UP CLOSE: Piece by piece: The art of representative concert programming

UP CLOSE:
Piece by piece: The art of representative concert programming

Published on April 15, 2020

DAYBREAK IN FLORIDA: The Yale Symphony Orchestra

The sound of an oboe emerges from a fluttering musical backdrop. It spins a somber, yet hopeful, song. The fluttering fades and morphs into a dancing flute melody, evoking the image of a rising sun.

“Daybreak — Dance” is the first movement of British composer Frederick Delius’ “Florida Suite.” On Oct. 15, 2018, members of the Yale Symphony Orchestra (YSO) arrived in Hendrie Hall for the first rehearsal of the piece. My fellow orchestra members and I were preparing the piece for the upcoming November concert.

Twenty minutes into the rehearsal, we neared the end of the second movement, “By the River.”  The music ended with a lilting three-beat pulse and lush, swirling textures, like a rushing river becoming a calm stream. 

Then, William Boughton — the YSO’s interim music director at the time — put down his baton to address the musicians. Contextualizing a piece is essential for an ensemble to fully understand and experience the art they are creating, Boughton later said. Delius wrote the work back in 1887, after his first of two visits to America from his home in England. The composer sought a space to write music without the presence of his oppressive father and worked for two years as the manager of Solano Grove, a plantation in Jacksonville, Florida. During those two years, he listened to the African American spirituals while standing by the river that ran through the plantation. 

The black plantation residents who sang in the evenings “showed a truly wonderful sense of musicianship and harmonic resonance … and, hearing their singing in such romantic surroundings, it was then and there that I first felt the urge to express myself in music,” Delius recalled in his writings. 

As Boughton explained the piece’s context, orchestra members listened, since many of them were unfamiliar with Delius’s work. But their eyes were fixed on the title of the next movement: “Sunset — Near the Plantation.”

“People felt tricked, because they felt like they were playing this beautiful music without realizing what it meant,” then-Student President of YSO Laura Michael ’20 later said. She had played the opening oboe solo during the ensemble’s read-through. “And they thought the audience might be too, because of the pastoral nature and pretty melodies of the piece.”

“People felt tricked, because they felt like they were playing this beautiful music without realizing what it meant.”

—Laura Michael ’20, former YSO president

During his explanation, Boughton mentioned that the piece drew from “African American spirituals” Delius heard while managing an orange plantation in Florida. But Boughton did not explicitly mention how the work interacted with the legacy of slavery in the United States — he spoke of the piece’s beauty, but not of its underlying pain.  

Some musicians left the rehearsal. Others were in tears at the orchestra’s post-rehearsal dinner. I sat with them at a round table in the corner of the Timothy Dwight dining hall, as we processed the rehearsal and discussed the sociohistorical implications of playing Delius’ “Florida Suite.”

 Several members decided they would not play in the concert cycle if the Delius piece was included in the program. Many others sent emails to Boughton and Thomas Duffy, director of the Yale Bands, and brought their grievances to administrative attention.

“The majority of people said that they were not comfortable playing a piece that obviously was written about slavery, but not written by someone who had experienced slavery firsthand,” said Epongue Ekille ’21, the YSO’s current president. 

According to Ekille, Michael and Boughton, orchestra members were concerned the piece glorified slavery without establishing the proper context — which, for some, began with how Boughton described the piece to the orchestra. Michael mentioned that without providing the audience with sufficient explanation, the piece’s “pastoral nature” and “pretty melodies” could potentially obscure the work’s inspiration and history.  

Boughton later expressed several reasons for programming the “Florida Suite.” He said that he did not intend to “glorify” slavery by programming the piece but rather wanted to expose the orchestra to repertoire beyond its largely Austro-Hungarian and Germanic canon. And programming music like the “Florida Suite,” influenced by American history, would help him accomplish this task. Most importantly, Boughton felt the Delius suite was a compelling and beautiful piece of music.  

“It was a testament of a moment in time, an English composer reflecting upon what he experienced and what he heard in Florida,” Boughton said. “We will never know [if Delius intended] to glorify slavery because we’re not inside Delius’s head.”

Boughton drew parallels between Delius’s use of African American spirituals and Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s use of folk music. Bartók is a well-respected composer in the Western art music canon, and performing his work is not seen as controversial. And, since Delius’s opera “Koanga” was the first opera to “utilize African American music and feature African Americans in title roles,” some scholars argue that Delius may also have increased representation of African American musical traditions. 

“I like to believe in the goodness of humanity,” Boughton said. “I think Delius was just responding to what he heard across the river.”

