Mixing Things Up, A Lot

By Michael Reichman

The orchestra world created a rare media buzz last week when rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot performed his legendary “Baby Got Back” with the Seattle Symphony earlier this month.

Within days, the collaboration gained over 1.5 million hits on YouTube, and the performance received media coverage on everything from the New York Times to ABCNews. So if you’re in the classical music business like me, you’re either shaking your head in disgust or cheering with admiration (and a little jealousy).

Honestly, I knew there’d be controversy, and frankly, I’m glad. Because people’s true colors are showing. There are legitimate reasons to dislike what happened that night and then there are silly ones. Let’s get the silly ones out of the way:

Critics like Norman Lebrecht decried the sexist lyrics of Mr. Mix-a-Lot’s musically poetic ode tothe female tuchus. And while people bring up the fact that opera is no stranger to misogyny (e.g.Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Copland’s The Tender Land), others, like conductor Tito Munoz, defend the classical cannon’s sexism by implying its context is deeper and not reflecting the true feelings of the author–unlike the disgustingly bigoted Sir-Mix-a-Lot!

What these comments show are how the classical music world is so ensconced in this divisive and arbitrary cultural hierarchy. Classical music=good. Rap music=bad. I mean, c’mon! Is it any wonder people think us orchestras live in an ivory tower? You’re telling me sexist and jingoist comments are more forgivable because they were written 200+ years ago and accompanied by a larger quantity of harmonic modulations and perfect authentic cadences?!! The moment you start holding other art forms to unfair double-standards, you begin digging a hole of social isolation that’s hard to climb out of.

The other silly criticism is that the Mix-a-lot arrangement didn’t showcase the orchestra very prominently. Perhaps, but then again, did the Chopin Piano Concerti or any “showpiece” solo from the mid-late 19th century highlight the orchestral accompaniment?

But now onto the more legitimate concerns of this concert–of which Sir Mix-a-Lot was only a minor role. This event was part of an ongoing program series called “Sonic Evolution”–a project, in its third year, where the orchestra commissions serious composers to write new works inspired by musicians with roots in Seattle. In the past, this concert series has commissioned pieces inspired by the works of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Alice in Chains. Obviously, there’s no shortage of musical culture in Seattle.

In my opinion, one of the key initiatives orchestras can undertake to regain cultural relevancy is to treat other musical genres with the same seriousness that we treat classical music. My sense is that’s partially what the Seattle Symphony is trying to do here. But if that’s the case, why would you create a “mish-mash” of Seattle-based musicians onto one program–without regard for aesthetic unity and continuity? Like I mentioned above, Sir Mix-a-Lot was only a very smallportion of that evening’s program. It also included DJ Gabriel Prokofiev (legendary Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s grandson), a world-premiere by Du Yun, and orchestral arrangements of the indie punk/R&B/fusion band Pickwick. As an audience member told me, to call this concert “eclectic” would be an overly generous compliment.

When you awkwardly mash rap with punk, you end up marginalizing the serious artistic merit of both genres. And then nobody is happy. Particularly your subscribers. Not to mention the fact that the biggest name on the entire concert performed in the *middle* of the show just before the intermission. Needless to say, as a friend of mine who attended told me, over half of the audience cleared out before the second half because they’d “already seen what they came tosee.” Talk about putting the climax in a two-hour movie at the 60-minute mark…

Nevertheless, I want to applaud what the Seattle Symphony did that fateful night of June 6th, 2014. It was bold, brash, and took a giant set of musical cojones to execute…even though its artistic success was arguably limited. To me, they accomplished an important goal–getting the non-classical community talking about the classical community! And furthermore, what I hope Seattle Symphony Maestro Ludovic Morlot learned from this experience is that programming a concert of hip-hop, rock, and DJ Prokofiev requires the same knowledge, finesse, and subtlety as presenting a concert of symphonies, concerti, and regular Prokofiev.

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