The De-Risking of Western Classical Music

June 12th, 2020 § 18 comments

Dive In by Alanna Cavanagh. Used with Permission.


One of many issues with western classical music has been the gradual, but now pervasive de-risking of live performance. Today’s concert venue is not a place where we come to grapple with the unexpected or have our souls shaken to their very core. Your average symphony concert has become a figure skating exhibition. We collectively know, more or less, what is going to happen, which notes where and when, and how heartfelt or playful or just how impending this particular doom is. We know that we are witnessing something that is extraordinarily complex and difficult, we know that the people onstage have been training their whole lives for this, and we know the difference between sticking a landing and falling on your ass. That high-C coming up is a triple toe/triple axel combo and we will feel it all over, either way.

Pull back, and the range of outcomes, while microscopically infinite, are mostly pre-ordained and fall within a very narrow range.

“My, that Allegro was fast!”

“My, that Adagio was unbearably slow!”

It still is going to time out between 60-90 minutes with an intermission (because overtime), most of us will have the good sense to not clap in the messy bits (YOU WILL SOON LEARN THIS) and when we are bored we can mask it by glaring at candy unwrappers and iPhone lumiere-ists who we often secretly envy.

Because everyone must be paid, because banks and luxury cars need buyers, because we are so lazy and don’t want to watch anything that someone hasn’t already told us is wonderful (or at least that it really picks up in Season 2).

Because we can’t tolerate risk anymore.

Western classical music is supposed to be far more complicated than pop, but mind you don’t let it get too complicated. My litmus test: can you sing along with it, dance to it, or experience an enhancement to your chemically induced hallucinogenic state? Mild indifference is OK in mild doses, but strong negative reactions are a problem. Cracking open that door for new scales, new faces, new ideas is risky, and there is no room for risk anymore. Risk is a problem for box offices, for lonely luxury cars with lush leather interiors seeking drivers and, apparently, for people getting paid. Board man gets paid, or board man leaves town.

Like a proper glam rock band, the placecards stay in the same place with the same menu: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums and sometimes nerd on keys, but in this case 16/14/12/10/8, 3+picc, 3+cor ang, 3+bass, 3+contra – 4, 4, 3+bass, 1, timp, 3perc, 2hp, pf/cel+nerd plus the occasional glass harmonica or cimbalom. If you don’t know how to write for these instruments or if your parents didn’t hand the RCM and Freddy Harris 5-10k a year for lessons, summer programs, exam accompanists and valve oil, this stage is not for you. Even you can see that it is too risky. Risk is for the lenders to assess when string players max their LOC for a perfect piece of pernambuco.

The violinist Mark Fewer once commented that he no longer enjoys going to professional concerts, because he already knows what will happen; student concerts, on the other hand, are way more unpredictable and interesting. Instead of making music more cozy, shouldn’t we be making it more uncomfortable? That uncertainty, like the first time you hear a symphony orchestra, the moments of having my mind blown, or being provoked into anger for non-political reasons, shouldn’t we try for more of this? Risk consistency over risk management? Personally, I worry when I don’t really want it, when I don’t want my cultural feedings to involve struggle or pain or to leave me feeling stupid. By adding risk, you risk alienating your audience, or so goes the mantra of the prudent programmer.

The darker side of prudence, of fiscal common sense, is really dark. Every season there we celebrate a dead white male milestone – Beethoven’s 200th deathiversary (not yet), Mozart’s 275th Birthday (not yet), the 5th anniversary of the end of blackface in opera (not yet). The 1st anniversary of the TSO festival giving space to an IBPOC festival? Yeah. Giving space is risky. Yet, to paraphrase my colleague Neema Bickersteth, risk in the form of danger is what makes roller coasters fun, and risk in the form of faith is what gives value to believing in something bigger than yourself, and going out on a limb and creating art means trusting in something unknowable. De-risking art risks the art itself.


A touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton recently opened in Toronto, a phenomenon that anecdotal scientists confirm has captured more hearts from more demographics than any show since West Side Story. It is also notorious for the massive markups from ticket resellers, because the demand for the scarce ticket supply is so high.

The difference between “commercial” musicals and “high art” operas and symphonies is supposed to be the singular pursuit of artistic excellence and purity of intention upheld by the latter. It is also the difference between shows that make money and shows that take money – organizations subsidized through public funding like the Canada Council, OAC or TAC. Digging deeper within the genetics of high art reveals some unsettling connections.

