My attention has recently been directed to some written outputs from two media enterprises (The Sunday Telegraph and Slipped Disc) that as a general rule I would choose to have as little to do with as possible. Both pieces tell the reader that the renowned choral conductor David Lawrence is no longer going to continue working with the LSO Discovery Senior Choir. The reason that the organisation – through Sophia Lyons (who Norman Lebrecht’s piece identifies as “the LSO’s choral and schools projects coordinator” which is interesting given that on the date this post is published, Sumita Menon is named on the LSO website as the ‘Choral & Schools Projects Manager’ with Lyons being named as ‘Community Associate Projects Manager’; has there been a recent shift in roles, or has something else transpired here?) – has chosen to offer publicly is quoted verbatim from Lebrecht’s piece (quoting a letter signed by Lyons):
After nearly ten years at the helm of the LSO Discovery Senior Choir, David Lawrence has agreed to step down from this position. David and the LSO recognise that there is a need to explore opportunities to bring in new vocal leaders drawn from different and diverse ethnic, cultural and musical backgrounds, in order to support the necessary changes in the Music sector to tackle issues of diversity, racism, and representation. We will be advertising for a new conductor of the Senior Choir and will update on the process of recruitment.
Lebrecht loses no time in engaging the hyperbole that a rag-writer of his ilk trades upon:
It reads as if the excellent David Lawrence (pictured) has been ethnically cleansed.
As this is not an ‘academic’ blog post, let’s do what any sensible reader now does when they come across a term/rubric they may not know the exact meaning of. The first page of Google hits for a search of ‘ethnic cleansing’ offers a number of places to get a definition; Wikipedia offers the following:
Ethnic cleansing is the systematic forced removal of ethnic, racial, and religious groups from a given area, with the intent of making a region ethnically homogeneous. Along with direct removal, extermination, deportation or population transfer, it also includes indirect methods aimed at forced migration by coercing the victim group to flee and preventing its return, such as murder, rape, and property destruction. It constitutes a crime against humanity and may also fall under the Genocide Convention, even as ethnic cleansing has no legal definition under international criminal law.
Lebrecht believes that the Slipped Disc is an enterprise that people should pay to read. Why has he used such a loaded term in this accusation? Does he think that his hyperbole is justified? How should people with personal lived experience of actual pogroms take his (squalid) use of this term? And is this a fair and accurate way to represent the LSO’s motivations and intentions?
British English is a language in which there is a type of semantic specificity that many ESL (English as a second or other-than-first language) never fully apprehend. It does not matter that Lebrecht carefully qualifies his assertion with “[i]t sounds AS IF…” – the suggestion is made, the seed is sown, and that’s all some will hold onto. Good click-bait prose at work.
Why is Lebrecht so invested in this matter? In 2005 he wrote the following:
Two masterpieces of English literature are unmistakably anti-Semitic. In The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare depicts Shylock as a heartless usurer, a racial stereotype that many in his audience would have associated with the moneylenders that Jesus so righteously drove from the Temple in Jerusalem.
In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens describes Fagin as ‘the Jew’ – not once by way of identification, but repeatedly, relentlessly, emphatically, to such an extent that the wicked old receiver of stolen goods is hardly ever mentioned by name, only by racial and religious origin. In the first 38 chapters of Oliver Twist there are 257 references to ‘the Jew’ against 42 to ‘Fagin’ or ‘the old man’. A more vicious stigmatisation of an ethnic community could hardly be imagined and it was not by any means unintended.http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/050929-nl-twist.html [accessed 7 July 2022]
Lebrecht does go on to tell us that Dickens revised Oliver Twist and he also goes on to tell the reader that
Polanski and Harwood are the new A-team of their art form, a latter day Verdi and Boito who found each other late in life and, in The Pianist, won an Oscar each for a harrowing tale sensitively told. A close personal affinity has arisen from professional collusion. When Polanski sued Vanity Fair for libel this summer over imputations that he pursued women on the day of his wife’s funeral, Harwood sat with him every day in Paris throughout the arduous trial.
