feeling well at all which shows that he is great team
    player even though his next contract will not be renewed .

    The “nice man” made a truthful point but an unpleasant one for him .You may reach out all
    you like but unfortunately his point holds .

    • says

      The gentleman I referred to deplored the sports culture in the US. He didn’t specify what was wrong with it, but he didn’t have to, because so many people (you, for instance, right here, and many others who’ve responded to me here and on Facebook, not to mention others I’ve encountered in person for many decades) make the same arguments. Sports culture is ugly, shallow, stupid, commercial, competitive, as compared to the arts, which, I guess we’re to believe, have none of those problems.

      You can believe what you want about the reasons orchestras support sports teams, and you can call it pandering, if you like, but anyone who’s encountered the phenomenon first hand can tell you a reason you didn’t mention. The orchestras do it because their people — musicians, staff members, board members, audience, volunteers — are enthusiastic fans. If you don’t believe that’s true, I’d like to know why. Do you just believe it’s impossible, or that it would be wrong, or do you have experience with the people who run and play in orchestras? Or solid information about them. After 30 years in classical music, it’s pretty plain to me that classical music professionals and loyal audience members are as likely to be sports fans as anyone else in our society. Or pretty nearly so.

      Which then makes your point about sports teams supporting the arts or conductors being quoted on TV as often as sports stars pretty much moot. Sports are universally popular in the US (not to mention all over the world), so of course they’re all over the media. Classical music doesn’t have anything near the same level of interest from the world at large, so of course it’s much less in the media. In the past, that wasn’t true. I remember, from my high school years, when the review of Birgit Nilsson’s debut at the Met (I think it was in 1959) ran on the front page of the New York Times. And I’ve seen a chart of Time magazine covers featuring classical musicians. In the past they were common, as were stories in Time about classical music people and classical music. Now they’re not. If TV had existed in the 1930s, classical music would have been all over it. In 1940 (according to a book published in that year about American orchestras), the US radio networks broadcast concerts by dozens of orchestras, both American and European. Classical music was a major part of radio broadcasting. And, in that decade and later, the lives of great stars like Toscanini, Stokowski, Callas, and Tebaldi really were front-page news.

      That’s long gone by now. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that American culture has gotten shallower. I’d argue just the opposite. I’m sorry that you’ve (apparently) encountered sports talk on TV that displeases you, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve truly encountered sports culture. I think you’re acting here exactly like people who once, flipping channels on TV, saw a symphony orchestra and thought it was stuffy, or saw an opera and thought the singers looked ugly and screamed. You haven’t asked whether what you see is truly representative of sports, whether what you don’t like about it isn’t a function largely of TV, not of sports. I’m a sports fan, and I don’t like watching ESPN. Too much mindless drivel. Or, sometimes, intelligent sports talk in the tone of voice of mindless drivel.

      What I suggest is that you read a serious newspaper sports section for a month, and see what you find. I’d suggest either the New York Times or the NY Daily News. What I’ve found, in (my God) 60 years of sports fandom is that the discussion is above all about character. Not who won or lost, but who showed class, who showed guts, what kind people players are, and how that might affect their playing. This is a big subject, and it’s 1:30 AM, and I’m going to have to stop typing soon. But I do offer you this challenge. You say strong things about how terrible you think sports are, but do you have any real experience with sports culture? Do you read the sports section regularly? Why don’t you try it for a while, and see if your ideas hold up? Or are you comfortable speaking from what strikes me as a position of ignorance — not because I disagree with you (that doesn’t make you ignorant), but because I suspect you have no solid knowledge of this subject. If I’m wrong, you can easily show me that, by talking about sports in detail. Naming names, writers, citing events in games, all the things that sports fans do. If you can’t do that, and won’t inform yourself at least a little, why shouldn’t I classify you as someone with no regard for facts, at least where this subject is concerned?

      You’d be in good company. Theodor Adorno, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, made a fool of himself saying that jazz musicians only pretend to improvise. He should have known better, and so should you.

