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Commentary: Black music matters, and classical companies are misfiring on diversity

Three men in hardhats look out onto a construction site with piles of building materials.
Frank Gehry, left, tours the construction site of the YOLA Center at Inglewood with L.A. Phil CEO Chad Smith, center, and philanthropist Thomas Beckmen in early November.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Last month, architect Frank Gehry and Los Angeles Philharmonic CEO Chad Smith gave me a masked hard-hat tour of the nearly finished Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center at Inglewood. Gehry’s reimagining of an abandoned bank building may not be able to satisfy all the demands for systemic change that have been directed toward classical music privilege. But it just may be the single most heartening start.

The YOLA Center, which is intended to serve music students from Inglewood and surrounding communities, is neither something lost nor something found during our disastrous year with coronavirus. Youth Orchestra Los Angeles is, instead, Gustavo Dudamel’s educational initiative begun in 2007, shortly after he was appointed music director of the L.A. Phil. Over the years, a program that started with 80 students has grown to 1,300 and led to exceptional institutional and individual successes that are now a model for orchestras everywhere.

For the record:

3:02 PM, Dec. 10, 2020An earlier version of this article misstated the year that Youth Orchestra Los Angeles was founded. It started in 2007, not 2008. Also, the original group consisted of 80 students, not 40, and the current number of participants is 1,300, not 1,200.

Funding for the $23-million Beckmen YOLA Center, which is around the corner from City Hall and Inglewood High School, is fully in place. Other than a few construction delays, the pandemic has changed next to nothing. Obviously, the new facility — which will feature an innovative concert space that can break into two rehearsal rooms, along with many practice and conference rooms — won’t be able to welcome students right away once it’s finished early next year. But when it is up and running at full capacity, the facility — every flexible and inviting inch of it — promises to be inspiring and eminently hang-out-able.

Before then, the center may well begin to work its wonders by piquing the curiosity of passersby. The front will be all glass. Walking by or waiting for a bus, you will see young musicians from the community rehearsing or performing, day and night, in an airy, light-filled, sophisticated, gorgeous state-of-the-art building designed for them and equipped with acoustics by Disney Hall’s Yasuhisa Toyota. If you are lucky, you might catch a glance of Julie Andrews’ white Steinway grand piano, which she plans to sign and dedicate to the students. Hundreds more young people will assuredly want in.

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Just how rosy a picture the YOLA Center’s clear glass will reveal is something that cannot be known right now. But it does address the existential issues of economics, inclusivity and relevance facing orchestras and other classical music institutions in the wake of the pandemic, with wider implications for all of society.

A model shows the exterior of the YOLA Center with a broad glass front and figures visible inside.
A model of the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center at Inglewood, whose mission is to develop a new, more diverse generation of musicians.
(Gehry Partners )

Black Lives Matter has, of course, made systemic change a nationwide issue. But systemic has to mean systemic. Change can’t coddle quick-change artists. You can break a system overnight, but you can’t make one overnight. Real change is hard. It is time consuming and expensive. It requires patience and is not always popular at first. Still, the catastrophe that was 2020 can reveal the way forward.

Orchestras are — as are most performing arts institutions — facing a host of pressing challenges all at once. Unable to do what they do, which is play music as a tightknit unit for a tightknit audience, creating in the best of circumstances a uniquely stirring communal experience, orchestras must first figure out how to survive the pandemic. In nearly all cases, that means downsizing: reducing salaries, instituting furloughs and layoffs, pulling the plug on ambitious projects.

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Yet they have the imperative of creating an innovative online presence to hold onto patrons, and that typically requires new resources. Furthermore, although downsizing, institutions are nevertheless compelled to diversify, all while taking on new and timely repertory, particularly that of composers of color. This is clearly essential for the future of the art form, no matter how hard it is to sell unfamiliar music to core audiences.

In a great many cases, these challenges have brought Band-Aid solutions. It is rare, for instance, to find a new orchestra that doesn’t highlight players of color in its online videos, even when that means returning to the same player over and over again. American ensembles everywhere (and to some extent British and European ones as well) in the last few months quickly added music by Black and Latino composers to their programs without having had the time for research.

Coronavirus may have silenced our symphony halls, taking away the essential communal experience of the concert as we know it.

A prime example is the sudden near-ubiquity of George Walker’s short and sweet “Lyric for Strings.” This piece is nothing new. It has long been a February staple, an easy six-minute acknowledgment of Black History Month, written by the first African American classical composer to win a Pulitzer Prize.

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The attraction of “Lyric” in the time of COVID-19 is obvious. It’s doable. A modest, carefully crafted love letter by a budding composer is hardly objectionable. Modeled after Barber’s Adagio (the composers were classmates at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia), the 1941 score is by a 24-year-old of immense promise. I confess to clicking more than once on Dudamel’s sterling performance with the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl in the orchestra’s “Sound/Stage” series filmed his summer.

Walker was a composer of gripping honesty whose most substantial works written over seven decades contend with the thorniest issues of African American and Western classical music. Yet unless put into context, as the L.A. Phil does, “Lyric” is to Walker what “Für Elise” was to Beethoven. Lazily programmed, it can be condescending.

Walker’s formal, uncompromising style isn’t particularly in fashion, which may partially explain why his music doesn’t get the exposure it deserves. But if his compelling voice is lost because of “obscurity,” that can be another word for systemic racism. Walker is not alone. A treasure trove of music, by the likes of William Grant Still and Olly Wilson, to name but two other neglected originals, is lying in plain sight to be discovered.

Instead, the trend, however understandable (and maybe in some ways admirable), has been to seek out composers of fine but derivative music that sounds familiar and comes with a compelling historical narrative. Florence Price was a remarkable woman and a highly capable composer in the first half of the 20th century who as a Black woman spectacularly broke barriers. Her symphonies tell of her struggles and aspirations. They can fill a listener with a sense of pride. They provide striking speculation about what a composer of Price’s talent and conviction might have become had she had more opportunity. But the rush to perform her pieces — which drew on Dvorák, Still and Ellington for their style — can be an easy way out, when Black composers whose work deserves more consideration remain neglected.

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The obvious lesson is to support the Prices of today, and for that we can celebrate the contentions of 2020 for getting so many ensembles to jump on the bandwagon of such hot young composers as Tyshawn Sorey, Errollyn Wallen and Jessie Montgomery. What remains missing, though, is the attention to most substantial, mature, challenging, difference-making masters, whose music we can have valid expectations to last. My nominations include George Lewis, Jeffrey Mumford, Wadada Leo Smith, Alvin Singleton, Anthony Davis and Anthony Braxton. They need elevation to repertory, i.e., systemic, status.

Inside Gehry's new Beckmen YOLA Center, under construction in Inglewood.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In the end, systemic diversity can be pushed by circumstance, like we’ve had in this year of upset. But it can’t be shoved. Within the next year or two, we will be able to celebrate more people of color at orchestras and other institutions. Hiring, however, could be limited by the sheer economic havoc ahead. For real systemic change, we need a real system in place, something solid and lasting.

YOLA is that system. It trains talent and attracts audiences. It goes to the core of the issue. It generates enthusiasm, broadens horizons and inspires commitment. That sounds like advertising copy, but there are YOLA grads to prove it attending college and working for the L.A. Phil. Someday in the not distant future, grads will be playing in the orchestra. YOLA looks to be impervious to the coronavirus.

If the center holds, we have a future; 2020 be damned.

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Large glass windows are seen in an exterior view of the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center at Inglewood.
Exterior detail of the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center at Inglewood, photographed in November.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)


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