The more a work can reflect society from the time it was written and provoke thoughtful contemplation, the better. If the musicality and topic keep the piece on my mind for more than a week after hearing it, that’s a win.
The more polarizing current events are, the more potential exists for a work to emerge that is capable of inspiring meaningful actions. If you subscribe to a similar outlook, then you probably see all sorts of potential in today’s social and political climate. To that end, there have been some remarkably relevant works that fit into this sweet spot, such as Kareem Roustom’s Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata from 2019.
Having said all of that, I also understand that not everyone feels that way.
In fact, some people couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.
Case in point, on October 25, 2020 composer Daniel Roumain posted a message on his Facebook wall announcing a new commission from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to open their 2020/21 season.
Titled “i am a white person who ______ Black people” the composer seeks reflection.
I am fortunate to announce a new commission from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to open their 2020/21 season. The title of this new work is…
“i am a white person who ______ Black people”
…and is intended to provide and provoke a response from the artists and audiences. What do YOU feel for, see, or think about Black people?
I’m sold on the premise alone and am looking forward to the premier.
With one exception, Roumain’s wall was filled with similar sentiments and congratulations. That exception came from retired Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) Principal Violist Alexander Mishnaevski.
Dear Daniel, how about a title of a new composition that will read: “I am a black racist man and I — all the Whites with a passion!” In fact since I came to US in 1973, I have never, ever experienced so much hate towards one race from one man to another, than from you! And all your butt kissing following to your mediocrity as a musician is to say the least pathetic and disgusting! All you are doing is advancing yourself due to the situation of today, while helping no one else, but it will not last, not in a long run! Enjoy your 15 minutes of fame!
Mishnaevski’s response prompted the DSO to release a statement condemning his comments and labeling them as racist.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra was outraged to read racist comments posted on social media last night by a retired DSO musician. This musician does not represent the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, does not currently serve in any official capacity with the DSO, nor will he be allowed to participate in any official capacity in the future. We believe racism has no place in the orchestra world or in our society, and these comments sadly show how far we have to go. The DSO apologizes to Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR) for having to respond to this in a post celebrating a new commission. We have reached out to DBR and are excited to perform his new work “i am a white person who ____ Black people” this spring. The DSO is proud to continue our partnership with DBR as a composer, performer, and educator.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra published a similar statement.
The NJSO condemns in the strongest possible terms a racist Facebook comment addressed to composer Daniel Bernard Roumain last night. That this vile comment appeared on a post meant to celebrate Daniel’s new work, “i am a white person who _____ Black people,” underscores the need for all to stand against racism and hatred, and the need for orchestras to amplify BIPOC voices. We are proud to have commissioned and will premiere Daniel’s important new commission next month, and we are thrilled that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present the work this spring. We join our colleagues at the League of American Orchestras in our commitment to addressing racism that exists in our field. Black Lives Matter.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, an overwhelming chorus of musicians, administrators, and insiders are expressing similar sentiments.
Mishnaevski doubled down on his original comment but eventually abandoned efforts to engage the volume of replies taking issue with him.
If there’s a silver lining to be found here, Roumain will likely see the work performed by the DSO. And he certainly managed to inspire reflection, even if some of it isn’t what we hoped to see staring back.
On a related topic, I invite everyone to mark your calendar for Tuesday, 11/17/2020 when I’ll be publishing an episode of Shop Talk that’s all about centering equity. Featuring guests Ruby Lopez Harper and Brea M. Heidelberg, it was recorded a few weeks back and I can say that it is one of the most engaging conversations in the podcast to date.