LUCERNE, Switzerland – The Lucerne Festival here, one of the premier classical music events, has long had a reputation for exclusivity.
For much of the event’s 84-year history, women and people of color struggled to be heard on stage, and the audience remained overwhelmingly white and wealthy.
But this summer, the festival, which officially begins on Friday, is trying to rebuild its image, by programming its season under the sign of diversity: a series of concerts featuring black and Latino artists, as well as women.
“We don’t have to be radical, but we have to be aware,” Michael Haefliger, the festival’s executive and artistic director, said in an interview. “You should have this feeling of shaking the pitch a bit and realizing that you have excluded a certain part of the public for a long time.
This will is part of a larger effort to address serious racial and gender disparities in classical music, an area in which women and people of color are still underrepresented among performers, conductors , composers and administrators.
“This is a big step forward in bringing the issues in our field to light,” said Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder and CEO of Chineke! Orchestra, a British ensemble made up largely of musicians of color which will be presented in Lucerne this year. “Much of the classical music that we are proud of today is inspired by black artists, black musicians and black composers. But we don’t hear that side of the story.
Lucerne leaders hope the focus on diversity will help spark discussions about racism, sexism and exclusion in classical music. They attempted, with mixed success, to capture the public’s attention. A series of conferences related to the theme have been added to the agenda, including a recent one entitled: “Seeing is believing? Black artists in classical music! A marketing campaign features an assortment of chess pieces reinvented for an era of inclusivity: a knight reborn as a purple unicorn, a bishop wearing zebra stripes.
But the festival’s efforts have been met with skepticism by some artists, audience members and commentators, who see the campaign as mere publicity and say it will do little to address systemic disparities in the industry. And others say the festival should focus on art, not social issues.
“This type of public relations can alienate the natural audience of this festival,” said Rodrigo Carrizo Couto, a freelance journalist based in Switzerland. “Why are we doing this? Why are we following some kind of California curriculum?”
Since the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the ensuing wave of Black Lives Matter protests, orchestras have come under pressure to appoint more women and minority artists as music directors; opera companies have been called upon to program more works by forgotten composers; and performing arts organizations have been criticized for not moving quickly enough to recruit leaders of color. Some groups have been exposed for using dark make-up in productions of operas like “Aida”, long after the racist caricatures had disappeared from many stages.
In Lucerne, the debate on equity and inclusion was particularly heated. The festival’s board of directors is made up mostly of white men. His orchestra includes 81 men and 31 women; only two musicians represent minority ethnic groups.
Haefliger said he started thinking before the pandemic about ways the festival could use its platform to shed light on issues of racism and sexism in the industry – inspired by the 2016 festival theme, “PrimaDonna”, which featured female conductors. He said he wanted to “break the ice” around discussions of race and gender.
“We are not a political organization,” he said. “But in a way, culture is also a social responsibility, and we are part of society.”
The idea of dedicating the festival this year to diversity quickly caused a setback in Switzerland.
Der Bund, a German-language newspaper in nearby Bern, published an article calling the theme “an affront”, saying that while it seemed well-intentioned, it could have the effect of giving guest artists the impression that they were only invited because of their skin color. .
Although this year’s festival, which runs until mid-September, will feature regulars like the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, there are plenty of newcomers. All of the soloists making their debuts this year, including trumpeter Aaron Akugbo, violinist Randall Goosby and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, are people of color. Several renowned artists of color will also be in attendance, including cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, sopranos Golda Schultz and Angel Blue, and composer Tyshawn Sorey. As part of the pre-festival lineup, Ilumina, an ensemble of young South American musicians, performed works by Schubert, Bach, Villa-Lobos and others.
Particular emphasis will be placed on the music of black composers; 16 will be presented during the festival. During the red carpet opening on Friday, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is also part of the Lucerne board, performed a concerto by Joseph Boulogne, a black composer born in the 18th century.
Some musicians have expressed satisfaction that Lucerne leaders are tackling representational issues head-on. Still, they said it was too early to judge the success of the effort and that the festival could demonstrate its sincerity by inviting performers and composers of color back in the future.
“I don’t believe we should embrace diversity as a buzzword,” said Schultz, who will sing a recital at the festival and appear in a semi-stage production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” “I appreciate their willingness to tackle these issues. Someone has to take a risk, and it won’t be perfect.
Gerard Aimontche, a pianist of African and Russian descent who performed ahead of the festival this week, said it was important to make a special effort to feature black and Latino artists, given the lack of diversity on the best stages in the world. Still, he added that he yearned for the day when it would no longer be necessary to use terms like “diversity” at a festival.
“Right now you have to provide a special introduction because otherwise no one would ever know us,” he said. “But hopefully in 50 years it will be different. Even though the whole orchestra is made up of people of color, we’ll just be another orchestra, and people will come like they do to hear any another orchestra.
On Tuesday evening, the main concert hall in Lucerne was filled with the sounds of Chineke! Junior Orchestra, which performed pieces by black composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Stewart Goodyear, as well as a symphony by Tchaikovsky. The auditorium was not full, but the orchestra was warmly welcomed, with whistles and cries of “Bravo!” »
During the rehearsal, Venezuelan conductor Glass Marcano, who was conducting the concert, told the orchestra musicians that performing in Lucerne was a special occasion. She took selfies with the orchestra and assured the musicians that they would be up to it.
In an interview, Marcano said that classical music would only thrive if it welcomed a wide range of voices.
“We present classical music in all its richness and diversity,” she said. “From now on, this should be considered normal.”