As it turns out, you talk to your parent Music Booster club, order discounted tickets from Carnegie Hall’s website, and get on a yellow school bus quite early on a Sunday morning!
That is what we, the Brewster High School Chamber Orchestra (and friends from Symphonic Strings) did today as a break from Shrek and other March-related craziness. I have wanted to take the Chamber Orchestra to see the New York Youth Symphony for a couple years now, and so I was thrilled to find out that not only was the ensemble being conducted by one of my friends from college, but that I also knew the soloist! Some of my students recognized JD from when he came to conduct the Zone 10 NYSSMA Area-All State Orchestra up in Taconic Hills, NY. Just last week, he was appointed as assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic.
I met Elena through JD almost ten years ago, and have never ceased to be amazed by her talent and spirit. If my students weren’t already excited to be at Carnegie Hall in New York City, they were dazzled by Elena’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. The program also featured the many talents of the student musicians who performed a very decent Scheherazade (that’s the best compliment you’ll get out of me for that piece. I ceased being a fan of Scheherazade long ago).
Unfortunately, the two pieces that were performed on the program paled in comparison to the whirlwind of discussion over the one piece that was omitted. In what began as an embarrassing revelation a week ago after a patron’s complaint, the programming choices of the New York Youth Symphony became the talk of the town — every town, from New York to Boston. Simply, the New York Youth Symphony gave a small performance of a work commissioned by NEC student Jonas Tarm after which they received an anonymous letter (signed “a Nazi Survivor”) complaining that works quoting the Nazi anthem “Horst Wessel” were not appropriate for a youth symphony. JD, unfamiliar with the hymn despite a Jewish background, was appalled and appealed to Tarm for clarification of his composition’s intention and meaning. Tarm said that his work had been explained in the program notes he provided and was unwilling to discuss the matter any further. Those program notes were a line from a T.S. Eliot poem:
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow.
“Given the lack of transparency and lack of parental consent to engage with this music, we could not continue to feature his work on the program,” was the statement given by NYYS. They had, in fact, censored their concert.
JD told me prior to today’s performance that it was a shame that Tarm couldn’t provide some explanation that would allow NYYS to perform his work without the fear that the music sanctioned, even in some small way, the atrocities of last century. In his opinion, the students seemed to like the piece, and it was well-written from theoretical and orchestration standards. But a performance by a youth orchestra in this way was not right.
Initially, I fully agreed with him. He knew the piece, the details of the interaction with the composer, the student musicians, and their families. He was the right person to make this “call,” and he was making the right decision.
Then, I read the sea of newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and blog posts and started to wonder about censorship and what that meant for music. Today, we play many pieces that were censored from groups of people at one time or another and wonder how such great art could be kept from people just because it offended someone else in some way. Is it ever right to censor music (explicit language in popular music aside)? If a conductor who spent his life studying music and exploring his heritage wasn’t offended by the work, who is he to say that his students will be more insightful or more at-risk?
I thought about this for a while and considered whether my support of the decision to omit was justified on ethical grounds or if I just felt allegiance to my friend. I talked to some of the student musicians, one of whom was a student of mine many years ago, and they echoed the same conflicts. But what I heard most was that they felt as if they had been tricked into playing something they might have objected to given all the facts. I had once sat in their seats and knew the long history that NYYS has with young composers, some good, some bad, some excellent, some terrible. In all of my experiences, the composers spent a significant amount of time with the students helping them to play and interpret their work. Rarely was a composer succinct in their descriptions of inspiration and motive. That Tarm was so guarded about his process and creation makes me think that he had something to guard.
In the end, I heard a fantastic concert and have no complaints. Censorship has a time and place, and often those times and places have everything to do with age. I censor my language around my students because I don’t think it is appropriate to say some words in their presence, even if those words are common vocabulary to both parties. Movies and television shows are censored for their content, and even activities (such as consuming alcohol) are censored for their adverse effects on young bodies. Adults are welcome to do many things as they please, including listening to and performing music that may be controversial or offensive to others. Putting music on a stand for students to perform without providing context or meaning and expecting them to play without reservation goes against the culture of learning that music educators and youth symphony directors work hard to establish. Rachel Susser puts it eloquently:
“Even though Tarm was making a conscious decision to not explicitly describe the piece in the program notes (which he claims is because he thinks the music should speak for itself), it is disrespectful to the orchestra’s members to expect them to parrot an anthem without being aware of its significance – even if the parroting is done in such a way as to problematize totalitarianism and violence, which I believe was Tarm’s intent. Even if a piece is not intended to be programmatic – if it is intended to be absolute music that is open to each individual’s interpretation – the explicit inclusion of symbolic content contradicts the attempt to eliminate all traces of concrete significance.”
In closing, I’d like to add a final answer to that age-old question. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice your instruments often; Practice your beliefs, customs, and morals in ways that help yourself and others; Practice loving, forgiving, and leading by example!
(My favorite blog post on this topic: http://fairyprincessdiaries.com/2015/03/07/the-wurst-decision-made-this-week-nyys/)