One of the most jarring juxtapositions in American film comes from The Deer Hunter, where lifelong friends spend one final night of celebration in a Pennsylvania mining town before they are sent to Vietnam. Arriving drunk and exhausted in their local hang-out, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 6 in G minor is played on an out-of-tune barroom piano, momentarily entrancing the friends just before an immediate cut to the sound of helicopters in war time. That scene never fails to take me by surprise, even though I am expecting it. I am struck by the ability of music to express so many beautiful and conflicting thoughts, while the lack of music is used to signify only uncertainty.
The symphonic music “industry” is so interesting. Our jobs are based upon recreating the most beautiful musical compositions in history, and recreating them as beautifully as possible. We spend our lives seeking to elevate the human spirit, and yet there are elements of our field that are, frankly, ugly. Recently, the uncertainty of silence has been felt in Detroit, and some of the ugliness emerged in the events that surrounded a possible recital there by Ms. Sarah Chang.
With the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) on strike as they advocate to save their organization, the management of the DSO sought to convert a scheduled concerto appearance by Ms. Chang to a solo recital, unfortunately putting this great artist in the position of having to cross a picket line. It was, I’m sure, a terrible dilemma for her, and one from which her professional artist management agency should have protected her. Her management makes a great profit for protecting her interests, and in this case they clearly let her down. She became embroiled in an international event that she probably knew little about.
To make matters worse, when Ms. Chang ultimately canceled her recital, the management of the Detroit Symphony shamefully threw her under the proverbial bus, saying in the New York Times (October 12, 2010) that Ms. Chang “has crossed other picket lines.”
Now, I honestly don’t know if that statement is true or not, and neither does the New York Times. They just printed the accusation, without investigating to ever follow up. Scores of readers are left to assume that it is true, along with the accusations that Ms. Chang was “threatened” and that Ms. Chang’s “cellphone number (was posted) on the web.” But the Times did not require Detroit’s management to produce proof of these statements, and readers across the world who saw the first part of the article on page C1 were no doubt left with the impression that union thugs had “viciously” threatened the young superstar until she felt “uncomfortable appearing in public.”
Of course, if the reader were to turn the section of the paper all the way back to page C6, they would have read that the comments posted by musicians across the world “overwhelmingly used respectful or neutral language.”
There is no doubt that some things were said that I found mildly unfortunate. But, whenever anything is posted on the Internet, people writing anonymously as they sit in their underwear late at night will say some harsh things. Check out any article on-line about a baseball game, or a school board meeting, or for that matter a food bank drive, and you may well see people writing mean-spirited things. It is, unfortunately, the side effect of an anonymous and instantaneous method of communication that gives us the ability to communicate instantly without saying anything at all. In 1992, Bob Dylan wrote: “Technology to wipe out the truth is now available. Not everybody can afford it but it’s available. When the cost comes down, look out!” Well, in 2010 the cost has clearly come down.
Truth be told, I am proud of the musicians who wrote to Ms. Chang. The story is not that a handful of people called her “scab” but that hundreds of people wrote in a respectful and courteous manner, appealing to her better nature, praising her artistry, complimenting her career, and expressing admiration. But, I suppose that might not sell newspapers.
I have lost a lot of sleep over this incident. It seems to typify the worst of our field, where civility breaks down and leads to inaccurate journalism that certainly doesn’t serve the cause of advocacy. I was interviewed for the Times article, but none of my statements appeared, save for a quote from my letter to Ms. Chang (a letter which, by the way, was sent to her management and not posted on her Facebook page, at least not by me.) When I told the reporter that I thought the appeals from musicians had been largely positive, I was told that I was engaging in spin, which was exactly what I had just said about the unfortunate accusations from the management of the Detroit Symphony. While I honestly don’t know if those were true or not, I know that mine were. I was deeply disheartened to read the article the next day.
Don’t such accusations deserve follow up questions? Wouldn’t it be of interest to investigate whether major artist managements exert pressure on their artists to avoid supporting striking musicians? Are these artists’ managements the sacred cows of our field? In a time when we are analyzing the finances of every organization, why are these artist fees untouchable? It is a topic of frequent conversation among orchestra managers that the artist management groups are one of the major problems in our field, but these same orchestra managers don’t dare criticize these powerful groups for fear that they will withhold their top artists. But surely the New York Times would be interested, wouldn’t they?
We can always improve—and we must improve. We can express ourselves in a way that will inspire our audiences and the next generation. No one is inspired by ugly language. I will admit that I am always saddened to read negative statements when we have so many positive ways to advocate for our art and our communities. I wish no one had written “scab.” While an historic term, it is an insult, and I wish some had waited before tossing it around the Internet. After all, ultimately she wasn’t one. And yes, I did read “[expletive] Sarah Chang” on someone else’s personal Facebook page. But that was an internal post, from a Facebook “friend” whom I have since “unfriended.” I just can’t afford that level of negativity in my life as I work to keep myself inspired to advocate for musicians everywhere.
Despite how this story was ultimately spun against musicians, I am proud of the elevated tone. And to Ms. Chang, I would like to offer my thanks and praise. I wish that your management had protected you from this situation, and I wish that the DSO management did not stain your reputation in the New York Times. If you were disturbed by troubling messages that I never saw, I regret that, and I understand. In fact, in the on-line exchange someone wrote a few nasty things about me too. It didn’t feel great, but I understood that the person who attacked me does not know me, and apparently had not read my missive which I wrote so carefully to be respectful.
To use a phrase that seems to have become suddenly popular, I would hope that the field at large (musicians, orchestra managers, artist managements, and journalists) can use this event as a “teachable moment” and that we all can elevate our debates in the service of our communities and for future generations, before the negative false rhetoric permanently damages the beauty we all seek to recreate, and leads to the uncertainty of silence.
If you stand for anything in life, people will take shots at you. Some will attack you because of what you stand for, and some will attack you simply because you are able to stand. I choose to stand anyway. And on behalf of musicians everywhere, we thank Sarah Chang for standing with us on this occasion.