Speak truth to power

“Truth to Power”: That’s the name of a festival the Chicago Symphony is offering from May 22 to June 5, with the idea of highlighting “music’s ability to connect people and harness the power of shared experience,” and to “inspire justice and fairness.” 

The title, of course, is a shortening of “Speak truth to power,” one of the most powerful rallying cries in politics. It comes from a Quaker manifesto, published in 1955, about the need for peace, to be fulfilled by active pacifism. That humans have that need, if you agree with the Quakers, is a profound truth, with which we should confront those who have power, and deny us peace.

Truth_to_Power_Banner blogStrong stuff. By invoking it, the Chicago Symphony made me hope, if only for a moment, that these would be concerts in which classical music could  become a contemporary art, as in an earlier post I said I longed for it to be. I said I wanted to go to classical performances, “and feel not the soothing presence of the past, but the bracing life of the present.”

Added later: And of course this also echoes what Peter Sachon said in his guest post about millennials, how younger people would expect classical music to be dealing with contemporary issues.

But sigh. The festival doesn’t do this. Like so very much, so crushingly very much of our classical music culture, it’s safely rooted in the past. In concerts and films and discussions we can learn how Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Benjamin Britten spoke truth to power in their day. A day long past, of course. Where are the musicians speaking truth to power now? Where are the issues of our time?

There’s one contemporary presentation, a new work by jazz pianist Jason Moran, in collaboration with Theaster Gates, an artist who works with spaces and voices. But since this piece isn’t described in any way on the CSO website — and isn’t even given a title — we can’t know whether it speaks truth to any oppressive power we face now.

Compare the “Speak Truth to Power” presentation by the Kennedy Center and PBS in 2000, which with photographs and a reading of a play by Ariel Dorfman did bring alive people actively, at that time, fighting human rights abuses.

Or compare the Speak Truth to Power initiative from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which uses current human rights struggles “to educate students and others about human rights, and urge them to take action” on issues ranging” from slavery and environmental activism to religious self-determination and political participation.”

And even taken on its own terms, the Chicago festival is weak. What Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony has to do with speaking truth to power isn’t clear. Or why Britten’s  Suite on English Folk Tunes (which, says the CSO, “enchants the ear with richly contrasting orchestral colors and textures”) is there. 

And why Prokofiev at all? He didn’t speak truth to Stalin, even covertly, as Shostakovich did. I guess he illustrates what can happen if you don’t struggle, and maybe that could be an story on the larger canvas of power and truth, but I don’t see that story being told in music here.

Vladimir Feltsman will play a piano recital that includes one Prokofiev piece (prefaced by Haydn and Schubert). But there’s nothing I can find on the site — certainly noting on the page devoted to his concert —  that talks about Feltsman’s own intense (and, I would have thought) well-known struggle against the power of Soviet repression. Instead, he’s praised for his “deft touch and expansive sonority.”

And Britten! On many website pagea about the festival, we’re shown a Britten quote: “It is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings.” So we hear, besides the Suite on English Folk Tunes, the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, which (once more on the site page about the concert) we’re told “portray the sea on England’s eastern coast in all its power and transformative beauty,” without a word about the struggle — in the opera — of an outsider (very likely gay) against the castigation of the local villagers.

Not exactly a theme that isn’t much (or even routinely) discussed. It couldn’t even be mentioned here?

And what about the speaking truth that Britten is best known for, his pacifism? Perhaps that plays a role in the Sinfonia da Requiem (whose history was itself initially a struggle, against the Japanese government which commissioned it, but didn’t like it).

But where are Britten’s two largest and most intense pacifist statements, the War Requiem, of course, and the opera Owen Wingrave(Which shows someone from a traditionally military British family, obliterated, crushed because he won’t fight?

I’ll grant that doing either work, even a concert performance of Owen Wingrave, would be expensive, and I sympathize with the practical restraints on orchestras, in this age of shrinking finances. But how can you show Britten speaking truth without these pieces? And, sympathetic as I am to reality, I think this festival falls back way too often on familiar pieces that the orchestra already knows, instead of trying to forge some new, compelling path that resonates with the festival’s theme.

