Disclaimer, of sorts...

I blew off so much indignation in my last blog post that I felt weakened by the experience of having written it.  Les fortes émotions, to use a French term,  are exhausting.  What could be more exhausting than emotional fatigue?  So, basically, food for thought this time around.

I had the great pleasure of attending the Oakland East Bay Symphony's final concert of the season last Friday, May 3.  I came away feeling as though I had gotten considerably more than my money's worth (tickets were donated by a dear friend).  Joking aside, it was an evening of seemingly disparate musical adventures lacking a central theme.  Highlights for me were the countertenor, William Sauerland, who performed the alto voice in Bach's Magnificat in D Major, and Terrence Wilson, the pianist in Beethoven's powerhouse 5th Concerto in E flat Major, dubbed the "Emperor Concerto".  I might add that my daughter, my companion for the evening, particularly enjoyed the Pacific Boychoir as well.  Sauerland was a rare treat for me, as it also reminded me of the prominence castrati used to enjoy back in J. S. Bach's time.  Wilson's performance was simply stunning.  I've always enjoyed the shear power and magnitude of the first and third movements of this concerto.  However, his interpretation of the Adagio, so deeply contrasted, moved me more than any I've heard.  Played with sensitivity and intelligence, my eyes sometimes closed, sometimes wandered to the ceiling in order to savor the full beauty of his rendition.  

This blog post is not, however, a review of the musical event, as I am not a music critic.  I'm at best an amateur musician who knows what she enjoys musically.  For a decent and on point critical review, I refer you to Joshua Kosman's insightful article published on SF Gate's website.

The matter causing concern:

I'm so accustomed to seeing a sea of white faces both on stage and in the audience at a symphony concert that I've become desensitized to the experience.  It took a while for my consciousness to adjust—time to read the program and put a few cough drops in my jacket pocket for quick retrieval.  After my awareness adjusted to its environment, as when one walks into a dark movie theater from the brightly lit lobby...or, vice versa, from a place of total darkness into the blinding light of a bright sun, a sadness swept over me.  As the auditorium filled with symphony goers—many of retirement age and a representative number in wheelchairs or otherwise assisted—and the performance area filled with musicians and choristers, the lack of people of color became glaringly apparent.  Even if, evidently, the Pacific Boychoir, founded and based in Oakland, has members of various ethnicities, they, as far as I could tell, did not appear on stage to perform.  

Initially I thought it was an interesting situation—the only African Americans on the program (unless I overlooked someone, which is highly likely from the wonderful orchestra seats just seven rows from the stage) were among the principles: Michael Morgan, OEBS' illustrious director; Shawnette Sulker, soprano soloist with the Bach Magnificat, and Terrence Wilson.
Until I recalled that similar scenarios existed back in the day when the entertainers were often African American (i.e., Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.) and the audience exclusively European American—I'm making an effort to move away from the term 'white' because it is meaningless outside a politico-social construct and doesn't exist without its counterpart, 'black', much like there is no 'good' without 'evil', no 'up' without 'down', all relative opposites on a dichotomous scale; there is no gene for 'white' which isn't even technically a color, but rather a poor showing of melanin which is spoken for in our DNA—because African Americans were not allowed in the audience and, after performing, had to leave the room or lounge or the concert halls entering and exiting through the back doors when they did so.  

So there is no question that African Americans have been 'allowed' to entertain European Americans (this will take some getting used to because the 'punch' [=tension] is gone—in a 'black' person's mouth, the word 'white' can often feel loaded with meaning sometimes intentional and sometimes not that centuries of institutionalized then de facto slavery [=segregation and Jim Crow] caused to evolve) for a long time as long as it didn't offend, for example, European women's sensibilities (Little Richard was forbidden to gyrate in front of them but it was okay for Elvis Presley).

We are in Oakland, California.  Oakland might very well be the most ethnically diverse city in the country. In 2010, according to the Census, Oakland was 34.5% "white" (up from 31.3% in 2000) and 28.0% "black or African American" (down from 35.7% in 2000).  These are interesting statistics in and of themselves (that's another blog post).  The remaining 37.5% is spread among other ethnicities.

I realize it is not realistic to expect the ethnic makeup of the orchestra and the boys' choir to reflect the ethnic makeup of Oakland; there is no requirement that they hail from Oakland to be members of those organizations.  Nor should there be.  Opportunity should be for all.  The percentage of guest artists came close to expectations: three European Americans and two African Americans (60% and 40%).  But, excluding Maestro Morgan, even if there were two or three African Americans in an orchestra of at least eighty musicians, that figure would not even match the ethnic percentage of African Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area (roughly 6.5%).  

Obviously, circumstances are different now than they were in first half of last century and prior. No one is prevented from attending any public event where one pays an admission to be entertained, be it in sports or in the arts.  It can be expensive to attend the symphony in a non nose-bleed section.  So sometimes certain groups of individuals are priced out of the pleasure of attending.  I was told quite recently that when you watch basketball on television, when the camera pans the spectator stands, the faces are nearly exclusively European American, shocking when you consider how much African Americans love and participate in the sport.  The tickets are far more expensive (yet another blog post) than the symphony or opera unless you don't mind lugging around a pair of binoculars and a box of Kleenex.

As I watched the performance the other night I couldn't help but be distracted by the absence of people of color in the Boychoir (I didn't even see any Asians), and among the orchestra members (that I could discern, though there were very likely Asian members).  But that doesn't matter.  What does matter is the overall impact.  The effect was great enough to leave me wondering about the many historical and social issues that would lead to such an outcome and have me scratching my head when it was over after what had been a delightfully fulfilling evening of music-making.  


Angela M Wellman
05/08/2013 14:10

Well, Miss Brenda, I find myself looking forward to your weekly bloggons. Being a musician, music educator and activist, this one had me particularly piqued my interest. The palpable absence of African Americans is painful. I was in the library yesterday, a music library I might add, and noticed something I experience pretty much EVERY time I have entered that space since arriving at this university nearly 4 years ago: I am ALWAYS the only ebony-hued person in there. The short response to this is one word: desegregation and its aftermath. I won't take the time to go into it here, but I do want to thank you for this post. It keeps me on my journey to do what I can to ensure that ebony, chocolate, cafe con leche colored bodies populate orchestras and the halls in which they perform. We gotta keep our eyes on the prize and hold on just a little bit longer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGiPA6Zvvic

05/08/2013 15:31

This same challenge exists with the Oakland Symphony Chorus that I've had the wonderful experience of participating with as a member. Here, again, the director is African American, Dr. Lynne Morrow. I point out, however, that although there are actually African American bodies to be counted - more women than men - it still constitutes a glaring paucity. Thank you for reading and for your comments. They help me understand.

Crystal Carpino
05/08/2013 23:00

I, too, was struck by the lack of color at the symphony. Somehow, it manages to taper the enjoyment... Not much, but just enough to notice, and of course only when you think about it. But, how can you not? All people love music, and this particular venue seems to me very accessible to all Oakland residents. Perhaps it's a culmination of many factors that lead to a monotone set of performers and music-goers, and perhaps it's just up to us to keep the variety on deck at the symphony. Very personal post for you, and, as always, I loved it.

05/09/2013 00:11

Yes, I would agree that everyone has to come together in order for change to come about. The problem is so pervasive and systemic that some become desensitized, others overwhelmed, and still others unaware for lack of exposure and awareness and, unfortunately, sometimes a lack of interest. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond!


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