Lucerne Festival’s push for diversity sparks debate

LUCERNE, Switzerland — The Lucerne Festival here is one of the most important events in classical music and has long been known for its exclusivity.

For most of the event’s 84-year history, women and people of color have been hard to hear on stage, while the audience remains overwhelmingly white and wealthy.

But this summer, the festival, which officially kicks off on Friday, is trying to reshape its image, arranging its seasons with an emphasis on diversity: a series of concerts featuring Black and Latino artists and women.

“We don’t have to be radical, but we should be aware of it,” Michael Haifliger, the festival’s executive and artistic director, said in an interview. “We should have this feeling a little shaken, realizing that we’ve been excluding a section of the public for so long.”

The effort is part of a broader effort to address deep racial and gender disparities in classical music, a field where women and people of color remain underrepresented among performers, conductors, composers and administrators.

Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder and leader of Chineke, said: “This is a huge step towards focusing on issues in our field!” Lucerne show. “A lot of the classical music we are proud of today was inspired by black artists, black musicians and black composers. But we don’t hear that side of the story.”

Leaders in Lucerne hope the focus on diversity will help foster discussions about racism, sexism and exclusion in classical music. They have tried to grab the public’s attention, with varying degrees of success. A series of talks related to the topic have been added to the agenda, including the most recent one titled: “Seeing Is Believing? Black Artists in Classical Music!” Chess Pieces: A knight reborn as a purple unicorn, a bishop with zebra stripes.

But some artists, audience members and commentators are skeptical of the festival’s efforts, arguing the push is mere propaganda and saying it will do little to address the industry’s systemic disparities. Others say that the focus of the festival should be on the arts, not social issues.

“This kind of PR could alienate the festival’s natural audience,” said Rodrigo Carrizo Couto, a freelance journalist based in Switzerland. “Why are we doing this? Why are we following some kind of California agenda?”

Since the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed, the orchestra has faced pressure to appoint more women and minority artists as music directors; Opera companies face calls to produce more works by neglected composers; performing arts organizations have been criticized for not moving fast enough to recruit leaders of color. Long after racist cartoons disappeared from many stages, some groups have been condemned for having performers use dark makeup in the production of operas such as Aida.

In Lucerne, the debate on equity and inclusion is particularly intense. The festival’s board is made up of mostly white people. Its ensemble consists of 81 men and 31 women; only two musicians represent minorities.

Before the pandemic, Haefliger said he had started thinking about how festivals could use their platforms to shed light on racism and sexism across the industry — inspired by the festival’s 2016 theme “PrimaDonna,” which featured women Conductor features. He said he wanted to “break the ice” around race and gender discussions.

“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 quickly sparked a backlash in Switzerland.

The Der Bund, a German-language newspaper near Bern, published an article calling the subject “an insult”, saying that while it seemed well-intentioned, it could have the effect of making guest artists feel like they were invited only because their skin color.

This year’s festival runs until mid-September, and while regulars like the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic will be at the festival, there are plenty of newcomers too. All of the soloists making their debut this year, including trumpeter Aaron Akugbo, violinist Randall Goosby and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, are people of color. Several well-known artists of color will also participate, including cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, sopranos Golda Schultz and Angel Blue, and composer Tyshawn Sorey. As part of the pre-festival programme, Ilumina, a group of young South American musicians, performed works by Schubert, Bach, Villa-Robles and more.

There will be a special emphasis on the music of black composers; 16 will be on display during the festival. On Friday’s red carpet opening, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is also a member of Lucerne’s board of directors, played a concerto by Joseph Boulogne, a black composer born in the 18th century.

Some musicians said they were glad Lucerne’s leaders were addressing the issue of representation head-on. However, they said it was too early to tell whether the effort was a success and that the festival could show its sincerity by inviting performers and composers of color in the future.

“I don’t think we should have diversity as a buzzword,” said Schultz, who will perform a recital at the festival and appear in a semi-stage production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” middle. “I appreciate their willingness to solve these problems. Someone has to take a risk, and it’s not going to be perfect.”

Gerard Aimontche, a pianist of African and Russian descent who performed on the eve of this week’s festival, said it was important to make 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 a day when terms like “diversity” will no longer be used in festivals.

“Right now, you have to give a special introduction, otherwise no one will ever know about us,” he said. “But I hope 50 years from now things will be different. Even if the entire orchestra is made up of people of color, we’re going to be just another orchestra and people will come and listen to any other orchestra like they would.”

On Tuesday night, the main concert hall in Lucerne was filled with the sound of Chineke! The Junior Orchestra performed works by black composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Stuart Goodyear, as well as Tchaikovsky symphonies.The auditorium was packed, but the orchestra received a warm welcome, whistles and “Bravo!”

During the rehearsal, the Venezuelan conductor Glass Marcano, who conducted the concert, told the orchestra’s players that performing in Lucerne was a special opportunity. She posed for a photo with the orchestra and assured the musicians that they would come forward.

In an interview, Marcano said that classical music thrives only when it welcomes a wide range of voices.

“We are showing the richness and diversity of classical music,” she said. “From now on, this should be considered normal.”

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