On the evening of the initial rehearsal, Boughton expressed willingness to engage with the orchestra in meaningful dialogue about the work. In an email to the orchestra, Boughton wrote, “I dislike stereotyping any race and recognize and abhor the horrors and suffering of slavery.” He then called for a group-wide discussion to “address music with affiliations to ‘controversial’ programs or authorship, and the place such music has in the contemporary world of performance.” 

The Delius piece was removed from the Nov. 10 concert program and replaced with other music by English composers. Four days later, Boughton and Duffy — along with Yale Symphony Orchestra Manager Brian Robinson and student presidents Michael and Spencer Parish ’20 — led the group discussion.

The YSO was invited to share their perspectives and ask questions, either anonymously via an online form or in person at the meeting. Members and staff discussed representation in classical music, regarding both the “Florida Suite” and broader concerns with the YSO’s programming practices. At the following rehearsal, several students in attendance expressed that the discussion was productive and that they admired Boughton’s willingness to engage with student input. 

After the meeting, Ekille sent the orchestra a playlist that “highlights black and Latinx composers” to illuminate underrepresented compositional voices. Boughton identified a list of underrepresented composers whose music he enjoyed, and he listened to their music over and over. 

“Playing a piece about slavery is not wrong,” Ekille said. “We want to engage with slavery and acknowledge that it existed and that it was terrible [through our music]. But why are we playing this piece, one that was written by a slave owner?”

Following Boughton’s May 2019 appointment as the YSO’s next music director — and the group discussion regarding the “Florida Suite” and concert programming — he outlined a plan for the orchestra to play music combining the Western canon with American music and contemporary music. All of the orchestra’s regular season concerts would highlight the work of underrepresented composers. 

To facilitate intentional and meaningful concert programming, Boughton established a student programming committee to discuss his repertoire ideas. The YSO’s inaugural programming committee met for the first time in the summer of 2019.

PUERTO RICAN PARADISE: The Yale Glee Club

To Delius, Florida represented a type of paradise. To those working on the plantation, Florida was anything but — it represented a centuries-long history of pain, oppression and slavery. 

 A thousand miles from the coast of Florida, the island of Puerto Rico contends with similar histories. To 16th-century Spanish colonizers and modern-day tourists, the island is an idyllic paradise. The Travelogue’s website calls the “enchanting” location a “premier destination … surrounded by tranquil white-sand beaches and colorful locals.” The advertisement calls visitors to “explore” all that “this charming country has to offer.”

According to Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón, the island performs for others. But this “performance” is artificial — it is imposed by its colonizers and its oppressors.

 This season, the Yale Glee Club commissioned Negrón to write a song for a four-part choir and electronic soundscape called “Paradise.” The piece juxtaposes texts about colonization and disaster capitalism with descriptions of the island’s idyllic beauty. This juxtaposition evokes an image of Puerto Rico as a “paradise,” controlled by externally imposed narratives to the extent that its identity is lost and its voice is silenced. The world premiere of “Paradise” was scheduled for the now-canceled Glee Club Spring 2020 tour to Puerto Rico.

 “I use a lot of my music to try to understand things that I don’t quite understand,” Negrón said. “I had the opportunity of writing for a brilliant force of voices and bodies together. I thought that was a great medium to [communicate] a perspective that we don’t often hear in the media.”

But the members of the Yale Glee Club, like the YSO, questioned the implications of performing the music. Many members did not feel comfortable singing text written by Puerto Rico’s colonizers to their intended audience of native Puerto Ricans. They, too, contacted their director, Jeffrey Douma, to voice concerns about performing “Paradise” in its original form.

Glee Club member Devin O’Banion ’20 said that “Paradise” was “powerful” and “reclaimed some of the language that had been used against Puerto Rican people in an uplifting way.” But he disputed the notion that a majority white, institutionally rooted organization like the Yale Glee Club could effectively reclaim that hurtful language. “Placing ourselves into the conversation, in this way, was inappropriate,” O’Banion said.

“Placing ourselves into the conversation, in this way, was inappropriate.”

—Devin O'Banion ’20, Glee Club member

According to Sofia Laguarda ’20, the Glee Club’s current president, the piece “contained a lot of patronizing language and overtly violently racist text,” particularly portions of the text excerpted from the journals of 16th-century Spanish colonist Bartolome de las Casas. “It felt like we were calling Puerto Ricans different names.”

The Glee Club first discussed “Paradise” amongst themselves. Then, in October 2019, Negrón traveled from her Brooklyn studio to Yale to hold a part-workshop, part-conversation with the choir. According to Negrón, they wanted to better understand each other’s motivations and emotions so they could deliver a cohesive and powerful version of the piece.

