Op-Ed: Artist as Activist
Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya’s Refugee Orchestra Project will bring together hundreds of performers—instrumentalists and singers whose friends and families have fled to this country to escape violence and persecution—for a single, large-scale performance that loudly proclaims these individuals’ importance to our culture, at First Church, 11 Garden Street in Cambridge on Monday at 8PM.
The benefit features a full symphony orchestra and soloists—including award-winning sopranos Amal El-Shrafi and Zhanna Alkhazova – performing works by refugee composers such as Iranian composer Gity Razaz, Bela Bartok, and Irving Berlin, as well as music that involves refugee themes written by Verdi and Puccini, among others. The concert will showcase, through music, the positive impact those who have come to this country seeking safety and a better life have had on American culture and society.
Yankovskaya responded to our invitation to speak her mind.
In recent years, American classical music artists have largely shied away from politics. We rely so heavily on donations and ticket sales that the risk of alienating a supporter has become our greatest fear. Besides, given our propensity to perfect every skill before we perform, we tend to be (wisely) cautious when stating strong opinions in an area outside our expertise. However, any art is an expression of the world around us, and our world has changed dramatically.
Popular rhetoric often wrongly separates classical music from political activism. For as long as there has been music, there have been political responses through music. Mozart’s portrayal of class structure in Figaro was a shock to the Viennese gentry, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon, Donizetti was forced to flee Italy and seek political asylum, Haydn forced an issue of resignation through his Farewell Symphony, Verdi’s operas were regularly censored (and re-written as a result), and the 20th century has continued to see political responses through music in Shostakovich, Britten, Adams, and many prominent composers writing today (including Paola Prestini, Kamala Sankaram, Du Yun, and others).
The president’s recent travel ban has struck a chord with the highly international world of classical music. In an unusual response, official statements against this administration’s immigration policies were immediately issued by numerous large-scale music organizations which generally stay away from political agendas, including Opera America and League of American Orchestras. A new conversation has begun to permeate the American arts scene: In the current climate, what is the artist and art leader’s role as an activist? How do we address the issues that so deeply affect not only our society, but our work, while uniting rather than dividing? How do we ask the hard questions without alienating those whom we are trying to reach?
I came to this country as a refugee with my family with the help of the refugee aid organization Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in 1995 to escape persecution in Russia. Like most refugees, we put our past behind us and moved on to become active members of American society, rarely speaking about the experiences that forced us to flee. Recently, these experiences were brought back to the surface.
I was traveling in Germany when the civil war in Syria began, forcing thousands of people daily to desperately flee to Europe. It was inspiring to see that despite the hardships and inconveniences, countless small German towns opened their doors and provided utmost hospitality to the individuals coming into their country. Upon my return to the great salad-bowl/ melting-pot/country of immigrants, I found open hostility even to the prospect of opening our doors to a very limited number of Syrian refugees, with major national and community leaders openly expressing extreme xenophobia and racism. My family and I came to this country to escape precisely this type of hatred, and its prevalence and prominence were shocking. I felt that something must be done, but what role does today’s classical musician have as an activist? I am not a policy maker, but I can join my highly international group of colleagues to express the unifying message of music. And so, as my response and contribution to the current political rhetoric, I founded the Refugee Orchestra Project.
As a musician, I’m constantly surrounded by people from across the globe. In most fields, those from other nations face language and other barriers to entry, but the language of music crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries, leading to a greater amount of travel and migration within the international music community. We do not need to know the same spoken language—the expressive power of music is all-encompassing.
When the musicians of the Refugee Orchestra Project come together in performance, we take advantage of music’s universality. Through large-scale, free concert performances, we showcase the contributions of refugee musicians and composers to our culture and society. We are all there with a single purpose, with musicians and staff volunteering their time, and all proceeds go directly to refugee aid.
Art defines who we are as a nation—throughout the 20th century, American culture has been disseminated abroad through our music, our films, our fashion, and our visual art. We often forget how many quintessentially American works of art were created by refugees like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Rachmaninoff, and Irving Berlin (who, among other things, wrote God Bless America—our “second national anthem”), or children of Refugees (like Copland and Gershwin). Art is inherently international, cross-cultural, and cosmopolitan, and the omnipresence of American art emerges from our multiculturalism—the richness, depth, and breadth of ideas that our nation supports.
Being anti-art means being anti-diversity. In threatening to slash our country’s meager support for artistic expression, our current leaders demonstrate once again their preference for uniformity and conformity. Refugee Orchestra Project celebrates diversity and multiculturalism—two of the most powerful attributes of our nation—through our artistry.
Admission to the concert is free, but the entire amounts donated will go toward the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees in support of those seeking asylum in the U.S. and abroad.
Russian-born symphonic and opera conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya’s recent work has been hailed as “superb,” “expert,” and “coax[ing] every possible expressive note from the instrumentalists.” She serves as Artistic Director of Juventas New Music Ensemble and Music Director of Commonwealth Lyric Theater.