Shostakovitch, Symphonies, and Sexism


Tim Andrews goes to the Symphony, and comes back with an important political lesson on affirmative action…

With all the discussion about feminism upon Menzies House today, I thought I would share a personal story.

A few weeks ago, I attended a performance of Shostakovitch's 5th Symphony, performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. To those of you who are unaware, Shostakovitch's 5th is a particularly interesting composition; written at a time when Shostakovitch was in fear for his life after the Stalinist regime had threatened that, if his musical style did not change and adapt to the dogmatic mantra of the communist state, he would disappear never to be heard from again. It is a masterpiece of musical irony; externally it follows the formula Stalin laid down to the letter, but it is now fairly unanimously conceded by critics that, at a deeper level, the 5th ironically parodies 'Soviet realism' to the point of grotesqueness.

Obviously, with such a subversive piece, the musical vision of the conductor is vital. Which is why I was so devastated by the desecration performed by Marin Alsop, the Musical Director of the BSO who conducted the performance I saw. It is difficult to know where to begin critiquing: her inability to rouse a technically highly proficient orchestra into creating good music, her inability to engage with the essence and transform it into something great, the fact that she seemed to do little more than dance around on stage with exaggerated gestures which were totally ignored by the orchestra, (which just did their own thing), or the fact that on the one or two occasions she actually tried to keep a beat she was noticeably out of sync with the orchestra (which was quite comic, really).

So, those of you who are still reading this post are now doubt asking yourselves: why on earth is Tim droning on about attending some symphony? This is a political blog, not one about musical criticism! Just what is he doing? And, after all, I certainly concede that, simply as an amateur music lover with little practical experience in the world of music outside of 15 odd years of piano lessons, and performing as a (not particularly good) second violin in my high school's Symphony Orchestra, I am hardly qualified to pontificate extensively about musical criticism. Yet I write this post not only because the travesty that occured was so obvious anyone and everyone could see it. Rather, the reason I am writing this here is simple: it's all about politics. And affirmitive action. 

See, such was my fury at the sacrilege against good taste that had occured, that I decided to google Marin Alsop to see just who she was. I mean, how could someone with far less musical ability than my old High School Symphony conductor (heck, my primary school condoctor even) conduct a major Symphony orchestra, one which, in the past at least, had an rather good international reputation? 

The answer? Feminist Politics. Of the crassest kind. Allow me to quote from the Washington Post from just before her appointment (emphasis mine):

A letter dated April 21 from Anthony S. Brandon, a board member who has been outspoken in his opposition to Alsop's appointment, to Philip English, the chairman of the BSO board, is specific. It was drafted with the help of other board members, with input from a number of musicians, and copies have circulated freely in circles close to the BSO….

"The overriding justification for eliminating Alsop is that 90 percent of the BSO musicians oppose her appointment, the letter states. In her appearances with the orchestra, the players say, Alsop has not produced inspired and nuanced performances of standard classical repertory. They cite "dull," even "substandard," performances of Brahms's Symphony No. 3, Mendelssohn's music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2.

"They say that she either does not hear problems or — because her technical limitations prevent her from fixing them — that she ignores them. Her musical sense is inhibited by her own lack of depth as a musician and she becomes frustrated when what she hears in her head does not come out from the players. Upon finding something wanting in rehearsal, she responds with vagaries such as "I'm not feeling it" (Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream") or exhorts them with abstractions such as "make magic" (Brahms's Symphony No. 3).

"When an orchestra believes it is being pushed by unmusical ideas, tempos and phrasing and being told that the orchestra itself lacks imagination, musicians feel they are dealing with a conductor who lacks ideas, conviction and technical skill." 

Indeed, in something quite unprecedented, "the seven musicians who served on the search committee released a statement over the weekend asking the board to extend and broaden its search." So, all the actual musicians on the board opposed her, yet bureaucrats supported her. Hmm… Ok… 

So, what happened when she was appointed? How did the musicians react? The Washington Post says more:

The announcement was greeted with general silence, according to Ellen Orner, a violinist in the BSO who says she's an Alsop supporter. It was seriously taken. Musicians then filed out of the building, some of them smiling, some of them wistful, a few of them apparently fighting back tears. "We've been told not to talk" one woman whispered as she pushed through a group of reporters and photographers out into the steamy afternoon heat.

So, why on earth was someone with a clear lack of talent, a clear lack of musical ability, and a person opposed steadfastly by every musician she would have to work with – to the point they were in tears upon being told her her appointment - given the job?

The selection of Marin Alsop to be principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony–the first woman to hold such a post with a major American orchestra–should be hailed as an occasion for music lovers and feminists everywhere to rejoice.

I see. The BSO Board wanted to have the first ever female conductor. I see.

Well, she is a "a feminist mover and shaker" after all, so I suppose that in this brave new world of ours, that more than makes up for her total, absolute, and utter lack of talent. And, I guess, that this is the world that politicians like Joe Hockey want us to move into – a world where merit is supressed, and gender stereotypes are promoted. A world where talent and competance is, apparently, nowere to be seen…

At least the French Horn solo was good. 

Tim Andrews is an amateur music lover, and Managing Editor of Menzies House.