And where are composers speaking truth to power now? David T. Little’s much-praised multimedia piece Soldier’s Songsa “chilling and realistic view of our media-crazed, war machine culture, and of the nature of power in war ” (says Little’s website)— is being toured to other paces now. (It comes to Washington on Saturday.) Would have made a perfect addition to the Chicago festival, and of course would have sat perfectly with Britten.

I’m so disappointed.

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  1. says

    Sounds like a disconnect between the concept developers and the programmers.
    It happens quite often in business.
    Aside from the missed opportunity to do something interesting, it seems to me potentially damaging to the orchestra.’s reputation. The product does not meet the promise.

  2. says

    I understand your disappointment, Greg. But I also admit to cringing whenever I see that someone or some event claims to “speak truth to power,” to “educate students and others about human rights” or some such. As someone whose political outlook admittedly differs from the mainstream liberalism (and further left) of the arts community, I too often see these lofty concepts not honored but debased by the simplistic and selective opinions imparted. Frankly, I have no need for arts organizations and artists to “educate” me about human rights or the environment — I’m quite educated already, thanks. So, if artists want to engage with the issues of the day, they should remember that while they earn themselves the the cheap applause of the audience, they also risk exposing themselves as shallow fools to at least a segment of the audience — a segment who did not pay money in order to have their intelligence insulted.

  3. says

    Hello. There’s certainly no better theme than “Truth to Power” to prompt a lively discussion. I thought your readers might be interested to know:

    –The CSO performed Britten’s War Requiem earlier this season (Nov. 14-16, 2013) (http://cso.org/TicketsAndEvents/EventDetails.aspx?eid=5621) to great reviews.

    –Details on the world premiere/commissioned jazz work, Looks of a Lot, can be found in this press release: http://cso.org/uploadedFiles/8_About/Press_Room/Press_Releases/2013-14/SCP_Jason_Moran_Theaster_Gates_Premiere.pdf

    –More information, including details on the Festival’s ancillary events (lectures, discussions, film collections, etc.) can be found here: http://cso.org/TicketsAndEvents/Details.aspx?ID=26716

    • says


      Rather than listing links, perhaps you could talk about some of these criticisms and we could have that lively discussion?

      Peter Sachon

    • says


      I agree that lively discussion is good, and thanks for contributing to it! It’s good to see you here on the blog.

      And of course I’m glad to know that the Chicago Symphony did the War Requiem in November. One of my favorite pieces. And of course the Britten year was 2013.

      But can it really be that your people scheduled that performance, knowing (I’d assume) that the Truth to Power festival was coming in May? And also knowing, as I assume they would, that the War Requiem would have been perfect for the May events?

      And knowing, too, of course, that of the big pieces by the festival composers that really do speak truth to power, only one (the Shostakovich Fifth) was present? (The others, I’d think, would be the War Requiem, Owen Wingrave, and — as I should have said in my post — the Shostakovich Thirteenth, the most overly political piece, to my knowledge, that he ever wrote. Certainly it’s the one that most explicitly confronted the Soviet government with things it tried to keep hidden, like the presence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.)

      To give you all the benefit of the doubt, I should say that I’ve been around this business quite a lot, and I know that, in programming, you can’t always get what you want. (Tip of the hat to the Stones.) Maybe Alisa Weilerstein, who’s playing the Prokofiev cello and orchestra piece on Truth to Power, wasn’t available in November. Maybe the best lineup of soloists for the War Requiem wasn’t available in May. Etc. And, as I’ve said, the Britten year was 2013, so you weren’t the only orchestra doing the War Requiem then.

      But however these dates were chosen, they add up in the end to something less than coherent artistic planning.

      As for the links you gave us, aren’t you, Celeste — with all respect — in effect asking us to do your work for you? When I wrote my post, I did what anyone might do — whether “anyone” is a journalist, a Chicago Symphony subscriber, or simply a music-loving member of the general public, eager to know what’s going on. I went to the Truth to Power website, which I was told about in an official press email from you all.

      Once at that website, I clicked on each concert, to see what they all were. And then reported the plain fact that on the page devoted to the new piece, there wasn’t a word about what its content might be.

      I’m happy now to learn from you that there’s another place I could have gone, but shouldn’t that link (or the information it leads to) have been on the page about the performance? Do you think I should have Googled till I stumbled on it? Surely the information should have been readily available, in the places most people are most likely to look for it.

