LUCERNE, Switzerland — The Lucerne Festival here, one of classical music’s most important events, has long had a reputation for 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 predominantly white and affluent.
But this summer, the festival, which officially starts on Friday, is trying to redesign its image and program its season with an emphasis on diversity: a series of concerts featuring black and Latin American artists, as well as women.
“We don’t have to be radical, but we should be aware of it,” said Michael Haefliger, the festival’s managing director and artistic director, in an interview. “We should feel like we’re shaking the ground a little bit and realizing that we’ve shut out a certain segment of the public for a long time.”
This endeavor is part of a broader effort to address the serious racial and gender disparities in classical music, an area where women and people of color are still underrepresented among performers, conductors, composers and administrators.
“This is a big step in bringing the spotlight to the issues in our field,” said Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder and director of Chineke! Orchestra, a British ensemble composed mainly of black musicians, which will perform in Lucerne this year. “Much of the classical music that 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.”
The Lucerne leadership hopes that the focus on diversity will help stimulate discussions about racism, sexism and exclusion in classical music. They have tried to attract public attention with mixed success. A number of papers on this subject have been added to the agenda, including a recent paper entitled: “Seeing is Believing? Black artists in classical music!” A marketing campaign features a selection of chess pieces redesigned for an era of inclusivity: a knight reincarnated as a purple unicorn, a zebra-striped bishop.
But the festival’s efforts have been met with skepticism from some artists, viewers and commentators, who see the promotion as mere publicity and say it will do little to address inherent differences in the industry. And others say the festival’s focus should be on the arts, not social issues.
“This kind of PR can alienate the natural audience of this festival,” said Rodrigo Carrizo Couto, a freelance journalist from Switzerland. “Why are we doing this? Why are we following some kind of California agenda?”
Since the 2020 killing of George Floyd and the ensuing wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, orchestras have come under pressure to appoint more women and minority artists as music directors; Opera houses have been urged to program more works by overlooked composers; and performing arts organizations have been criticized for not moving fast enough to recruit leaders of color. Some groups have been criticized for having dark make-up used by performers in opera productions like Aida, long after racist caricatures had disappeared from many stages.
The debate about justice and inclusion was particularly fierce in Lucerne. The festival’s board of directors is mostly made up of white males. Its orchestra consists of 81 men and 31 women; only two musicians represent ethnic minority groups.
Haefliger said that even before the pandemic, he was thinking about how the festival could use its platform to shine a light on issues of racism and sexism across the industry – inspired by the 2016 festival theme, “PrimaDonna,” which featured female conductors. He said he wanted to “break the ice” on discussions about race and gender.
“We are not a political organization,” he said. “But culture is also social responsibility in a way, and we are part of society.”
The idea of dedicating this year’s festival to diversity quickly sparked opposition in Switzerland.
Der Bund, a German-language newspaper in nearby Bern, ran an article that called the issue an “affront,” saying that while it might seem well-intentioned, it could lead to guest artists feeling invited just because of the color of their skin.
Although this year’s festival, which runs until mid-September, will feature regular guests such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic, there are plenty of newcomers. All of the soloists making their debuts this year, including trumpeter Aaron Akugbo, violinist Randall Goosby and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, are people of color. Several renowned colourists will also be taking part, including cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, sopranos Golda Schultz and Angel Blue, and composer Tyshawn Sorey. As part of the pre-festival program, Ilumina, an ensemble of young South American musicians, performed works by Schubert, Bach, Villa-Lobos and others.
A special emphasis is placed on music by black composers; 16 will be presented during the festival. At the red carpet opening on Friday, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who also sits on Lucerne’s board of directors, performed a concerto by Joseph Boulogne, an 18th-century-born Black composer.
Some musicians said they were pleased that the Lucerne leadership was tackling representation issues head-on. However, they said it was too early to judge the success of the effort and that the festival could demonstrate its sincerity by inviting artists and composers of color again in the future.
“I don’t think we should take diversity as a buzzword,” said Schultz, who will sing a recital at the festival and appear in a semi-staged production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. “I appreciate their willingness to address these issues. Somebody has to take a risk and it won’t be perfect.”
Gerard Aimontche, a pianist of African and Russian descent, who was performing ahead of the festival this week, said it was important to make special efforts to highlight black and Latino artists given the lack of diversity on the world’s best stages. Still, he added, he longs for a day when terms like “diversity” are no longer needed at a festival.
“Right now you have to give a special introduction because otherwise none of us would know,” he said. “But I hope that will be different in 50 years. Even if the whole orchestra is made up of people of color, we will be just another orchestra and people will come as they do to hear 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 and a symphony by Tchaikovsky. The hall was not full, but the orchestra was warmly welcomed with whistles and shouts of “Bravo!”.
During rehearsals, Venezuelan conductor Glass Marcano, who conducted the concert, told the orchestra’s players that it was a special opportunity to perform in Lucerne. She took selfies with the orchestra and assured the musicians that they were up to the occasion.
In an interview, Marcano said that classical music would only thrive if it welcomed a wide range of voices.
“We present classical music in all its richness and diversity,” she said. “This should be considered normal from now on.”