The League of American Orchestras (LAO) recently released a guide that integrates equality, diversity, and inclusion into orchestra artistic planning. They say the guide “lays out actionable strategies for orchestras seeking to diversify the repertoire of the music they offer, drawing on interviews with orchestras of all budget sizes.” While many orchestras call for more diverse concerts and comprehensive programs, this particular guide puts teeth into the mouth of artistic planning. The problem with the manual is that it destroys merit in the orchestral repertoire, and places a heavy burden on artistic organizations to choose variety over compositional merit.
“The Catalyst Handbook examines the programming philosophies, challenges, success factors, and resources that have emerged so far in Orchestra’s journeys toward programming equity.” Here the language seems harmless. Certainly there are many programming philosophies, challenges, and factors that an orchestra must take into account, large and small, that will lead them to success. However, the LAO’s moral stance is clear, and it reflects the modern left. Kieren Suarez’s comments in the introduction confirm this:
The majority of EDI’s art planning work has focused on the optics of increased representation by commissioning new works and featuring guest artists from historically underrepresented communities. This is an “outside-in” strategy that can be implemented with little or no change to the organization’s internal values, leadership, and operations. The Catalyst Guide challenges conductors to adopt artistic planning practices that drive transformation from “inside out,” going beyond the representation we see and hear on stage.
What Kirin is defending is bad news for the orchestra’s technical planning. Historically, orchestras have planned a bit of something old with a bit of something new in their seasons. But what the orchestra planned was nonetheless the absolute best compositions of the last half century. Despite the fact that Beethoven was a white European, his music is not. his music I can not Be simply “white” undifferentiated by its multiple influences: Italian dance, German Baroque court music, Rococo France, and many, many others. His music has survived simply because it is amazing.
But what makes it so great? Classical music reaches greatness not in the immediate context of its first play, but in the two hundredth play, 250 years from now. The further an authorship is from its cultural genesis, the more abstract it becomes, and thus merit is all that remains. The audience is different, they have different cultural tastes, and they adhere to different moral and aesthetic values. Even the orchestra’s instruments change, so does the sound of music. The composer died, while a new audience always comes. However, the music continues. It survives on its merits.
But in LAO’s cult-like discourse, “we have a moral duty to speak out for voices that are unfairly silenced because of racism and discrimination.” This ethical position completely removes the need for a musical work to stand on its musical merit. It’s more important (because it’s a moral imperative) to “show voices that have been unfairly silenced” because compositional merit no longer matters, and racial, gender, and sexual identity matter. This is stated explicitly in the first chapter of the LAO Handbook: “The Ref impregnated By discovering new sounds and Restoration of important legacies(emphasis added.) Usually, in a meritocratic system, the body of musical compositions is rich because the music is deep and meaningful to multiple generations of people, not just because it checks important boxes for one time and one culture.
The guide seeks to make orchestras “relevant” by addressing the perceived injustices of orchestras, rather than by finding and performing the greatest works of musical art. This will not work, because the orchestra cannot be ethical. They respond to the marketplace of ideas and discover new musical sounds. They can only be tools for discovering what is ultimately worthy of their time, even as they remind new generations of what was great from the past.
The LAO addresses the meritocracy by stating that any accusation that uncommon compositions are of lower quality is racist: “The basic assumption that black and brown composers are less talented than white composers is incorrect and fundamentally racist.” But, as a matter of math, if your preference for diversity and inclusion supersedes a preference for merit or compositional merit, you will necessarily end up with inferior ammo. We should seek out the greatest composers of our generation and previous generations and partake in their music on its musical merits—skin color, sexual preference, or gender.
We must allow a free market of ideas to decide, through the chaotic 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 the advantages of composition in exchange for more diverse music would subvert what classical orchestras are capable of and aim to do: play the greatest music known to the world without regard to race, class, gender, or sexual orientation.