      Finally, about what the “nice man” said. Did he mention St. Louis? No, and I didn’t say he did. He took the stage after innumerable people who spoke before him, almost all of whom went out of their way to name St. Louis, praise it, and say we all should experience the great things it has to offer. Ask St. Louisans what those things are, and many of them would say sports. So when the gentleman I referred to said sports culture was bad, that was an explicit criticism of one of the things the city cares most about. Of course he didn’t name St. Louis, mainly, I’m sure, because he doesn’t know enough about sports to know that St. Louis is a major sports town. And also because he (like you seem to be) seemed so sure that everyone would agree with what he said, that it must never occurred to him that his remarks could be perceived as critical.

      But in fact his remarks — which made his attitude toward sports crystal clear — were a strong implicit criticism of the host orchestra. That is, he says sports culture is horrible (which he plainly said, though I don’t remember his exact words), while the orchestra participates in sports culture. Had he been aware of this, I can imagine that he would have proceeded differently. He might have not made his sports remarks, thinking that they’d be tactless. Or he could have made them, but thrown down the gauntlet explicitly. “I have a problem with something happening among orchestras, including the orchestra right here in St. Louis, much as I respect them in other ways. I feel that they pander to a culture of sports, a culture that’s destructive of everything the arts encourage and promote.”

      That would have been honest, and interesting. And, from his point of view, a worthy fight. He could have said all the things, Ariel, that you just said in your comment. But he didn’t. And not, I believe, because he didn’t have the courage to bring them up, but because he had no idea that the issue existed, that there were orchestras that take an active role in the sports culture he deplores.

      Which is why I called him clueless. And why my post was not about why he was wrong in what he said about sports, but about how he didn’t know that the very people he was addressing and especially those who hosted would the conference disagree with him. So my post was about classical music people not understanding the outside world (leaving the question of whether their views of the outside are right for some other time).

      And, Ariel, since you and I are speaking with refreshing honesty to each other, I’ll say that I think you — in what you say about sports — are a perfect example of that.

  11. Ariel says

    The Dodgers and the Met are two different worlds -Mr. Robinson was the right man at the right
    time in spite of some discontent that followed his being hired , the Met had to wait until a stellar singer and personality such as as Ms. Price arrived on the scene then was carefully groomed to the position she
    commanded at theMet . Ms. Anderson didn’t count she was too late . The only other visible
    great singer was Ms.Dorothy Maynor a far more beautiful singer for some but one who did not have the presence of a Price . As far as I can recall Ms. Price during her opera appearances was not made to suffer the indignities that Mr.Robinson had to endure which might explain the difference between a sports audience and a Met audience of the times .

    • says

      Thanks, Ariel. I’m proud of you. Those are good thoughts. I don’t know how old you are, but your comments on Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson suggest to me that you weren’t around, as I was (even if I was just 12 years old), when Marian Anderson made her Met debut in 1955. It was epoch-making. I remember listening to the broadcast of her performance as Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera. It was something one simply had to hear, even if you were a 12 year-old opera fan. I think Leontyne Price would be the first to tell you that Marian Anderson paved the way for her — that it wasn’t she herself who made it possible for African-Americans to have major opera careers, but that it was Marian Anderson.

      I’m thinking back to Anderson’s debut at the Met, both from my experience of the excitement around it, and from what I’ve read about it since. It was an electric occasion.

      And there was a great similarity between Anderson and Jackie Robinson — in how carefully they were chosen for the historic roles they played. Robinson’s story is well known. Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers (and as much as Robinson a real hero of the story) was determined to being a black player to the major leagues. But he knew it had to be someone special. Someone so dramatically good that there could be no argument on baseball grounds that he didn’t belong, someone whose ability would simply sweep fans away. Robinson was all of that.

      But it also had to be someone dignified and tough, someone who could withstand the racist attacks that he was sure to get, and absorb them without exploding. It’s painful to use the term “a credit to his race,” but that’s what Robinson was forced to be. He had to be a cut above others personally as well as athletically, in order to demonstrate, in the horrid racial climate of those times, that he belonged in the major leagues, and that others should follow him.

      So much the same applied to Marian Anderson. Why do we think she was the first black soloist to sing at the Met? Why, for instance, didn’t the Met adopt a different strategy, perhaps bringing black singers in to sing small parts, and then working up to the shock — which it was at the time — of having a black singer in a major role?