If you are an artist trained in a western classical tradition, think of some of these characteristics:

perfectionism, a sense of urgency, worship of the written word, belief in one right way, individualism, a belief that I’m the only one who can do this right, a belief that progress is bigger and more, a belief in objectivity.

To me, some of these read like a list of conservatory training virtues, yet Tema Okun, in her written work available on, lists these as some of the characteristics of white supremacy culture.

“Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics listed below are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group and because they promote white supremacy thinking and behavior.”

It rings true, and it rings scary – our diligent pursuit of olympic perfection, the industry of authenticity, veneration of muscular virtuosity and our singular devotion to continental Euro-culture as the divine.

Quick – name the last piece the TSO programmed by a Canadian composer that took up at least half the program.

Now name one from a person of colour. Now name two.

Now as I rush to cover my ears amidst the verbal hubbub of justifications, I’ll point out the latest newsletter from Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest classical theatre company. Thanks partly to the leadership shown by companies like Obsidian Theatre, and partly to the leadership shown by…their leadership, this is an example of things getting better. Things can get better. We can have large arts organizations that don’t impersonate pop-up European cultural embassies.

Meanwhile, when Volcano Theatre in Toronto did all the heavy lifting in a reworking of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, assembling a great and predominantly black female cast and creative team, they were not able to secure a Canadian presenter. Too risky? Not able to clear the lofty

bar set by the likes of Johann Strauss, Engelbert Humperdinck and Rufus Wainwright?

So Hamilton, the commercial show, makes money and teaches life lessons to a pan-cultural spectrum of youth, allowing them to see people that look like them on the big stage (it matters). High-art large organizations that champion openly racist and misogynistic work are heavily subsidized. Don’t worry though – they are actively involved in outreach:

“[Alexander Neef] says what he thinks and is very involved in building a younger audience for opera,” says Trinity Jackman, a COC board member who chairs the Ensemble Circle, a group of mostly young patrons whose Operanation event two years ago included COC Ensemble members singing with Broken Social Scene.”

(Robert Everett Green “How Canadian Should the Canadian Opera Company Be?” Globe and Mail, April 9, 2012)

Meanwhile, relatively miniscule organizations are finding ways to do the work that actively tries to include all Canadians, with budgets that a house of cards would feel sorry for.

Here’s my disclaimer, conveniently nestled at the end of what started as a Facebook post and turned into a slightly unhinged rant. I am conservatory trained, and I have made a living, at least until COVID-19, as a western classical musician working with organizations like the COC and TSO, as well as many other privately and publicly funded organizations.

“Those Oriental people work like dogs … they sleep beside their machines,” he said. “The Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over … they’re hard, hard workers.” – Rob Ford

Armed with broad-spectrum white approval, Asians, sans Asian culture, are not unusual to see in the mainstream classical music world. I have never felt the barriers that IBPOC people have candidly and repeatedly identified when discussing their experiences and interactions with Eurocentric organizations. (see #inthedressingroom on Twitter)

So here are some of the questions I have been struggling with amid the most recent outrageous racist events.

To the public funders – what are the values you are rewarding when you generously fund organizations who not only have a history of excluding “others”, but have the values of exclusion written into their very DNA? Rather than try to remake the stubborn, can we prioritize what and who we are supporting? How much do we value equality?

To private funders – I get it, but I wish it were otherwise.

To the big classical organizations, first a request. Stop posting about the healing and transformative power of classical music and its ability to solve all problems (physician, heal thyself). Also, when building bridges to other cultural groups, and teaching them to appreciate and embrace your traditions, remember to allow oncoming traffic. Finally, I’d like to share some words by Aria Evans in a recent Dance Current article:

Ask yourselves: are you afraid to lose donors? Is money more important than human life? Is that colonial, capitalist value something you truly want to stand behind? You have the potential to use your platform to inform and enlighten. It’s not about pushing an agenda onto audiences, it is about upholding the notions of equality.

That last sentence hits hard. Is equality important to you? How important – I mean, how many dollars is equality worth?

Finally, to my colleagues and friends, some of whom I cannot imagine do not hold me justifiably in some level of contempt. I know this is possibly the worst time in our lifetimes, maybe even those of our parents, to contemplate opening up, and inviting in, and possibly giving up things. I know many of us feel we literally cannot afford to. I invite all of us to really think about what we cannot afford to do. What is equality worth?

