FEBRUARY 2017: The Right to Be Yourself

FEBRUARY 2017: The Right to Be Yourself
January 31, 2017 leonard slatkin

Normally at this time, I post a monthly recap of musical events that have taken place, and that entry will appear during the second week of February. But something occurred over this past weekend that compels me to write something off-topic.

It was Saturday in the late morning, as I was driving to Orchestra Hall and listening to the radio, that I first learned of the newly instituted immigration rules that have been put into place. All I could think about was that a little over a hundred years ago, both sides of my family came to Ellis Island seeking refuge from the horrors that were sweeping Russia. Their dream was to come to the States for political, social and religious freedom. Lady Liberty welcomed them with no tears.

I became more agitated as the day progressed, and knew that I would have to restrain myself from saying something at the Mozart Festival concert that night. However, part of the format is for me to introduce each program with spoken remarks. I told the audience that we had now completed our cycle of the complete wind concerti, utilizing members of the DSO as soloists. But I also said that there was one piece that we omitted, the Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds, because there is much dispute as to the authorship of this work. And then I added, “We do not want to confuse you with alternative facts.” This provoked a prolonged laugh, coupled with applause and cheering. At least that is what I perceived from my vantage point on the podium.

This was followed by me speaking about the humanism of Mozart, how he brings so much meaning to our lives today, touching us with humor, pathos and grace. His music is a reminder of how fortunate we are to be musicians and listeners, and we must never forget that.

It seemed harmless enough. But to at least one audience member it was not. I received the following message the next day:

Yesterday evening (January 28, 2017) my wife and I attended the Mozart Fest, Symphony 40. As usual, the music and talent were superb. My wife and I have been purchasing classical season tickets for a couple years now.

Unfortunately, in spite of the wonderful concert, last night was a genuine disappointment in another way. I love going to the symphony to escape from the everyday craziness and spend the evening enjoying my life-long love of music in the company or others who have the same passion. Last night, conductor Slatkin, whom I have always had the utmost respect for, ruined the evening for me and may have dissuaded me from attending any further concerts.

If you were unaware, he began the concert with a monologue (“joke?”) insulting our president by referring to his “alternate facts.” I am sure he thought he was a hit based on the applause and the laughter. However, he could not hear the half of the theater that was not laughing or applauding. He single-handedly insulted and offended half of the audience which paid good money to enjoy the concert.

As most people are aware, celebrities have decided that their opinion of politics should be shared and thrust upon us mere hard-working well-educated mortals. I thought that the DSO and conductor Slatkin were above this.

I still respect conductor Slatkin beyond words for his talent as a conductor. He is truly an artist. However, I have lost faith in his judgement and respect for his audience.

I would love to hear an apology from Mr. Slatkin but I have a feeling I should not hold my breath. As such, I am not sure I will be attending any further concerts, purchasing any further concert series packages, or making any donations to what appears to be a partisan organization. If I have misunderstood his levity or taken him too seriously, I apologize. However, I am fairly certain I am not the only person in audience that felt insulted. In fact, I am sure of it based on the faces of some of those around me.

After a bit of thought, I responded.

Your note has been passed along to me, and I certainly take your remarks seriously, just as I do my own. There was no political motive or agenda to what I said. As a longtime concertgoer, you probably know that I improvise almost everything I say to the audience, rather than have it prepared in advance. As I was speaking about the work attributed to Mozart, but not actually written by him, the phrase “Alternative Facts” leapt to mind, and it seemed appropriate for that particular moment.

Having been music director in Washington DC for twelve years, I quickly learned the difference between a passing remark and a political sleight. If something seems to fit the occasion, I use it, and it helped me clarify my further thoughts about the power of music. By the way, please do remember that it was not our President who uttered the phrase, and he never has.

If you were offended by what I said, I am very sorry. There was certainly no disrespect intended, just an off-the-cuff moment with no ill intent.

I have tried all my life to avoid combining music and politics. But perhaps the time has come to begin to speak out more forcefully. I know that the threatened elimination of the NEA as well as privatization of NPR are subjects on which I must voice my opinion.

Our country was created on the principle of free speech. We all have the right to say what we feel, and those who believe otherwise are basically undermining the founding fathers. I am just a musician, but I am also a human being who understands the power of dissent. Eventually I was grateful to have heard from the writer about his misgivings over what I said at the concert, and I respected his ability to do so. Hopefully my comments did not overshadow the majesty and genius of Mozart, and perhaps the Austrian’s works said more about our society than anything each of us can put into words.

This story has a happy ending. The day after I replied, the patron who sent me the note followed up with a response:

Dear Mr. Slatkin,

Thank you so much for your personal response, especially in light of your busy schedule. After reading your email, I realize that I was too quick to react. There has just been so much negativity on Facebook, Twitter, news, etc that I was looking forward to an evening without politics.

I am deeply moved by your willingness to write me personally. Please be assured that you have renewed my faith in the DSO and its wonderful conductor.

I greatly look forward to your next concert.

It is heartening to see that meaningful discourse can produce understanding from two sides. This dialogue, which was without name-calling, insults or any other divisive tactics, yielded a positive result for everyone. I hope that others can learn from this exchange.