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Once again we have failed the women

chairs and music stands on stage with no people

Note: This story features discussions of rape and sexual abuse allegations. If you or someone you know needs support because of an assault call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673

When I opened TikTok this morning there was a trending question for women. “Would you rather be stuck in the woods with a bear or with a man?” Much to many men’s chagrin, women had universally responded “bear.”

Perhaps we should now ask with whom we would prefer to share a stage.

Sammy Sussman’s recent reporting on the 2010 misconduct of New York Philharmonic members Liang Wang and Matthew Muckey is only a week old. It’s a disturbing story, not in the least because of their reinstatement after an initial firing. But it isn’t new. It isn’t isolated. And tales of assault, rape and general exploitation of vulnerable artists are becoming less and less of a surprise.

Within the same decade as the fallout from Cara Kizer’s rape, and the denial of tenure to Amanda Stewart at the New York Philharmonic, other parts of Lincoln Center held their own dark secrets. At New York City Ballet, Alexandra Waterbury filed a lawsuit against the company after illicit photos of her were shared among male company members. And the longtime conductor of the Met Opera, still active at the time, was James Levine, about whom credible allegations of sexual assault have come to light. These incidents are tied together by location, but also by each organization’s instinct to protect its star artists.

From Philadelphia to Oregon, the musicians’ associations (the players who are members of the union, rather than the orchestra management) are sharing support for Cara Kizer on their social media. As former Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette pointed out though,“#wesupportCara” only means so much 14 years later. The first such post came from the New York Philharmonic Musicians themselves, who shared that “such conduct is an affront to women everywhere. It must never be tolerated.”

But who tolerated it in the first place, @nypmusicians? Before and after 2010? Who among you downplayed the incident? Who asked Cara Kizer and Amanda Stewart “how dare you?”

And what is the complete list of behaviors that constitutes “such conduct?” Do you only include the drugging and rape of women? What about bullying and retaliation? When you refer to “a safe environment so that no one is afraid to come to work” do you recognize that such feelings are often correlated with the gender balance?

How much progress do you expect to make when you refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem within your organization?

In 2020 The Atlantic reported on what they called a “God Status Problem” in classical music training. They spoke with four dozen artists about the issue — that the top-level performers and leaders are seen as untouchable. In other words, misconduct can get reported, but when your organization is relying on a particular artist for clout, their misdeeds will end up downplayed or denied. Or wrongdoing will be reported to that artist’s best friends, who will naturally protect them.

While fundraising is not directly acknowledged in The Atlantic’s story, it is fair to say that in large organizations, there is a fiscal interest in keeping an orchestra’s superstars “shiny” regardless of the truth. Just look at recent New York Philharmonic ads, featuring both Liang Wang and Matthew Muckey. Imagine being a member of the orchestra, knowing that those two were part of an attack on a more vulnerable member, and seeing them not only protected by the union (paid for with your dues), but then quite literally shown as the poster children for the organization.

The truths that we must acknowledge about orchestras and the classical music field as a whole are not comfortable. And solving these problems will mean facing more than just criminal behavior. It means understanding the hostility that women confront every day, and making a conscious choice to be part of a solution. It means creating an environment where management treats no performer as “too big to fail.” It means balancing the power structure so that no performer feels invincible. And it means never again weaponizing tenure to keep women, performers of color (as in cases such as timpanist Elayne Jones and percussionist Josh Jones), or those who speak up out of permanent positions.

The New York Philharmonic President Gary Ginstling has informed the players and the board that a fresh investigation will take place over Muckey and Wang’s incident and its aftermath.

But note that the focus is still on Muckey and Wang and sexual assault, while the broad issue of the culture within the orchestra, is seemingly not under the microscope in any material way. Sexual assault is a crime of power and control, so prevention must also be related to power, rather than solely the due punishment.

It’s a lesson that we in classical music seem to be extremely slow to learn. Organizations that don’t confront their power imbalance — be they conservatories, orchestras, choirs, summer festivals or The American Federation of Musicians itself — will be left in the wake of progress. And worse, they will have these incidents of sexual misconduct occur and come to light again and again.

Audience members, you are the only thing more valuable to an orchestra than a star player, no matter their behavior. Your call for change will, without a doubt, be the most powerful, and will do the most to protect the vulnerable. Music is better when it expands our worldview. But the artists who do that the most are the ones who come in alone as “one of the first” of their kind. That loneliness is a vulnerability, which requires support.

I myself am a woman in classical music. And I have a list of men. Men who I know to “stay away” from. Men about whom I have been warned. I’m not alone. We have quiet, private conversations with anecdotal but credible evidence. That is our line of defense. And that is why I was so struck by the hypothetical about “the man or the bear.”

We women, as a group, overwhelmingly prefer the bear. Instead of telling us how crazy that is, consider that if a woman were attacked by a bear, it would take less than 14 years for the story to make the news. Nobody would worry over the bear’s reputation, or accuse us of lying.

This is the right time to interrogate our musical institutions and ask what they value. Is it indeed music? Or is it influence, clout, and prestige? Performing great music as an orchestra requires the ability to show up authentically, and to work as a team. That means trust — wielding less power and more vulnerability. When we safely make space for that, our humanity will appear. And that will be a beautiful sound.

Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at colleen@lpm.org.

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