      I think it was because everyone knew that the arrival of African-Americans at the Met was a major historical event, and had to carry major historical weight. So you needed a singer of unimpeachable musical and personal virtue. Marian Anderson was all of that. In addition, she was acknowledged as one of the great singers of her age, even if she was past her prime in 1955. She also was a visible symbol of injustice, someone whose ability should have brought her to the Met long before, but who hadn’t sung there simply because she was black. And also, of course, because of the famous event in the 1930s, when she’d been told she couldn’t sing in a major Washington concert space because she was black, and with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt gave the concert instead on the National Mall, to an audience many thousands larger than it would have been in the hall she was denied.

      All of this made Marian Anderson the perfect singer to break the racial barrier. If someone with her ability had been questionable personally in 1950s terms — which back then could simply mean that she was known for enjoying nightlife, or had been known to take a drink or three — she simply wouldn’t have been suitable. So that’s how she and Jackie Robinson were similar. You couldn’t, in either case, have found a better representative of African-Americans. We understand now how racist it is to insist that anyone black function as a representative of all black people, but in the ’50s, that wasn’t understood, and the first black major leaguer and first black Met opera star were going to be taken as representative, and had to live up to very high expectations of what that meant.

      You mentioned the overt racism that Robinson met, and that’s a fair point. Nobody in Met Opera circles was going to lunge at Marian Anderson and call her the N word. But that doesn’t mean that sports was more racist than opera. Do we think that the wealthy white people who ran opera companies in the south weren’t racist? Or that people at the Met — board members, staff members, singers — weren’t? And that their racism may have been one of many factors delaying Anderson’s debut?

      We know, in fact, that racism continued to be a factor in opera until perhaps the last decade. With very few exceptions, the black singers who were opera stars were women. And the men who sang at major houses — George Shirley, Simon Estes — weren’t at the top of opera stardom, as Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, and Shirley Verrett were.

      I don’t believe there was a black classical musician, up to the last decade or so, who didn’t think there was powerful if silent racism standing in the way of black male singers, the great fear being that a black tenor would be seen onstage making love to a white soprano, and audiences (not to mention board members) wouldn’t accept that. In the ’90s, I did a piece on African-Americans in classical music, and talked to two black tenors, George Shirley and Vinson Cole, and also to Barbara Hendricks. All of them had strong and in some ways bitter feelings about this. Simon Estes spoke out about it publicly. Speight Jenkins, then as now one of the top opera company directors in America, was vividly outspoken, on the record, about racism being the reason black men had a much harder time making careers than black women.

      Not surprisingly, there weren’t people taking the other side, people saying publicly that they wouldn’t cast black men in leading roles. So here, Ariel, I think we see your point about sports turned on its head. Yes, nasty things happened to Jackie Robinson. But in a way that only meant that baseball players were more honest than people in the opera world. And their honesty — even though it had a vicious result — led to impressive displays of support for Jackie Robinson. Two of them are famous. Pee Wee Reese, a southerner from Kentucky, was the Dodgers’ shortstop (Robinson played second base). In one famous instance, he went and stood by Robinson when Robinson was being abused by players from another team, having worked privately to overcome his own racism.

      The Dodgers’ radio broadcaster, Red Barber, also was a southerner, and also (as he himself has said) had to confront his own racism, when Robinson joined the team. These expressions of support, Barber’s and Reese’s, were important steps in the breaking down of racial barriers in baseball, a process that had to go further than the signing of just one player. And so here we see one of the great dramas of 20th century political and social history played out on the ballfield, a drama that continued longer than many people might think. Baseball fans remember that the Yankees were very slow in signing black players.

      Meanwhile, in classical music, Marian Anderson might have sung at the Met, but racial barriers subtly persisted — but never were discussed in public. Ron Carter, one of the leading jazz bassists of the 60s and 70s and beyond, told me that he’d wanted to be a classical bass player, but was firmly instructed (by no less than Leopold Stokowski) that this wasn’t possible, that it wasn’t possible for African-Americans to have symphonic careers. This happened when Stokowski was in Houston, which means it happened between 1955 and 1961, years in which black players were firmly established in baseball. Nobody would have told an aspiring black player that he couldn’t have a major league career, not because it would have been racist to say that, but because it would plainly have been wrong.

      But Ron Carter was told that, and switched his career to jazz. With great success, yes, but with regret. So at a time when it was inconceivable to think a black player couldn’t have success in baseball, it was perfectly possible to say a black classical musician should give up any hopes of a career. And there wasn’t, to my knowledge, any great amount of public discussion of how horrible that was, despite Marian Anderson.

