In which I tell orchestras in the US — or at least the National Symphony — that maybe they should stop taking so much time to thank donors (and other upper-crust supporters) — at their opening galas. They should greet the community instead.
This is the third of three posts about amateur mistakes and other problems at the NSO’s opening gala, Delayed, this post was, by a business trip, a family trip, moving into a new house, and my new resolution not to let my blog make me tense or anxious.
But before I talk about rich white people…
Where was the mayor?
Gary Ginstling, the new executive director of the NSO, read a proclamation at the from the major of Washington, DC. Which declared the day of the gala National Symphony day in the city.
But where was the mayor? Why wasn’t she at the concert?
Of course there could be many reasons. Among them maybe this — that (as far as I know) the mostly African-American city government in DC hasn’t moved in the same world as the wealthy DC arts establishment.
But wouldn’t that be all the more reason to want the mayor at the concert? Aren’t we in a new era, when orchestras strongly stress relations with the community?
So I have to ask. Was Mayor Bowser invited? If she was, how far in advance was the invitation made? How much did the orchestra and the Kennedy Center follow up? How much of an effort did they make to get the mayor there?
And why — after reading her proclamation in such a grateful, warm voice — did Gary Ginstling not say something equally warm, about how he’d love her to be there?
Rich white folks
But now the key question. Why so much stress on rich white people at the gala?
I trust that the NSO and the Kennedy Center didn’t plan that emphasis. But after intermission, out on stage came the heads of the Kennedy Center and NSO boards, both white, and both presumably wealthy (because that’s who’s on such boards).
One of these board heads at least had a dry wit. But both spoke for quite a while, thanking donors and volunteers. (And, as I noted earlier, failing to welcome the NSO’s new online audience, or members of Leonard Bernstein’s family, who were there for the gala’s all-Bernstein program.)
The only other person who spoke was Gary Ginstling, who was much more lively (and did welcome the people the board heads forgot). But coming after the two talking board heads, he seemd to represent the same upper-crust leadership.
What message does this send?
Again, I don’t think this was intentional. But I think it comes from a reality so long in place that everyone involved assumes it’s natural.
The message sent, at least to me, was simple. This orchestra is owned by rich white people. And, in the last analysis, that’s who it plays for.
Will the two board heads — and others in power at the two institutions — be offended that I’ve said this?
There’s a simple fix. Keep the board- and donor-speak to a minimum (or get rid of it entirely), And bring the community onstage. The mayor. Or maybe a former Juilliard student of mine, African-American, who when last I saw her was in charge of string instrument teaching at DC middle schools. Invite her students, let her introduce them from the stage.
Or invite the Go-Go Symphony, which brings crowds to their feet with its blend of classical music and go-go, DC’s iconic dance beat.
Invite the DC Youth Orchestra, which is heavily African-American. Maybe have them play with the NSO!
And of course that’s just the start of what might be done. The NSO does have at least one community program, The NSO in Your Neighborhood, which as far as I can see brings them parachuting into DC communities, never to return.
As happened in 2015 when they drew 2000 millennials to a dance club the orchestra never went back to.
Though the dance club show suggests one more point I have to make. When I talk about the wider community, I don’t just mean African-Americans. I’d love to see the NSO involve two of DC’s biggest immigrant groups, Ethiopians and Salvadorans..
And I don’t just mean minorities. How about the legion of millennials who’ve moved here, attracted to DC by more than the political and policy work that typified DC professional employment in the past?
Yes, 2000 of them were at the dance club. And yes, there’s an NSO program aimed at them (Declassified), and also a classical-music Kennedy Center series (KC Jukebox). But we don’t see millennials at the main NSO events. Could that be fixed? Why not get them involved in the gala?
Why not create real community relationships, and blow open the doors?
All of which seems even more important, since the NSO has an ad campaign, to tell DC about Gianandrea Noseda, its new music director. So wouldn’t they want to make all of DC feel welcome at his concerts?
Of course I’ll be told that the board and the donors are important, that they have to be stroked for these institutions to survive.
Which makes me think of talk I’ve heard about big classical music institutions turning into money machines, that money is so desperately needed that the search for it comes first, while everything else trails far behind.
Which, if true, leaves these institutions stuck, hobbled in launching vivid change. Because, first, they spend too much of their time raiding money, and, second, because vivid chsnge might displease their donors.
Sad, if true.