Basie or Beethoven

GLENN McNATT

November 28, 1992|By GLENN McNATT

Last month a spirited debate unfolded in the pages of th New York Times Arts and Leisure Section on the subject of blacks and classical music.

In an October 11 article about the hurdles faced by black conductors, writer K. Robert Schwarz lamented the small number of black musicians and listeners to be seen at most symphony orchestra concerts.

A few weeks later, Bernard Holland responded with a piece entitled ''Who Wants Only 'Tosca' At Bedtime?'' -- the gist of which was that black people don't show up because they've got better things to do.

Mr. Holland's point was that blacks, having created the foundations of American popular music, need make no apology for preferring Basie to Beethoven.

''If I am proprietor of one of the world's more sophisticated musical cultures -- and certainly its most influential -- should I regret not sitting at the back of a symphony orchestra, wearing a funny black suit and counting rests?'' he asks.

Well, of course not. But obviously there's more to it than that.

What makes the debate of more than passing interest is that the fate of America's symphony orchestras is intimately tied up with the question of who listens to the classics.

As orchestras increasingly rely on public funding from local and state governments to balance their budgets, they have come under pressure to reflect the communities that support them. So diversity in classical music has become a political as well as an artistic imperative.

To some extent, this is a dilemma shared by all the arts. In Baltimore, for example, most of the major cultural institutions, including the symphony, have established vigorous outreach programs to attract minority audiences.

Generally they have found that such programs can be highly successful if they are marketed properly and presented in a way that makes people feel comfortable.

Still, that is only part of the problem. More worrisome is the unstated assumption underlying Mr. Holland's comments, that blacks don't attend classical music concerts because to do so would somehow imply a higher regard for European art music than for the products of their own musical tradition.

Although both a logical and aesthetic non sequitur, this attitude is fairly widespread, I suspect. Perhaps it is understandable as a kind of psychic defense mechanism, especially given this country's history of callous treatment toward black artists and their accomplishments.

But the notion that a liking for classical music somehow makes one a traitor to one's race still strikes me as wrong-headed, and probably all the more damaging for being largely unconscious.

No one should presume to dictate in matters so personal as musical taste, of course. But there's plenty of evidence that the current flowering of classical talent -- from singers like Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle to Baltimore's own Awadagin Pratt, the first African-American pianist to win the prestigious Naumburg Competition for young artists -- has deep roots in the black experience.

Historically, most of the great creators of jazz were themselves trained in the classical tradition and might well have pursued concert careers had they not been barred because of their race.

A recent article in one of the musicological journals, for example, related in fascinating detail the classical influences that shaped the playing of trumpeter Louis Armstrong, whose models included the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and the soprano Luisa Tetrazzini.

Miles Davis attended the Juilliard School in New York, as did Wynton Marsalis, who today performs comfortably in both the classical and jazz idioms.

I cite these instances as evidence of the long-standing interest in classical music among blacks despite the fact that for much of this century they were barred by bigotry from participating in the tradition as performers or as members of concert audiences. Now that most of those barriers have come down I expect them to give increasingly full expression to what has been an abiding love of the classics.

That is why the outreach efforts of local symphonies and opera companies are so important -- and why it seems perverse to suggest that blacks should feel guilty for taking advantage of such opportunities.

The arts, after all, ought to be a means for bringing people together, not dividing them. Of course, most people ultimately may still find they prefer Basie to Beethoven, or vice versa. That's OK. It's just as certain there will always be plenty of others who cheerfully love both -- as I do.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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