LUZERNE, Switzerland — The Lucerne Festival here, one of the most important events of classical music, has long been known for its exclusivity.
For much of the event’s 84-year history, women and people of color have struggled to be heard on stage, and audiences have remained overwhelmingly white and wealthy.
But this summer, the festival, which officially kicks off on Friday, is trying to rebuild its image by programming the season with an emphasis on diversity: a series of concerts featuring black and Latino performers, as well as women.
“We don’t have to be radical, but we have to be aware of it,” Michael Haefliger, the festival’s executive and artistic director, said in an interview. “We should feel like we’re shaking the ground a little bit and realizing that we’ve shut out a certain section of the public for a long time.”
That drive is part of a wider effort to address serious racial and gender inequalities in classical music, a field in which women and people of color are still underrepresented among artists, conductors, composers and directors.
“This is a big step in putting the spotlight on the issues in our field,” said Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder and leader of the Chineke! Orchestra, a British ensemble largely made up of colored musicians, will be performing in Lucerne this year. “Much of the classical music we are proud of today is inspired by black artists, black musicians and black composers. But we don’t hear that side of the story.”
Lucerne’s leaders hope that the focus on diversity will contribute to discussions about racism, sexism and exclusion in classical music. They have tried, with varying degrees of success, to attract the attention of the public. A series of speeches related to the theme have been added to the agenda, including a recent one entitled, “Seeing is believing? Black artists in classical music!” A marketing campaign includes an assortment of chess pieces reimagined for an era of inclusivity: a knight reborn as a purple unicorn, a bishop with zebra stripes.
But the festival’s efforts have been met with skepticism by some performers, audience members and commentators, who see the drive as mere publicity and say it will do little to address systemic inequalities in the industry. Others say the festival’s focus should be on art, not social issues.
“This kind of PR can alienate the natural audience of this festival,” said Rodrigo Carrizo Couto, a freelance journalist based in Switzerland. “Why are we doing this? Why are we following some sort of California agenda?”
Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed, orchestras have come under pressure to appoint more women and minority artists as music directors; opera companies have faced calls to program more works by overlooked composers; and performing arts organizations have been criticized for not acting fast enough to recruit leaders of color. Some groups have been denounced for allowing performers to wear dark makeup in productions of operas like ‘Aida’ long after racist caricatures vanished from many stages.
In Lucerne, the debate on equality and inclusion is particularly heated. The festival’s board consists mainly of white men. The orchestra consists of 81 men and 31 women; only two musicians represent minority ethnic groups.
Haefliger said that before the pandemic he started thinking about ways the festival could use its platform to shed light on issues such as racism and sexism in the industry – inspired by the 2016 festival theme, “PrimaDonna”, featuring female conductors. . He said he wanted to “break the ice” around discussions of race and gender.
“We are not a political organization,” he said. “But in a way, culture is also social responsibility and we are part of society.”
The idea of dedicating the festival to diversity this year quickly led to a setback in Switzerland.
Der Bund, a German-language newspaper in nearby Bern, published an article calling the theme “an insult” and said that while it seemed well-intentioned, it could leave guest artists feeling like they were invited only because of their skin color.
While this year’s festival, which runs through mid-September, will feature regulars like the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berliner Philharmoniker, there are many newcomers. All the soloists making their debut this year, including trumpeter Aaron Akugbo, violinist Randall Goosby and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, are people of color. Several renowned artists of color will also participate, including cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, sopranos Golda Schultz and Angel Blue, and composer Tyshawn Sorey. As part of the pre-festival programming, Ilumina, an ensemble of young South American musicians, performed works by Schubert, Bach, Villa-Lobos and others.
Particular emphasis will be placed on music by black composers; 16 will be on display during the festival. At the red carpet opening on Friday, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is also on the Lucerne board, played a concerto by Joseph Boulogne, a black composer born in the 18th century.
Some musicians said they were happy that Lucerne’s leaders were tackling the issues of representation head-on. Still, they said it was too early to judge the success of the effort and that the festival could show its sincerity by inviting artists and composers of color in the future.
“I don’t believe we should embrace diversity as a buzzword,” said Schultz, who will sing a recital at the festival and perform in a semi-staged production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” “I appreciate their willingness to deal with these issues. Someone has to take a risk, and it won’t be perfect.”
Gerard Aimontche, a pianist of African and Russian descent who performed this week in the run-up to the festival, said it was important to make a special effort to showcase black and Latino performers, given the lack of diversity on the planet. the world’s top stages. Still, he added that he longed for a day when it would no longer be necessary to use terms like “diversity” at a festival.
“For now you have to give a special introduction, otherwise nobody would ever know us,” he said. “But I hope it will be different in 50 years. Even if the entire orchestra is made up of people of color, we’ll just be another orchestra, and people will come just like any other orchestra.”
On Tuesday evening, Lucerne’s main concert hall was filled with the sounds of the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, which performed pieces by black composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Stewart Goodyear, as well as a Tchaikovsky symphony. The hall was not full, but the orchestra was warmly welcomed, with whistles and shouts of “Bravo!”
During the rehearsal, Venezuelan conductor Glass Marcano, who conducted the concert, told the orchestra players that performing in Lucerne was a special opportunity. She took selfies with the orchestra and assured the musicians that they would jump at the opportunity.
In an interview, Marcano said that classical music would only thrive if it welcomed a wide variety of voices.
“We present classical music in all its richness and diversity,” she said. “From now on, this should be seen as normal.”