Friday, August 21, 2015

Let Them Eat Rosin

   A classical violinist of great wealth and privilege publicly posts a tweet that could, at best, be described as racially insensitive concerning Chineke! - a newly formed all-black orchestra in Europe.

    The half-white, half Asian Anne Akiko Meyers represents the two tribes that overwhelmingly dominate classical music now. Koreans came to Western music after the Korean War, the Japanese after WWII and the Chinese after Mao. Like Russia during Peter the Great, this assimilation and dissemination of European art was one effort to compete with the mightier and more affluent West.  History has condemned people of color to a disadvantage, and if this reality and the attitudes of non-minorities are changing slowly, anything that makes this transition easier is welcome. Classical music is immensely expensive; besides decades worth of lessons there is the issue of equipment; a fine career in this fiercely competitive field demands the very best of what can be often priceless instruments. Could this be why there seem to be more black opera singers than instrumentalists?

Generations of support from a culture that treasures and nurtures this art-form increases the exposure and the chance of developing creative genius. Why would black, Latino or Muslim people bother themselves with the music of an oppressive class as they struggle to feed their families? The Sphinx foundation in America has to be applauded: it has made a great difference in giving minorities a helping hand into this rarefied realm. The brand new Chineke! Orchestra will certainly reveal this music to many that would not have heard it otherwise.

Is an all-black orchestra a gimmick? Yes. Is it necessary? Most definitely, especially if you value the music of the west of the past half-millennium as representative of arguably the greatest period of humankind. It has been noted that the Chineke! is not needed, because music is a universal language. Music IS universal, but the language must be learnt to be understood, to be essential. 
Anne Akiko Meyers’ post read "I wonder if you have to be black to solo with this orchestra? #reversediscrimination.”  As it is well known she has two Stradivaris and a Guarneri del Gesu whose combined value exceeds $20 million, it colors the tone of her comment, coming thus from the pinnacle of the socio-economic scale, to a one of a petulant brat. It is apparent that she realized the foolishness of posting a racial indictment and deleted it very quickly. Until a torqued apology was finally forced from her many days later, none of the usual blogs, broadsheets or magazines picked up on this story, despite the online firestorm of consternation.  We wonder just how much that cost.

An excellent opportunity to explore to the roots of who should share in this art has been squandered.  

 It is time for all of us to look in the mirror, and say honestly what we see. In the words of the immortal Pete Seeger:
"We've all been living upside down
And turned around with love unfound
Until we turn and face the sun.
All of us, yes everyone.”


  1. A.A.Meyers is a more than a brat, she's thoughtless... She's never had cab drivers pass her by because of her skin color. Attitudes like this cannot be shaken off.

  2. I wish to send a message of thanks for all the support from friends and colleagues in America and worldwide who appreciates the essence of the work of, and the need for, Chineke!. The Sphinx organisation has been the ultimate source of inspiration for me and I continue to applaud their work and be guided by their light. My colleagues and I are content to be judged on the thing that matters most - our music making, and the success of our effort to bring people to great music who might otherwise go through life not experiencing it. I have seen Anne Akiko Meyers’ acknowledgement that her comments were a mistake and respect her for doing so. I remain committed to bringing about a fairer and inclusive environment where children and adults of all ethnicities have equal opportunities to learn, be involved in and share the music we love to the highest levels. We still have much work to do here in Europe, but the time is right and the environment is receptive! Thank you. Chi-chi Nwanoku MBE, Founder, Chineke!.

  3. Since the world is not a perfect place, it is the job of artists of all stripes to endeavor to make it so. That I no longer hear the "normal" discriminatory words that I heard all the time during the 50s, Mick, Wop, Spic, Dago, etc. I believe some progress has been made. But there are words with history where no progress has been made. Is this due to the paranoia spread by the media? Or is it due to the sense of privilege that pervades the upper class to such a great degree? Progress must be made in America and Israel, to name just two countries where racial progress would affect changes across the boards. The owners don't care if those below them fight along racial lines. More products sold for self-protection. But we artists must protect not only the discriminated-against peoples of the world, but the animals, too. In short, peace and love are the best policy, not war and profit.
    Tobias Mostel

  4. This is a most worthwhile assessment on an unfortunate and ugly lapse by a well respected artist.