The Lucerne Festival’s Push for Diversity Stirs Debate

Lucerne, Switzerland — One of the major events in classical music, the Lucerne Festival has long had a reputation for exclusivity.

For much of the event’s 84-year history, women and people of color have struggled to have a voice on stage. The audience remained overwhelmingly white and wealthy.

But the festival, which officially kicks off on Friday this summer, is attempting to remake that image, programming the season with an emphasis on diversity. A series of concerts featuring black and Latinx artists as well as women.

“It doesn’t have to be radical, but it has to be conscious,” said Michael Haefliger, the festival’s executive and artistic director, in an interview. “We should have this feeling of shaking the ground a little bit, realizing that we’ve been excluding certain segments of the masses for so long.”

This effort is part of a broader effort to address serious racial and gender differences in classical music, where women and people of color are still underrepresented among performers, conductors, composers and administrators. It’s part of it.

“This is a big step towards spotlighting issues in our field,” said Tineke! The Orchestra is a British ensemble of mostly colored musicians to be featured in Lucerne this year. “A lot of the classical music we’re proud of today was inspired by black artists, black musicians and black composers. But we haven’t heard that side of the story.”

Lucerne’s leaders hope that the focus on diversity will encourage discussion of racism, sexism and exclusion across classical music. They tried to get the public’s attention, but with mixed success. A series of talks related to this subject have been added to the agenda. Black artists of classical music! Marketing His campaign features an assortment of chess pieces reimagined for the age of inclusivity. It’s Zebra-Striped Bishop, a knight reincarnated as a purple unicorn.

However, the festival’s efforts have been met with skepticism by some artists, audience members and commentators.

Switzerland-based freelance journalist Rodrigo Carrizo Couto said: “This kind of PR can alienate the intended audience of this festival. “Why are we doing this? Why are we following some sort of California agenda?”

Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed, orchestras have come under pressure to appoint more women and minority artists as musical directors. Opera companies are being asked to program more works by overlooked composers. Also, performing arts organizations have been criticized for not moving fast enough to recruit leaders of people of color. The group has been accused of forcing performers to use heavy makeup in performances of operas such as “Aida.”

In Lucerne, the debate on equity and inclusiveness was particularly heated. The festival board is made up primarily of white men. That orchestra includes his 81 men and his 31 women. He is the only two musicians who represent ethnic minority groups.

Inspired by the 2016 festival’s theme, “Prima Donna,” featuring a female conductor, Haefliger said the festival will use its platform to shed light on issues of racism and sexism across the industry. He said he started thinking about how to hit before the pandemic. He said he wants to “break the ice” on the race and gender debate.

“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 this year’s festival to diversity caused an immediate backlash in Switzerland.

The German-language newspaper Der Bund in nearby Bern ran an article calling the subject an “insult”, which seemed well-meaning but made guest artists feel invited only because of their skin color. said it might work. .

Regular performers such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berliner Philharmoniker will perform at this year’s music festival, which will be held until mid-September, but there will also be many newcomers. All soloists debuting this year are people of color, including trumpeter Aaron Akgbo, violinist Randall Gooseby, and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen. Prominent artists of color will also participate, including cellist Shek Kane-Mason, sopranos Golda Schultz and Angel Blue, and composer Tyshawn Srey. As part of the pre-festival program, Illumina, an ensemble of young South American musicians, performed works by Schubert, Bach, Villa-Lobos and others.

Special emphasis is placed on music by black composers. 16 works will appear during the exhibition. At the opening of Friday’s red carpet, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is also on the Board of Lucerne, performed a concerto by 18th-century black composer Joseph Boulogne.

Some musicians said they were happy that Lucerne’s leaders were tackling the issue of representation rights head-on. They said that by inviting back performers and composers of color to the festival, the festival can demonstrate its integrity.

“I don’t think diversity should be a buzzword,” said Schultz, who sings recitals at festivals and appears in a semi-stage production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” “I appreciate their willingness to work on these issues. Someone has to take the risk and it won’t be perfect.”

African-Russian pianist Gerard Amonche, who played for this week’s festival, made a special effort to feature black and Latino artists given the lack of diversity on the world’s top stages. Still, he added that he longs for the day when festivals no longer need to use words like “diversity”.

“For now, we have to do a special introduction, because otherwise no one will know us,” he said. “But I hope that in 50 years it will be different. will come.”

On Tuesday night, Lucerne’s main concert hall was filled with the sound of Cineke. A junior orchestra that performed works by black composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Stewart Goodyear, and Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. The auditorium was not full, but the orchestra was warmly received with whistles and shouts of “Bravo!”

During rehearsals, Venezuelan conductor Gras Marcano, who led the concert, told the orchestra players that playing in Lucerne was a special occasion. We promised to rise to the occasion.

In an interview, Marcano said that classical music only thrives when it welcomes 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.”

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