In a very interesting interview with Tom Service, the British musical polymath Thomas Adés states categorically that ‘ethics are a distraction the artist cannot afford’. Now, there is some context and nuance to that assertion, but with that point made, one can still legitimately enquire as to whether or not such an ethical position is justified in and of itself. It seems that many think it is; Polanski has continued to (a) work in a country that has not extradited him to the English-speaking West and (b) win awards despite admitting to having sex with a minor. It took until 2018 for him to be expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a more recent Vanity Fair piece suggests that the French public (i.e. not just the French film industry) are ‘going sour’ on Polanski. We turn back to the extract about by Lebrecht on Polanski and Harwood: is Lebrecht indicating some possible sympathy for Polanski, or is this excerpt stating ‘facts’ (if so, what would make Polanski one half of ‘THE’ new ‘A-team of [his] art form?!)?!
It’s not a good look for a man happy to characterise two masterpieces of English literature as ‘unmistakably’ racist to show this level of deference to an artist with deeply questionable morals. Quentin Tarantino FINALLY worked out that his defence of Polanski was totally unjustifiable; the damage is, however, done, and if and when (at least some of) those affected by this sort of story are outraged, one can well understand why. So Lebrecht has not distinguished himself as a critic with a moral compass that inspires.
This makes his take-down of the LSO’s Discovery unit all the more egregious. There is more to say about this, but in fact, as a black (not Black, not in my case) choral conductor/director (the two activities are NOT the same), I am in fact not here to say that I think that the LSO has done something wonderful. There is a reason why certain racially and ethnically minoritised individuals leave the US in search of opportunities: the specific people I am identifying are motivated by there being no suggestion that their achievements have come at the expense of potentially better candidates whose ethnicities did not tick the boxes that obtained at that time. Affirmative action has done a number of things that DO have to be lauded, but it has also stigmatised terribly.
There is much to be said about how LSO’s outreach programmes are dealing with EDI (they seem to have decided to go with DEI, but whatever) issues that I for one am refusing to accept as unilaterally positive. In a public letter Einstein observed that the problems caused by the thinking of a given period could not be solved by the same types of thinking that caused it. Having asked some searching questions about the LSO’s approach to recent gospel music projects, I received an answer that has made me extraordinarily angry and offended, and it is still possible that I will address myself in writing concerning specific claims the LSO has made about its approach to this music. Separate-yet-related is the fact that LSO claim that someone who is genuinely competent at working with youth choirs at more than one level is being replaced just so that the LSO can diversify its roster of other-than-white conductors. I have no regard whatsoever for how the LSO have handled musical and cultural diversity with gospel music, so I have no regard for the claims regarding processes by which competence in measures outside the prototypical Anglo choral training and performance traditions (including cultural adventures of music beyond the West, both ‘classical’ and ‘folk/vernacular/popular/etc’ that still do not involve protagonists beyond the West are to be assessed. And worse: if they fail to appoint a BAME/BGM+ conductor, will they say that they could not find a suitable candidate? And if they appoint a racially/ethnically minoritised conductor who does not prove to have the range of skills (last I checked, the choral conducting training courses are not awash with BAME/BGM+ students or applicants for entry, and many such conductors are often less skilled in non-WAM (Western Art Music) than some white conductors who possess an understanding of (amongst other things) ‘groove’ that is not sanitised and offensive) that would be ideal in such a post, this will give all those who, like Lebrecht, deplore the ‘woke’ stuff going on in the arts and cultural sectors as signalling the ‘death of the arts’ (racist and worse, which is why LSO et al should have found better ways to deal with EDI!!!). Not all of us BAME/BGM+ choral directors are motivated by the same concerns, have the same aesthetic values, have an interest in WAM, are musically literate, and conceptually flexible and technically proficient, and virtue-signalling in this sector is pathologically (yes, a very strong word) endemic (as I see in the LSO’s responses to my questions about their interactions with gospel music).
Why did the LSO think that coming out and saying that David Lawrence was to be replaced with someone not white because they were not white was going to make life easy for someone not white who is given the job? Professionally, I cannot think of a worse EDI failure than this in this specific sector in recent years here in the UK. However good David’s replacement might be, someone somewhere will always presume that they got the job because they were not white. Even without this catastrophic blunder, people might have assumed this, but an exceptional conductor would have eventually won over enough people. However, they have made this post a poisoned chalice for whoever takes it on, and the cause of diversity in British choral music did not need this at all, at all, at all.
Norman Lebrecht is a law unto himself. He has power I will never have and I’m okay with that. The LSO has to decide if it really wants to be part of a solution to a diversity crisis in British choral music, or part of the ongoing calumny and oppression, even as it claims the opposite.