One of the many running jokes I maintained with my listeners at WUOT-FM in Knoxville was my disdain for Brahms. When I want to listen to classical music, I don't want to hear orchestra soup, and that's how I've always categorized his symphonies. Since leaving Knoxville I've been able to find an appreciation for Brahms' music (still not his symphonies, though), and in a public announcement I declared George Gershwin my next least favorite composer.
Don't get me wrong - his music is really fun, but where does it come from? He didn't come from the communities that codified and maintained the sound of jazz, so why is his music filled with it? Gershwin certainly didn't come from South Carolina, but that didn't keep him from writing the "jive-talkin'" folk opera you know as Porgy and Bess, now did it? Again, my disfavor for Gershwin isn't tied to his music, but rather the aesthetics he became famous for that are unquestionably connected to black music. Non-black people are more than welcome to utilize what black people have created (in a respectful manner), but I can't help but to think about Gershwin as someone who made his way on the backs of people who couldn't, considering the violent racial politics that plagued the nation in the early parts of the 20th century.
I say all of that to set the stage for an opportunity I was offered back in October. I have a contact at the Minnesota Orchestra who thought it would be good for me to put together a panel about Gershwin and the idea of cultural appropriation for their upcoming performance of Gershwin's Piano Concerto. There's nothing I love more than making waves in a public space, so obviously I accepted. After assembling the panel (of black music professionals here in the Twin Cities) I got a phone call from my contact, who said the Minnesota Orchestra administration was concerned about the panel. After a pretty heated conversation (and a few e-mails) I was assured that I would be given the freedom to explore conversations the way I wanted - AUTHENTICALLY.
Let me tell you - I was completely prepared to cancel this panel and invite my guests to have the discussion on Trilloquy instead. I guess I can understand why people at an organization as large as the Minnesota Orchestra would be concerned - there are lots of non-black people that would feel uncomfortable with this conversation, and may even pull their money! To hell with the fact that my years of experience on AND off the stage still leave me feeling uncomfortable in those spaces - you have to maintain a certain climate to maintain your dollars...
I'm probably gonna roast Gershwin next week at the panel, but I won't make any promises. My goal is only to inform, but this situation has left a sour taste in my mouth. Are orchestras actually interested in conversations like these, or do they just want credit for them after censoring the perspective? Will orchestras be among the final institutions interested in ACTUAL cultural competency? If you'll be in the Twin Cities next Thursday and Friday (May 30th and 31st), join me, Janis Lane-Ewart, and Phillip Schoultz for an exploration of George Gershwin's proximity to cultural appropriation at Orchestra Hall, beginning at 7 PM both nights.
And PS - TRILLOQUY DROPS TODAY! The trailer is live, and the first two episodes should be available by the end of the day. You can listen through iTunes, Spotify, and Your Classical.