Classical music is not part of the American cultural landscape the way film and art are. But when musicians speak out about the political world they live in, the world still takes notice, and speaking out is, I think, what every musician of a certain stature ought to be doing. Otherwise, they're little more than robots who have mastered a skill in private, demonstrate that skill in public, and then return to their privacy. Two musicians exercised that duty this week.
Leon Fleisher had misgivings about going to a party at the White House after he received one of the 2007 Kennedy Center honors, and wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post explaining why it made him uncomfortable:
"In the past seven years, Bush administration policies have amounted to a systematic shredding of our nation's Constitution -- the illegal war it initiated and perpetuates; the torturing of prisoners; the espousing of 'values' that include a careful defense of the "rights" of embryos but show a profligate disregard for the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings; and the flagrant dismantling of environmental protections. These, among many other depressing policies, have left us weak and shamed at home and in the world."
It doesn't get much plainer than that. For that statement, he was greeted on Redstate.com with this post's subject line. Classy. Cut arts education so that everyone thinks like me! Can anyone not be mute with fear at such a proposal?
Lorin Maazel questioned the the U.S.'s claim to the right to criticize other countries prior to leading the New York Philharmonic's tour of Asia, with its stop in Pyongyang, North Korea:
"People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw bricks, should they? Is our standing as a country — the United States — is our reputation all that clean when it comes to prisoners and the way they are treated? Have we set an example that should be emulated all over the world? If we can answer that question honestly, I think we can then stop being judgmental about the errors made by others."
No matter how bad our history is, I think we're secure enough today to question the human rights abuses of North Korea, and I'd think someone who adapted 1984 into an opera would have something more trenchant to say about totalitarianism. But I'm glad he said it, because it thrusts classical music, with its abstract conveying of meaning and reputation for ivory-tower irrelevancy, into the public sphere. The music gains a richness in the eyes and ears of listeners, and no one can think that it's just a pile of sheet music, gathering dust.
(Welcome to the new DecSimp, which shies away from uncomfortable topics.)