  12. ariel says

    How to respond to your writings is a formidable task since it seems you pay little or no attention
    to the most basic of facts and invent much to suit your premise . For example your observation on Anderson and Price and my not being around in understanding those events is .
    presumptuous invention . Just for your information ,since 1951 I had a regular dress circle seat at the Met and was there as an audience member to welcome Ms. Anderson , Ms Price
    Ms. Tebaldi , even Ms. Callas who was not my cup of tea as a singer ., not to mention all the others who were great and not so great – you even caused me to retrieve the box of programmes
    from grand parents -who made interesting notations on the singers of their time . In beautiful script- on their programme they noted the singers ,on Apr. 5 1901 Friday evening Lohengrin Mme. Nordica Mr. Ed. de
    Reszke, Mms. Schumann Heink , Mr. Dippel and walter Damrosch conductor- they saw it later
    with Kipnis ,Rene Maison April 1 1899 Faust Mm.Emma Eames and Jean Dr Reszke and
    Mr. Plancon and it was my parents who dragged me off as a youngster to hear Ms Maynor
    and later Ms. Anderson in concert .From the NY musical world in which I was involved beginning the 50s it was understood when the time came to invite Ms. Anderson it was a long past
    due invitation – she was now so world famous as to be untouchable – but sadly the voice
    needed for opera was not there – though she could still be an effective recitalist . I agree
    with you that there probably were those who deplored the idea of a black singer
    on the stage of the Met but had the political insight to attend to their manners in keeping their mouths shut and letting the great artist have her due . Not so for Mr. Robinson , for even those
    in his profession were cruel to him. When Ms. Price came on the scene it was a carefully orchestrated debut – and when the sensational ovation followed it was first for the voice
    and then that she was a black lady who matched Zinka , Renata , whoever else note for
    note. She staked her claim ,Verrett was close , Norman was another power house to match Price . This by way to let you know I was around and perhaps saw things in a better light than a 12 yr. old .

    • says

      Ariel, this is a good discussion. I’m sorry for my terribly mistaken assumption, which I certainly never should have made. I do think you didn’t address anything at all that I said in the rest of my reply to you, so I’m at a loss to see how I’ve disregarded facts. Seems to me I cited a lot of them, none of which you’ve responded to, or acknowledged in any way yourself, even to take the trouble of showing me where I’m wrong. Which I could learn from! So I wish you’d do it. I said many other things, and if you think they’re wrong, please let me know. One of the reasons I’m open to disagreement on my blog is that I learn from it. God help those of us who think we’re right all the time!

      A gentle correction to you. I was certainly wrong in assuming you hadn’t been around during the Anderson debut and Leontyne Price’s arrival at the Met. But that doesn’t mean I ignore basic facts1 Just means I was wrong in one instance.

      And one other thing, since we’re now having the kind of spirited but basically civilized debate that I enjoy. In a previous comment, you said something about my use of the word “attack.” You didn’t agree with me that you’d been attacking me. I understand that different people will use words in different ways, so let me clarify what I meant. I hope it’s helpful. To me — and I’m not saying others have to agree — there’s a difference between a criticism and an attack. A criticism would be, “You’re entirely wrong about what you just said, and here’s why.” An attack is something like, “You’re entirely wrong about what you said, you’re always wrong in what you say, and you know that what you’re saying isn’t true” — with no reasons given. The first approach is a discussion, the second just a swipe across the face. With all respect, for me most of your comments here fall into the second category. Many people might agree that an approach like that seems hostile, though you may not hold that view. So that’s one reason I’d use the word “attack.”

      But whether we use that word or not, I hope most of us — thinking now, Ariel, of people beyond just you and me — would agree that the first approach is more constructive than the second.

      I’m glad to be debating with you, and happy to learn more about you! If you’d care to tell me, I’d be curious to know what brought you to my blog, and why you take the trouble to return to it and post comments. Some people, I’m sure, would, if they held your views, simply write me off as impossible and ignore me. So I’m curious to know — and I ask this with complete respect — why you keep returning to me.

      I’m gonig on vacation during August, and won’t be able to carry on this discussion while I’m gone. But I’m happy to resume in September.

  13. Ariel says

    My friends ask the same question- why do you ?— I reply , ..for the fun of it …..
    Have a pleasant vacation

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