The way Edward Arian tells it in his book Bach, Beethoven and Bureaucracy, the first time the Philadelphia Orchestra played an education concert the symphony musicians nearly filed a grievance. It wasn’t the job of artists to entertain children or enrich their lives: music was a serious aesthetic experience reserved only for adults. Preferably wealthy Caucasian adults, I would assume, although that was never made explicit.
Times haven’t changed much. Many orchestras still import busloads of children once a year for shows explaining the profound and poignant difference between “high” and “low”, or for those of more advanced age and intellect, “soft” and “loud”, and then consider their civil obligations duly discharged and return confidently to their funders proudly boasting of the their commitment to outreach.”Playing for poor kids”, or in more fashionable parlance, “access to excellence” is cheap and easy, requiring relatively little money and even less thought.
That’s an extreme, hyperbolic assessment, obviously, representative of a slim majority at best. Many organizations have recognized the superficial, self-serving nature of this kind of outreach and have responded by investing significant time and thought into their performances to give them multiple layers of social relevance. Two beautiful recent examples come to mind, both from the world of opera. Just last week in Ohio, the professional chamber orchestra (and first el Sistema program founder in the area) CityMusic Cleveland presented eight performances of Hans Krása’s Brundibár. The work isn’t well known, but is of enormous significance for its historic context. Written immediately before the outbreak of World War II, Brundibár was given its first performance in 1944 by the children of the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. Although the subject matter, relating the struggle and ultimate triumph of two children over a malicious street performer, is unexceptional, CityMusic turned the performances into a platform from which they launched a comprehensive strategy of social engagement through music. In partnership with a major Jewish museum, anti-bullying organizations, and a number of other significant cultural institutions in Ohio, CityMusic used the performances to focus attention on the consequences of all forms of religious or racial hatred and intolerance, with an emphasis on relevant contemporary issues such as genocide. For a chamber orchestra, this production was a bold, visionary venture, but one that will have lasting social and artistic impact. Accordingly, the production integrated el Sistema-like principals with the involvement of a large number of youth from disadvantaged backgrounds.
On the other side of the world – quite literally – South Africa’s Cape Festival presented Henry Purcell’s baroque “semi-opera” the Fairy Queen in both Cape Town and Johannesburg in late March. Cape Festival chose the very risky course of using this production to tackle difficult issues of sexuality, primarily the hate crime of corrective rape which in recent years has emerged as a serious national issue. The combination of youth and sexuality as topics is invariable controversial if not explosive, but Cape Festival deftly navigated these artistic and social waters with great care and aplomb. Like CityMusic, Cape Festival brought many young singers and instrumentalists into the experience of a professional opera production while communicating a poignant social message.
I wish I could have attended both of these. The manner in which we engage with art often divorces it entirely from its social origins: orchestra and opera companies deliver performances in great temples before catatonic worshipers, popular music concerts are presented at exorbitant – nay, elitist ticket prices in massive stadia that reinforce social isolation, rather than reducing it. CityMusic and Cape Festival offered both artists and audiences a rare opportunity to reclaim long-forgotten roots, if but for an evening.