Italian conductor Riccardo Muti. Picture Credit: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

Bring on the big beasts

Music needs heavyweight champions to stand up for truth and excellence


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Think hard, and you may remember a time when a symphony orchestra was a collection of musical instruments rather than an instrument of social policy. It was not that long ago, around the turn of the century, when concert halls would roll out a forthcoming season of symphonic cycles and new commissions, a programme shaped by the taste and proclivities of a music director, the likes and abilities of the musicians and a reasoned assessment of what might make the box office click.

No longer.

London’s Southbank Centre’s season brochure buries its two resident symphony orchestras beneath the “exciting” addition of new ensembles — the “immersive” Paraorchestra, a worthy group of musicians with disabilities, and Chineke!, an orchestra of ethnic minority musicians. The release goes on to promise “genre-blurring pioneers and big names in classical music”. Who, for instance? “Abel Selaocoe, Daniel Pioro, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Víkingur Ólafsson and Manchester Collective”.

George Walker is now a necessity

So, not the Vienna Philharmonic. Or Riccardo Muti. Or any lions of the classical jungle. What we are witnessing is a pandemic of reformist box-ticking that places policy above pulling power. Forget about a box office that is running one-third below capacity. Forget about the music, too. The new curators have higher priorities.

Visit the Philharmonia Orchestra and their Finnish conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Top billing in their Southbank season goes to a Lyric for Strings by one George Walker. If the name fails to ring Bow bells, Walker was an African-American, the first ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music. His Lyric is vaguely lovely in a post-Mahler, post-Samuel Barber Adagiettoish sort of way, though never on the same plane of ironic ambiguity or quivering emotion. But George Walker is now a necessity.

The National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC, conducted by the very able and intelligent Gianandrea Noseda, is putting on a cycle of Beethoven symphonies, “paired” with works by Walker and William Grant Still. Both were blanked in their lifetimes because of their skin colour and both deserve a fair hearing. But to bracket them with Beethoven as “American Masters” is like speed-dating James Galway with a penny-whistler. Listen closer and you will hear whispers that the only way Washington felt it could play Beethoven this year was by balancing him with black composers.

Last month, the Grammy award for best orchestral performance went to the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin for a Deutsche Grammophon album of two symphonies by Florence Price. More than Walker or Still, the Kentuckian Price had a true feel for orchestral timbre and in 1933 had an E minor symphony premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Meek white Finns who apologise for their whiteness and maleness

The E minor is a conservative piece with unmistakable resonances of Dvorak’s New World, enjoyable enough but neither blazingly original nor noticeably relevant to these times. Yet the Grammy voters decided that this is today’s most important tract of orchestral music, bar none. In a much-quoted letter to the Boston conductor Serge Koussevitzky, Florence Price said of herself: “I have two handicaps — those of sex and race.” Both have now become distinct advantages in wide awoke classical music.

In Baltimore, the conductor Marin Alsop, a vibrant equality campaigner, has just replaced the unifying brotherhood stanza of Friedrich Schiller in the finale of Beethoven’s ninth symphony with the yammerings of a local rapper, name of Wordsmith. “Family, friends share your opinion, push for gender equality,” he rants.

You catch the drift? In 2022 Beethoven is unperformable alone and in his own right. In order to play his music in any concert hall you have to furnish it with freshly minted drivel by Wordsmith — “positive vibes”, he calls it, in a pathetic closing cliché.

Every leading American orchestra now has a vice-president for DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion. This person has as much clout as the music director, who is required to sign off programming by a non-musician with social justice as their flag of conviction.

London’s South Bank calls its approach a “new classical music strategy”. The aim is clearly to please schoolmates of Toks Dada, the centre’s young Head of Classical Music, at the expense of the committed, if much older, classical audience. Nobody has shown any projection that this wheeze will succeed.

The pressures for change are driven mostly from without. Arts Council England has a cash-for-equality agenda that it quickly denies when caught red-handed.

In the US, bleeding-heart billionaire donors and Democrats on Capitol Hill have turned the likes of Baltimore and the National Symphony into Petri dishes of social manipulation, while the New York Times bangs away at orchestras to appoint a woman conductor, preferably of minority race — though its own new chief critic, Zachary Woolfe, is demonstrably white and male.

Hypocrisy abounds in this debate. I have campaigned as loud and long as Marin Alsop for an even playing field, but I would never consent to the designation of George Walker, a Howard Hanson-like composer, as a deathless American Master. What is needed right now is a music director with the balls — in a non-gender sense — to resist the reformist trolls. A J.K. Rowling who will stand up for truth. A conductor who can put the music first.

But the podium is populated these days with the halt and the lame, meek white Finns who apologise for their whiteness and maleness and cling desperately to privilege as it slips through their fingers. A lack of big beasts has allowed lesser predators to roar. What remains of orchestral music by the second quartile of this century will be the remnants of a proud civilisation reduced to the crapulous pieties of social justice.

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