Negrón said that in a new and highly personal work like “Paradise,” both composer and commissioner should be “open to getting into uncomfortable territory together through dialogue, but with the promise that respect is always at the forefront.” That everyone feels like their voices are heard and represented is “really, really essential,” she added.

After the group discussions, Negrón revised the piece and presented a second version to the Glee Club. She called the second version of her song — a reimagined version of paradise — more appropriate for the singers, without compromising her original artistic vision.

“It’s an extremely powerful thing to have a bit of perspective on what art is being made, and using that for the better instead of saying, ‘This isn’t the piece for us anymore, so we can’t program this,” said composer Alexis Lamb MUS ’20. “Everyone can grow from this opportunity. Instead of being divisive, we can build community.”

Since Delius died in 1934,  the YSO did not have the same opportunity with the “Florida Suite.” Even so, Lamb said that “there’s a lot of background research that can be done on the part of a programming committee or director to make sure that [a piece] is the right piece of the ensemble.”

Like the YSO, Douma also created a student-run committee with whom he could discuss concert programming decisions. The choir’s music advisory committee met for the first time in January 2020.

REPRESENTATIVE CONCERT PROGRAMMING

Only eight percent of the 4,000 works performed were written by women composers, and 16 percent by living composers. Yet works performed by Mozart and Beethoven alone comprised 15.5 percent.

These conversations among members of the YSO and the Glee Club are not unique. In recent years, ensembles across the world have brought attention to the lack of diversity in classical music concert programming. For example, in 2019, the Institute for Composer Diversity was created at the State University of New York at Fredonia. This research and advocacy organization is “committed to the celebration, education and advocacy of music created by composers from historically underrepresented groups including women, composers of color, LGBTQIA2S+ composers and disabled composers.”

The Institute for Composer Diversity created a database with music by underrepresented composers for performers, conductors and educators to use when programming more diverse concerts. According to the Institute, which tracked the concert programs of 120 major orchestras in the 2019–20 season, only eight percent of the 4,000 works performed were written by women composers, and 16 percent by living composers. Yet works performed by Mozart and Beethoven alone comprised 15.5 percent.

The institute provides these statistics to encourage orchestras to change their programming and better represent the current classical music field — which is more diverse than ever. For example, the Yale composition studio’s 13 members include six who identify as women. Lamb, a member of the Yale composition studio who serves on the institute’s executive council, said that the classical music industry is “moving in a positive direction.”

 THE ROLE OF A PROGRAMMING COMMITTEE

 The increasingly powerful push for representative concert programming — choosing repertoire that represents diversity in classical music beyond that of Western European men — gives some classical musicians hope that the field can break free from the Western canon. And programming committees can play a major role. The student programming committees recently established within the YSO and Glee Club help choose ensemble repertoire they consider meaningful and potentially influential for both ensemble and audience members.

“Having some sort of board for open communication [about repertoire] as opposed to all of the music being selected by one of two individuals would really make a difference and let people know that there is quality diverse repertoire out there,” Lamb said. “You just need to dig a little deeper or ask the right person for it.”

This season, the YSO’s programming committee focused on planning a contemporary music festival. The festival program included YSO and Glee Club performances, as well as pop-up, small-ensemble concerts in the Pierson common room and Afro-American Cultural Center. The committee sought to bring the orchestra’s programming outside of Woolsey Hall. Although the festival, scheduled for the weekend of March 27, was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, it would have featured works exclusively by female-identifying composers.

“We want to embrace all kinds of music and singing traditions because we are from all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and we can do that by deciding what we sing and how we approach it.”

—Isabella Zou ’22, Glee Club music advisory committee member

The YSO committee also researches potential repertoire. According to Michael, who now chairs the YSO’s committee, the “shock” value of the “Florida Suite” would not have been as explosive if students understood the piece’s context beforehand. Both Ekille and Michael said that prior research, presented by a programming committee, would have eased tensions within the orchestra.

These committees also consider a concert program’s holistic impact. According to Michael, putting the Delius piece in conversation with a piece such as Florence Price’s “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America” — Price was the first female Black composer to have a symphony premiered by a major orchestra — would achieve a more contextualized and balanced concert program.

The Glee Club’s music advisory committee contains representatives from all four undergraduate classes. Although, according to Laguarda, the committee is still in the process of defining how it can be most “useful,” its members have focused on discussing repertoire choices and facilitating communication between Douma and the choir. They also discuss how best to sing relevant and appropriate music from various cultures when touring internationally.

