Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington

Singing For Your Supper or Fiddling While Rome Burns

When it comes to playing politics, classical musicians are simply bush league compared to the rock world. This is, of course, not universal. Brazilian pianist João Carlos Martins was able to capitalize on his international acclaim in both business and political arenas (including serving a term as the minister of culture for Sao Paolo state) and Israeli pianist David Bar-Ilan is much more famous for his syndicated newspaper column and connections to former Likud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu than he ever was for his musicianship. But political musicians tend to come from politicized countries, where stability is a luxury and not a way of life. Truth is, except for Tibet House champion Philip Glass (who’s arguably more of a rock star than a traditional composer) there are few classical musicians in this country running for office or going out on a limb for the rain forest.

To be fair, the reasons are deeply ingrained. “Everything that’s needed to keep a career vital has escalated,” says classical music publicist Mary Lou Falcone. “People travel more, the demands are greater, and people have little time for themselves, let alone their political causes.” And in terms of the financial position to pursue political issues, there’s also a considerable difference between even a well-off classical musician’s paycheck and, say, Sting‘s.

But putting it in plainly financial terms misses a good deal of the argument. “Rock music may be more political, but it’s already been corrupted by its collusion with business,” says Bard College President Leon Botstein. “We’ve internalized all too quickly that we are marginal while Bob Dylan is politically important.”

Which, in other words, makes musicians pretty much like the rest of us. There are, of course exceptions. In 1998, New York flutist Don Hulbert ran for City Council, garnering 4 percent of the vote against Ronnie Eldridge. “Too often we as musicians are still living as if we are in an age of patronage and we wait for someone else to bestow something on us,” exclaims Hulbert. “I thought it was important for me to run given the real lack of alternative voices in politics these days. And being a performer helped me to be able to get on stage and say what I believed in.”

But many more musicians side with his fellow flutist Margaret Lancaster, whose own negative reactions to politics stems from hearing the two converge. “I try not to make political statements,” she says with some distaste. “I’ve heard many pieces blabber on with a political agenda where the musical content is severely lacking. I’m concerned with art, not agenda.” When art and politics merge, they do tend to negate each other. Also, the merger usually happens on the fringe, even further from the mainstream. Sure musicians can express themselves through their art, but who really cares?

For those with name recognition, though, people do care–particularly when their actions take on a political nature by circumstance. Contralto Marion Anderson became the Rosa Parks of the classical music world after being denied an appearance at Constitution Hall because of her race (which prompted Eleanor Roosevelt‘s resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution). When she did appear on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, her voice carried more resonance than it ever did before. Van Cliburn‘s win in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition was approached in political Gold only by the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team.

The Cold War may be over, but music still carries weight in terms of cultural exchange. Yo-Yo Ma, one of the few artists today with that kind of name recognition, in the midst of his Silk Road Project, a massive cultural exchange of performers and composers in Europe and Asia which seems designed to make China feel historically connected to the rest of the world rather than simply a monolithic entity. Though the Silk Road Project is artistic first and foremost, its support has come from the Soros Foundation, the Trust for Mutual Understanding and the Asian Cultural Council. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra‘s pioneering tour of Vietnam in 1998, though sponsored by Toyota, got a political nod from Washington. Pianist Byron Janis became one of the first classical musicians to head to Havana once the U.S-Cuban embargo was eased.

It is away from their music, though, where performers have traditionally had the most results. Last month Carnegie Hall celebrated the 80th birthday of violinist Isaac Stern, its exhibition of memorabilia in the Rose Museum dedicating an entire wall to his political activities. Beyond saving Carnegie Hall from destruction in the mid-’50s (which the exhibit claims helped lead to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee), Stern’s political life included helping to shape the National Council on the Arts in the mid-’60s and as a cultural spokesman in Israel, the Soviet Union, and China (captured famously in the Academy Award-winning documentary From Mao to Mozart).

“Nothing in my life had prepared me for the fight to save Carnegie Hall,” an enlarged quote from Stern hovers on the wall. “I was a musician…I had no idea where my sudden ability to deal with politicians, lobbyists and financiers had come from.” And like Stern, many musicians don’t step up to the political plate until they feel challenged. The AIDS crisis has brought forth Classical Action, Charles Hamlen‘s fund-raising organization to which artists such as André Watts contribute sizable portions of their earnings. Classical musicians have joined with visual artists and punk rockers in their fight to keep affordable housing in San Francisco, where the new dot.conomy has driven rends up fourfold in the past few years.

For those Bay Area artists, the political issue is maintaining the arts as a vital part of the city’s life and identity. For others, music has provided a metaphor that help shapes their political views. Though Orpheus’s origins were artistic rather than political, its collective decision to play without a conductor quickly took on a political veneer.

“What Orpheus points out is that there’s no way the average listener can really tell what the conductor does,” says longtime Orpheus violinist Ronnie Bauch. “What’s interesting is that they’ll credit the conductor for a good performance and blame the orchestra for a bad performance. But from inside, we know there’s no way to know who’s responsible for anything. Both the Democratic administration and the Republican Congress are taking credit for the economy, and again, nobody knows who’s really responsible.

“For me, what this points out in a election year is we’re still connected to the star system,” he adds. “We’re looking for leaders who are all things to all people–inspirational, charismatic, great managers–and all that does is weaken the system. The more we rely on one individual to carry us through, the less we rely on society. Democracy works best when the most people are involved.”

From Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington
by Ken Smith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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