Relevance and conscience

I had a moment yesterday that reminded me of why I used to volunteer to staff public radio fund drives when I was 15. A moment when you just happen to be in your car at exactly the right moment and catch a bit of music or a snippet of discussion that changes your whole outlook for the day.

While driving to rehearsal last night, I caught the last 30 seconds of this report, when the commentator, who I assume was Joseph Horowitz (although I’m not sure of that), said that, looking back, Toscanini’s war-time concerts made in the wake of his much-publicized stand against Fascism were the high-water mark for classical music awareness, popularity and relevance in America.

This remark hit me with an almost physical impact, as it spoke directly to a concern that I have had for a long time now.

There are very sensible and sane reasons why orchestras are non-political organizations. First, it is illegal for a non-profit organization to participate in party politics. Second, orchestras don’t want to alienate anyone on political grounds. Also, our very delicate system of funding means that we need to be exceptionally careful that we never create a bad feeling between orchestra and donor, and religion and politics are the two best subjects to alienate people with.

Nevertheless, surely there is a line somewhere between politics and conscience. Surely their has always been a point at which works of art do stand for values, or do serve as a voice of conscience. Perhaps now, when classical music is less central to the social discourse of our time than ever before, it is worth re-examining the conventional wisdom about the avoidance of engagement with issues of the day?

In the war years, Toscanini was not the only classical musician deeply engaged with the human and political issues of the day. Shostakovich, Copland, Walton, Ullmann, Messiaen and many others composed music that was deeply connected to the events of the day. Murry Sidlin’s recent “Defiant Requiem” project celebrates the protest performances of Verdi’s Requiem in the Terezin internment camp.

Is classical music simply to become inoffensive sonic wallpaper? Are we going to kill ourselves with caution?

John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls” has become just about the only recent work by a major composer to enter the repertoire that deals directly with events of our time, and yet a memorial, important though it is, is an altogether less controversial thing than a commentary. It would have been one thing for Toscanini to mourn the victims of war, and another entirely to come out and say  openly that Fascism was evil, which he did. Adams’ work is a powerful meditation on loss, and he himself describes it as “a musical space for reflection and remembrance, of meditation on an unanswerable question.

And yet, if art can’t answer questions about the tragedies of the day, can’t we at least ask some? Shouldn’t there be areas of basic human concern where a stand on principal is a uniting, rather than a dividing action?

The Oregon East Symphony was recently approached by a local attorney who made a generous offer. He offered us a full concert sponsorship, which he was going to give in honor of Article Three of the Third Geneva Convention, which stipulates that “Noncombatants, combatants who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are hors de combat (out of the fight) due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, including prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment. The passing of sentences must also be pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. Article 3’s protections exist even if one is not classified as a prisoner of war.”

I never thought I would live to see these values become fodder of party politics.

Our board felt they could not accept his donation as a matter of law.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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