The YSO’s 2019–20 season programmed 15 major works. Eight works were written by non-male composers, and seven by living composers. Each of the orchestra’s four regular concerts included at least one work by a female composer. This is a break from history: out of the 40 works played in the previous three seasons, the ensemble performed four works by living composers and one work by a non-male composer. The 14 works in the Glee Club’s 2019–20 season repertoire include composers encompassing multiple genders, ethnicities and time periods. Next year, both ensembles’ committees hope to ensure thoughtfully and ethically curated concerts.

“We want to embrace all kinds of music and singing traditions because we are from all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and we can do that by deciding what we sing and how we approach it,” said Isabella Zou ’22, who is a member of the Glee Club’s music advisory committee.

Zou and Boughton noted that because the ensembles are, after all, student ensembles, the committees must consider what makes certain pieces enjoyable and rewarding for student performers.

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION

Concert programming is “a bit like a chef making a fantastic five-course meal,” Boughton said. “Each course needs to be different, and they need to complement each other.”

Zou, Boughton, Ekille and Michael all said balance is the most important factor when programming a concert. A concert must balance emotional characteristics, composer identities and other musical factors: melody, harmony, rhythm, orchestration, timbre, technical challenges and logistics.

With representative concert programming, ensembles have looked for another kind of balance: the balance between what is in the Western canon and what is not.

“By mixing it up, you’re able to support groups that haven’t really gotten support from classical musicians or classical music before,” Ekille said. “That will retain audiences and draw new ones.”

Boughton contrasted student ensembles at institutions like Yale with professional orchestras. Student ensembles do not have to worry as much about audience reception, because their total funding is not dominated by ticket revenue.

“There are pressures on professional orchestras to fill the halls,” Boughton said. “If you do too much contemporary music, will the conservative audiences walk away?” According to Boughton, that question is valid for professional ensembles to ask.

Thus, students have more freedom to experiment with programming and can lead the industry in promoting representation.

Yet the goal of representative programming does not give ensembles the liberty to tokenize certain groups of composers.

“More representative programming is not just about needing more of this ‘kind’ of person,” O’Banion said. “Yes, we need more of this kind of person in the program, but what context can we bring? How can we understand it differently?”

Michael emphasized the need to place the works on a concert program — especially a diverse program — in conversation with one another.

Lee Dionne ’11 MUS ’13 ’19, pianist for the award-winning Merz Trio, agreed. In 2019, Merz Trio won the Fischoff and Concert Artist Guild competitions. He said that concerts should have a “narrative through line.”

But when that narrative through line is the composers’ identities, School of Music professor and composer Hannah Lash MUS ’12 warns that this could lead to tokenism.

“I don’t believe in ghettoizing,” Lash said. “I know that isn’t the impulse. I know that the impulse is more to try to correct the historic, systemic imbalance that’s part of the field. At the same time, I don’t believe music is gendered and feel that when I write music I have the privilege of transcending myself in the service of what I’m doing.”

“By mixing it up, you’re able to support groups that haven’t really gotten support from classical musicians or classical music before. That will retain audiences and draw new ones.”

—Epongue Ekille ’21, current YSO president

The YSO’s March 27 concert would have done exactly that: the event would have presented works exclusively by female composers, as a part of Yale’s 50WomenAtYale150 celebration.

But Lamb sees this type of representation — even though some may see it as a form of tokenizing — as a necessary step toward representative concert programming, noting that “we have to go through a messy period before things get better.”

Ensembles and composers both note that the canon is not in danger of disappearing. Because the Western classical music tradition features many dead European men, today’s new music often cannot avoid building on the foundation they have created. Lash said she grew up loving much music in the canon, and her current compositions are influenced by it.

Since much of the current classical music repertoire has been programmed — and loved — by audiences for centuries, ensembles want to program this music for audience enjoyment.

“There’s more choral music written by white men than there is by anybody else, and that’s just a matter of who has had access to it for the last [couple of] centuries,” O’Banion said. Because of this, O’Banion noted that lots of “good” classical music comes from this large pool of repertoire, and it will take time to amass a comparably large body of work from diverse voices.

For music directors and members of programming committees, the goal is to eventually choose programs based solely on how much they like the music. Without explicitly looking at composer demographics, they hope that these programs will happen to represent a diverse array of composers.

Musicians will not have to force a certain distribution upon a concert program. They will play the music they believe in.

Correction, April 16: The original version of this article stated that the Institute for Composer Diversity was founded in 2016. A group of graduate students created a framework for the organization in 2016, but the Institute was founded in 2019. The article has also been updated to reflect that the catalog represents a broader range of underrepresented composers — rather than just non-white and non-male composers — and to clarify that Lamb’s composition studio is the Yale composition studio.

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