In the Fall issue of Symphony magazine, Aaron Flagg describes a concert by the Seattle Symphony during the League’s annual Conference. The concert featured a performance of “Baby Got Back” by rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot; Aaron compares it to the chaos that erupted at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. “The Seattle Symphony’s performance and the online conversations ignited by the video of it, exist in a challenging environment where American orchestras must find fresh, locally meaningful ways to demonstrate greater relevance to society.”
Aaron writes about how many orchestras are attempting to break the fourth wall separating them from their audiences while “holding onto the music of the past,” and he explores why this performance engendered so much controversy and discussion.
“First of all, impassioned public discussions about music played by a professional orchestra are rare.” 2.3 million hits on YouTube for a symphony orchestra (what the Seattle Symphony experienced) is unheard of.
“Second, few orchestras are known for impacting the full diversity of their local community in sustained and meaningful ways.” Aaron quotes several studies, indicating that audience attendance at live events is decreasing. “It is much easier to blame this reality [lack of growth in orchesras] on a lack of musical education in the public, the managers, the programming, the ‘lazy’ board, or an unexciting conductor, than to face the broader and more complex issues and design thoughtful action to reverse this trend.”
Aaron’s third point focuses on the lack of diversity in American orchestras, a fact he considers “an embarrassment to our field.” And his fourth point is the lack of large sources for general operating support; orchestras must create diverse and strong revenue streams.
The Sir Mix-a-Lot concert took place on the Seattle Symphony’s SONIC Evolution series, now in its fourth year, and was conducted by their music director, Ludovic Morlot. Aaron suggests that the Seattle Symphony is serious about this concert having artistic merit, and that it represented their brand well. The series continues to do well.
The controversy over the concert video may well stem from the shock value many concert-goers had at hearing the song “Baby Got Back” for the first time, even though it sold over 2 million copies and earned Sir Mix-a-Lot a Grammy in 1992. The song “celebrates the beauty of a familiar African-American female body type over the European ‘beanpole’ standard.” People were shocked at the “playful, sexual nature” of the song; Aaron goes on to cite all sorts of dastardly rapists and cads, orgies, and other “sexual” topics found throughout opera plots, ballets, and symphonies, and suggests that some may be being hypocritical.
He quotes several people’s response to the video:
“This is not a question of being stuffy. This is about protecting the beauty, quality and grace of a rare and unique art form. The video is demeaning, cheap, distasteful, and sexist…”
“…all it’s doing is making me cringe. This is the epitome of an orchestra getting it all wrong.”
According to Aaron, “there is a lot in these quotes that resonates with the deep racial history of America.”
He closes by asking some hard questions about just what “community engagement” means for an orchestra, and he urges orchestras to honor and celebrate their communities “in ways that feel authentic.”
You can read Aaron Flagg’s entire essay in the Symphony magazine archive, starting on page 24.