By Joshua Nichols
The League of American Orchestras (LAO) recently released a guide incorporating Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in artistic planning for orchestras. They say the guide “lays out actionable strategies for orchestras seeking to diversify the repertoire they present, drawing on interviews with orchestras of all budget sizes.” While many orchestras are advocating for more diverse concerts and inclusive programming, this particular guide puts teeth in the mouth of artistic planning. The problem with the guide is that it destroys meritocracy in the orchestral repertoire, and places a heavy burden on artistic organizations to choose diversity over compositional merit.
“This Catalyst Guide examines programming philosophies, challenges, factors for success, and resources that have emerged so far in orchestras’ journeys towards programming equity.” Here, the language seems innocuous; surely there are many programming philosophies, challenges, and factors to be considered by orchestras, large and small, which will lead them to success. The moral posture of the LAO is clear, however, and is reflective of the modern left. Kerrien Suarez’s comments in the foreword confirm this:
The majority of equity, diversity, and inclusion work in artistic planning has focused on the optics of increased representation through commissioning new works and featuring guest artists from historically underrepresented communities. This is an “outside-in” strategy that can be executed with little to no change to an organization’s internal values, leadership, and operations. This Catalyst Guide challenges the leaders of orchestras to adopt artistic planning practices that drive transformation from the ‘inside-out,’ moving beyond the representation we see and hear on stage.
What Kerrien is advocating is bad news for artistic planning in orchestras. Historically speaking, orchestras have planned a little bit of something old with a little bit of something new in their seasons. But what orchestras planned were nevertheless the absolute best compositions of the past half century. While it is a fact that Beethoven was a white European, his music is not. His music cannot simply be undifferentiated “white” by virtue of his multivarious influences: Italian dance, German Baroque court music, Rococo France, and many, many other factors. His music has survived simply because it is great.
But what makes it great? Classical music arrives at greatness not in the immediate context of its first play, but in the two-hundredth play, 250 years from now. The farther a composition is in time from its cultural genesis, the more abstract it becomes, and thus merit is all that is left. The audiences are different, have different cultural tastes, and observe different moral and aesthetic values. Even orchestras’ instruments change, so the sound of the music changes. The composer is dead, while new audiences are always coming in. Yet the music survives. And it survives on its own merit.
But in the cult-like talk of the LAO, “We have a moral imperative to surface voices unfairly silenced by racism and discrimination.” This moral posturing completely excises the necessity for a musical work to stand on its musical merit. It is more important (because it is a moral imperative) to “surface unfairly silenced voices” because compositional merit no longer matters, racial, sexual, and gender identity do. This is bluntly stated in chapter one of the LAO guide: “The repertory will be enriched by discovering new voices and recovering important legacies” (emphasis added). Normally, in a meritocracy, a repertoire of compositions is enriching because the music is profound and meaningful to multiple generations of people, not simply because it checks off boxes important to one time and culture.
The guide seeks to make orchestras “relevant” by addressing the perceived injustice of orchestras, rather than their finding and performing the greatest works of the musical art. This will not work, because orchestras cannot be moral. They respond to the marketplace of ideas and discovery of new musical voices. They can only be vehicles for discovering what is ultimately meritorious for their time, even as they remind new generations of what is great from the past.
The LAO addresses meritocracy by saying that any accusation of unfamiliar repertoire being of lower quality is racist: “The underlying assumption that Black and Brown composers are less talented than white composers is fundamentally untrue and racist.” But, as a matter of math, if your preference for diversity and inclusion supersedes that of compositional merit or worthiness, you will necessarily get a repertoire that is lower in quality. We should search out the greatest composers of our generation and generations past and engage in their music based on its musical merits—skin color, sexual preference, or gender be damned.
We should allow a free marketplace of ideas to decide, through the messy process of hearing music over and over again, with different ears and at different times, what should stand the test of time. Rigging the system to avoid a composition’s merits in exchange for more diverse music will ruin what classical orchestras are capable of and meant to do: play the greatest music known to the world without regard to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.