The arts breed compassion, and as Americans, we are at our best when we are compassionate. It is among our founding principles, an ideal inscribed onto the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor…”
As the chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it is the rare occasion that moves me to comment on the actions of our federal government. However, in less than two weeks, our new president has attempted to limit public discourse, diminish cultural exchange and bully our neighbors. The executive order that temporarily — for now at least — bars entry into the U.S. of individuals from seven Muslim-majority nations is a terrible thing for America’s creative community, in whose work we find our common humanity. I must step forward.
My perspective is that of a lifelong musician and orchestra administrator. Having toured with American musicians abroad and invited their foreign peers to our stages for more than 40 years, I have experienced the universality of music firsthand. Music transcends borders; it gives voice to artists and communicates with audiences regardless of their nationality, ethnicity or religion.
In Southern California, we have no desire to repeat history’s mistakes: the shame of Japanese internment camps and of having turned our backs on many fleeing Europe during World War II. In fact, our own Los Angeles musical community was shaped by the émigrés and exiles who escaped the threat of oppressive regimes in Germany, Austria and Russia: Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Ernst Toch, Max Steiner, Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Fritzi Massary and Sergei Rachmaninoff among others.
Together, these musicians and composers advanced American music, contributed to our film industry and taught the next generation of musical creators. Like many “foreign” artists who preceded and followed them, their contributions to American culture, from the Tin Pan Alley songbook to film scoring, have been so profound and lasting that we have come to think of those ideas as wholly indigenous, forgetting the far-flung origins of their creators. The president’s executive order betrays our immigrant roots.
Already, artists have had their work and their lives upended by the administration’s actions. Kinan Azmeh, acclaimed Syrian clarinetist and member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, is uncertain as to whether he will be able to return to his Brooklyn home of 16 years when he concludes a concert tour in Beirut this week. Los Angeles-based concert promoter Shari Rezai, who specializes in contemporary Persian music and brings artists from Iran to the United States, has canceled six shows. Performers including London-based Kazakh violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and Berlin-based electronic musician Robert Henke have opted out of U.S. appearances in a show of solidarity with those trapped by the order.
Music animates our society, increases our capacity for empathy and nurtures the public discourse that is central to a healthy democracy. At a time when the world needs more, not less, mutual understanding, we must resist the president’s anti-intellectualism and disregard for the power of the arts.
I urge the administration to rescind the executive order and reestablish an open exchange between artists and audiences worldwide. National security concerns can be addressed while we continue to welcome people from beyond our borders.
Deborah Borda is president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. and a visiting leader at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.