      Celeste, I’d love to meet you sometime. But since as of now you and I haven’t met, it’s hard for me to judge the spirit in which you’re saying what you said in your comment, and hard for you to judge the spirit in which I wrote my post, and in which I’m now replying to you.

      So I’ll just gently say that it seems to me you’ve supportied my points, rather than providing an alternate view that might make me (or blog readers) rethink what I said. I can imagine an alternate universe in which you might have said, “You know, you’ve made some good points. We could have done better.”

      [This is edited down from the original version of my reply, which I felt was too strong.]

  4. Celeste Wroblewski, VP for PR, CSO says

    Dear Greg,

    My post was made in a positive spirit, i.e., to add more information even if it was not all the information you sought or the kind of information you sought.

    The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association considers all critiques of its work. I appreciate your interest in our work, and I thank you for all you do to support classical music.

    I hope to meet you someday also.

    Kind regards,

  5. John Sparks says

    I am glad Mr. Montanari posted his comment. And I disagree w. Mr. Montanari, which puts me in a strange position since I too (sometimes) cringe when someone wags a finger at “me,” but I apparently have a much higher tolerance for people insisting on different views than does Mr. Montanari. That’s why using all sort of venues to go to to alls sorts of audiences (even concert hall audiences – gasp!) is more necessary now than ever in our listen-only-to-what-you-already-like age. Our society (including those “already educated enough,” as Mr. Montanari self identifies) has become the global crybaby when serious, rather than superficial, contradiction to the prevailing narrative is offered. And believe me, sir, despite a few welcome advances such as accepting gays as humans and a few other modest social acknowledgments of reality, the REAL prevailing narrative in this country is not the “liberal” one – that pretty much ended 35 years ago, and was replaced by a much harsher and more self-destructive one. ( I write that as a patriot.)

    Mr. Montanari writes: “I have no need for arts organizations and artists to “educate” me about human rights or the environment — I’m quite educated already, thanks” Good for you. And even better than you can speak for everyone else, or perhaps almost everyone else. But you don’t, . Before you dismiss this, know that for many years, as someone who works in public policy, I have had many hours of my own eyes rolling when lefties and others have lectured me, sometimes deploying really bad arguments and assumptions. But you make a galactic leap when you assert that something as modest as a major orchestra citing the truth to power idea is offensive and demeaning to YOU. Is that all it takes? Are your sensibilities that bruised or tender? Is this what “assault” looks like today? The strange thing about America is that as our own identity has become so conflated with the idea of power and exceptionalism, we seem even less capable of handling disagreement and any kind of challenge. The more we bray about the need to be strong, the weaker we seem. Why is that?

    Finally he writes: “..while they earn themselves the the cheap applause of the audience, they also risk exposing themselves as shallow fools to at least a segment of the audience — a segment who did not pay money in order to have their intelligence insulted.” Well, I thought concert goers might be expected to pay money to hear (and read about) a FEW things they did not already “know,” to get out of the mind-killing echo chamber that is most people’s living rooms these days. I am not sure that Mr. Montarnari thinks the (rather tepid) CSO pitch is an example of preachy lefty snark, or he is really just venting on other instances in the arts. But IF it is the CSO example – well, wow. That’s pretty small beans out here in the real world. Greg laments that CSO promised one thing and delivered another (and I suspect he is right, as Greg usually is!). I lament that concertgoers like Mr. Montanari are the reason they are so fearful in the first place.

    • says

      Mr. Sparks has made many assumptions about someone he doesn’t know based on one paragraph. Trust me, as a relatively conservative arts professional (former public radio broadcaster), working in a university community, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. And yes the CSO theme is fairly innocuous — which is not the same as offensive, but which also makes it of dubious value. Whose truth and whose power? And who presumes to instruct whom as to which is which? Great works of art, even those with political content, are universal in importance, though forever matters of dispute and discussion. Shostakovich, Britten — they certainly qualify. But, for instance, the description of David T. Little’s work (which I have nor seen) as a “chilling and realistic view of our media-crazed, war machine culture, and of the nature of power in war” does not make me eager to attend. I find the premise unpromising, to say the least, and am put off at the start by anyone who would describe his own work as “chilling and realistic.” To coin a phrase, some of my best musicians are lefties, and it doesn’t bother me at all — as long as they don’t lecture me, insult my views and insult my intelligence.