Saturday, March 5, 2016

Classical Music and Social Justice II

Three of Berlin's orchestras (the Koncerthausorchester, Berlin Philharmonic, and Staatskapelle) recently gave a concert exclusively for Syrian refugees. Led by Simon Rattle, the concert was meant to be gesture of welcome to those who had been displaced from their homes. Iván Fischer, the conductor of the Koncerthausorchester, even gave a welcome speech in Arabic.

The concert was well received, and gave the refugees a sense of belonging and comfort. One Syrian school teacher found the music to be "optimistic" and morale boosting in the face of the many challenges faced by herself and her fellow refugees in finding asylum. Others were reminded of similar concerts they had attended in their own homeland during more peaceful times. And still others were introduced to music they had never heard before, saying that they were excited to hear more of it.

Outreach like this opens the door for orchestras to act as ambassadors. While Germany has opened its doors to refugees, the refugees have been met with much hostility from German nationals who disagree with the decision to grant the refugees asylum. Germany is not alone in this. Citizens of many other countries have spoken out aggressively against their governments' decisions to accept refugees. Creating a concert specifically for refugees goes a long way to say that not only are they allowed to exist in the country, but that they are welcome to enjoy themselves, and to take part in the culture.

The concert also opens an accessible avenue for new audiences to experience music they may otherwise be unfamiliar with. The orchestras, rather than bemoaning a drop in ticket sales and concert attendance, have sought out a group in need of goodwill, and have opened their doors to invite them to attend their concerts. This gesture, in addition to giving some comfort to refugees, also creates the potential for larger audiences at future concerts.

In addition to this concert, the Koncerthausorchester has also produced an Arabic staging of Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals", and the Berlin Philharmonic has started an outreach program encouraging musicians to bring refugees to their rehearsals and concerts.

Again we see the potential that the classical music industry has for making a powerful statement for social justice, and for creating change in the lives of the disadvantaged. It would be wonderful to see American Orchestras follow suit, and to create similar programs.