As usual, Molly Sheridan’s excellent Mind the Gap brought us a genuinely fascinating tidbit last week: The DC Philharmonic is getting started. This brand new orchestra promises to bring the classics to our nation’s capitol by appealing particularly to “educated upper middle class African American income,” a survival strategy that’s nothing if not novel. In fact, my head’s been spinning since I read this news; I just don’t know what to think.
On the one hand: More concert music is unquestionably a good thing, especially for a city like Washington that lags a bit behind comparable metropolitan areas in this regard. What’s even better is that conductor John Baltimore is aiming to invest African Americans, a group by and large historically disengaged from classical music, in his orchestra. This could signal the beginning of a new era for African Americans in the field of concert music. And Baltimore has identified and seized an auspicious time to make his move: In a recent Washington Post article, he comes off as a very savvy businessman; one has the impression that he possesses the drive and acumen to get the project off the ground. The conspicuous shortage of African Americans in American concert music (q.v. Taking Note!) has been a real blot on our escutcheon for a long time. The possibility that Baltimore could expunge that stain is tremendously exciting.
On the other hand: The entire purpose of this orchestra seems to be the legitimation of wealth and the acquisition of cultural capital to facilitate and ratify upward social mobility. Classical music will be mined for its old-world high-art ore. The high-earning African American community in D.C. needs a ritual, an opportunity to see and be seen, worthy of its financial and political stature, and John Baltimore has just the prescription: Barber, Mahler, and Michael Torke. He refers to his intended audience as a demographic, for Christ’s sake. Everyone who entertains the notion, even fleetingly, that the DC Philharmonic will program any adventurous or non-affirmatory music whatsoever, please raise your hand. I thought so.
The Mahler “Resurrection” symphony is a great piece, no question, and “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is not without merit either. Obviously, it’s not incumbent upon John Baltimore to demonstrate to me that he’s embarking on this ambitious and high-stakes venture for reasons that I’d consider culturally ethical; maybe he believes wholeheartedly that Michael Torke has something vital and unflinching to say about contemporary life, and that his Washingtonian listeners absolutely need to hear it. But Mahler offers a much shinier gold foil stamp than Xenakis, Takemitsu, or Ruth Crawford Seeger, to name a few relatively well-known composers that would have passed my ideological smell test, let alone the eminently commissionable Pulitzer Prize winner Ornette Coleman. Perhaps I’m just being wary.
I think Baltimore’s demographic will be sharp enough to gauge the integrity and authenticity of his programming for themselves. They’ll render Baltimore a verdict with a dollar sign in front of it, a verdict to which—whatever it is—I’m happy to defer.