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§ 18 Responses to The De-Risking of Western Classical Music"

  • Hi Greg: This is a good article. Thank you. It might benefit –– at least tangentially, perhaps only thusly, in the comments section –– with a few names of African American composers who have significant bodies of work for symphony orchestras; who are alive (Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis, Tyshawn Sorey, for example) or who have died relatively recently (Ornette Coleman, Muhal Richard Abrams, for example); and whose work exhibits no shortage of creative risk and attendant wonder and delight.

  • Nilan says:

    Nice one..thanks

  • Nilan says:

    Actually a number of years back (in the oughts?)when I was program director at CIUT FM, a black musician recounted how he had approached the TSO during one of Beethoven’s birthday celebrations. He wanted them to focus on Ludwig’s heritage as a ‘Moor’ as a way of appealing to young Black kids to listen and appreciate.
    He said he was politely received and was told that the TSO’s $$$ patrons would not stand for it.

  • Thank you for this. A very incisive perspective.

  • Lai Im Lancaster says:

    I am not a musician but I follow your very well expressed analysis. This article ought to be in the Arts section of our major newspaper. Thank you for trying.

  • Rory says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights with us, Greg. I’ll be sharing this, and more importantly, I’ll be chewing on the points you bring up about taking risks and making space.

  • Steph Chua says:

    Thank-you for this. There’s a lot here I’ve been thinking of and points I hadn’t thought about too. I’ve been pondering the last few years about race and gender within the confines of Western Classical music -my role as performer/programmer, my experience both as a student and working as a professional.

    Imbalances in art are a reflection of the class structure of our society. You touched on this – “if your parents didn’t hand the RCM and Freddy Harris 5-10k a year for lessons, summer programs, exam accompanists and valve oil, this stage is not for you.”

    There is a high barrier to entry to become a classical musician. It’s not available for everyone. Only likely those from the upper middle class or higher. There needs to be a huge amount of financial support and time devoted to training for decades. Class is deeply connected to race and gender. In order for there to be a true transformation, there needs to be more than BIPOC programming. There has to be a change in education, arts education, access to health care, clean water, etc. etc. etc.

    I’m not sure where or how to end this but thank-you, Greg. To be continued . . .

  • Ernesto Schmied says:

    Great article! As a professional musician, I (not very) often find sparkles of real risk-taking moments. People like Gordan Nikolic or Anner Bylsma (who passed away recently) are examples of this non-post-modern approach to art. Sadly, your observations are right in most cases. Surely you know the series of recordings by Frank Zappa collected under the title: You can’t do this on stage anymore. He was already pointing at the decline of freedom in the music industry ever since the appearance of “experts” (self-proclaimed critics, advisers, etc.). Thank you for sharing!

  • George McFetridge says:

    The real ‘risking’ would be to not foolishly and divisively categorize music. Because you label music, your article is superficial and does no good.

  • Carsonics says:

    It is what it is. You learn that when you grow up.

  • JG says:

    Its funny, as people end up seeing what they are looking for. I find that people clap between movements fairly regularly at the shows I go to. (and I think that is totally fine!)
    They fact that Tanya Taqaq, Thorgy Thor and Jeremey Dutcher can say they have already or are scheduled to play at many Canadian orchestras says programmers aren’t as risk averse as they used to be.
    Even at the TSO, Jeffrey Ryan’s Afghanistan Requiem must have taking up more than half a program not too long ago.
    Looking at next season, the first five classical concerts all have new works attached to them .

    • Greg says:

      @JG – good catch on the Ryan. The bar was somewhat rhetorical. I would venture that TSO programming is 95% dead white european males by timing, but I don’t have the energy to do the calculations. The TSO generally commissions 1-5 minute works that act as overtures from Canadian composers to begin their programs, and they generally program people like Tanya Tagaq, Thorgy Thor or Jeremy Dutcher on their “alternative” or pops or young people’s concert series. It’s not that these aren’t great things, but when you look on stage, practically speaking, you see 100+ people who are not IBPOC, playing music that is not IBPOC.

      P.S. I cannot imagine someone clapping after the slow movement in a Mahler Symphony at RTH and not getting death stares or at best condescending looks. I’m sorry, but that simply would not happen.

  • Andrew Burn says:

    Hi Greg, this article was mentioned in the Surviving Classical Music Podcast. Just htought you should know. Here is the link:

    Best, A

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