Woke or awakening?

Pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, the artistic directors of New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Music@Menlo festival in California, kindled a brushfire of sorts in a recent interview with The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández, in which Finckel responded to complaints that the society’s programming leans too heavily on the tried-and-true and offers too little exposure to contemporary music and previously marginalized composers.

“We never want to force people to listen to music that they don’t want to listen to because we think it’s good for them,” Finckel said:

To that and other comments from Han and Finckel, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman responds, “What is so damn terrifying about the possibility that exploring new and diverse musical sources — living composers, women, creators of color — might prove rewarding?”

Diversify the world of classical music? Some key players are digging in their heels

This back-and-forth is hardly new. In US orchestral circles, the tension between old and new, familiar and novel, dates back to the early 20th century, when Leopold Stokowski at the Philadelphia Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky at the Boston Symphony Orchestra provoked audiences with then-radical works by the likes of Alexander Scriabin, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky and the young (pre-“Americana”) Aaron Copland.

Today, the issue is the rather sudden inclusion of works by female, Black and Asian or Asian-American composers, many of whom have long deserved to be heard – where have Louise Farrenc and Florence Price been all our lives? – but whose emergence in concert programs alongside the #MeToo and racial-justice movements suggests trendy, defensively “woke” programming.

Is Valentina Peleggi, the Richmond Symphony’s music director, trendy/woke in conducting two works by the mid-20th century English composer Ruth Gipps alongside Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in this weekend’s Masterworks concerts?

Gipps’ music is not noticeably feminist (however that might find expression in a purely instrumental work) or radical by the standards of her time and place. Like her contemporaries Frank Bridge, William Walton and Benjamin Britten, Gipps stylistically occupied the shifting terrain between the English pastoralists (Vaughan Williams & Co.) and the spiky modernist Brits (Oliver Knussen, Harrison Birtwistle, et al.) who would emerge in the late 20th century. Gipps contrasts pretty sharply with Beethoven – but, then, so do others among the “circumscribed set of a dozen or so dead white European men” that Kosman finds emblematic of stuck-in-a-rut classical programming.

The real resistance to composers like Gipps is not that they represent marginalized groups but that they’re unknown to most listeners. The same sort of resistance might greet music by dead white European male contemporaries of Gipps – Bohuslav Martinů, say, or Mieczysław Weinberg.

Orchestras, opera companies, chamber groups and recitalists are playing catch-up in their programming today. That, too, isn’t new. It took a generation or two for classical music to admit now-familiar works by modern composers to the standard repertory, and several centuries to rediscover figures from the distant past such as Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Philippe Rameau and C.P.E. Bach. Long before woke was an epithet, performers and audiences were gradually (resistantly?) growing attuned to non-European composers such as Japan’s Toru Takemitsu and Argentina’s Alberto Ginastera – not to mention Americans not named Ives, Gershwin, Copland or Bernstein. That process will be ongoing as long as classical music is performed.

Does all of this long-unknown music measure up to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky? Of course not. Most music is mediocre or worse (including some Beethoven and Tchaikovsky), most obscure music from the past deserves its obscurity, and most of the music being premiered today is destined to be forgotten, often as soon as the next piece on the program is played.

The argument, essentially, is whether classical performers will be curators of historical greats – like museums devoted to past masters or, at lower elevation, “tribute” bands playing old rock songs in nightclubs or at pops concerts – or advocates for a living, evolving art form that plays the greatest hits but also looks to the future and explores neglected corners of the past.

For a little context, let’s time-travel back a century, to a program (archived at http://www.classical.net/music/guide/society/krs/programs/index.php) from the Concerts Koussevitzky series in Paris, presented on Nov. 24, 1921:

J.S. Bach: “Brandenburg” Concerto in G major (No. 3? No. 4? Not specified)
C.P.E. Bach: Concerto in D major for strings (arrangement by Maximilian Steinberg)
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major
Jacques Thibaud, violin
Ravel: “La Valse”
Mendelssohn: Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” incidental music
Prokofiev: “Scythian Suite”

Surely, many in that concert’s audience came to hear Thibaud play Beethoven and squirmed through the then-new Ravel and Prokofiev works, and not inconceivably through the then-obscure pieces by the Bachs.

Was Koussevitzky too . . . réveillé?