The Refugee Orchestra Project performing at the United Nations in 2018
“Shut up and play”—Musicians as Activists in the 21st century
The Refugee Orchestra Project performing for the 2018 United Nations Day Concert during the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York City on October 24, 2018 (Photo by Steve Philip, courtesy Verismo Communications)

“Shut up and play”—Musicians as Activists in the 21st century

Shut up and dribble.” On February 16, 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham criticized NBA players Lebron James and Kevin Durant for being “political” after seeing footage of the two expressing the view that the President “doesn’t understand the people” and that many of the President’s comments are “laughable and scary.” Ingraham’s commentary created something of a firestorm, and a talking-head debate ensued about whether or not sports figures should be advocating certain “political” positions.

Few would deny the power sports figures can wield in conveying social justice messages, whether in the form of a raised fist or the seemingly simple act of kneeling during a football game. But what about the role of classical musicians in this context? Is it appropriate for us to convey “activist” positions beyond, say, describing the inherent value of a music education? When we see discrimination in the world, when we see injustice, who are we to be the ones to speak out? Should we just “shut up and play”?

Is it appropriate for us to convey “activist” positions beyond, say, describing the inherent value of a music education?

Amid the current proliferation of nativism across the industrialized world, musicians are uniquely positioned to convey the following simple message that we should all, as artists, understand: no matter who you are, where you are from, how much money you have, or what language you speak, you have inherent worth.

We know this because we live it, every day. Musicians come from, and interact with, people from all walks of life. In our career trajectories, we often start at the very bottom of the economic ladder, barely able to make ends meet. Gradually, most move into the middle class and a small number go well beyond and join higher economic brackets. We go to dinners with donors who are the richest of the rich and then partake in outreach programs with the most at-need in our communities. Our work crosses linguistic barriers and we regularly interact with people from myriad cultures. We often travel to remote corners of the world to share our craft. We find ourselves performing at symposiums thrown by the intellectuals of academia as well as crossover pop-culture events. We work in schools, and most of us have taught people from across the cultural spectrum. We are given a unique window into the world and are provided the opportunity to escape our own echo chambers, whatever those may be.

And we work together. In a single concert, we may have a 10-year-old treble singer making music with a conductor or instrumentalist who is well past 80; they perform as equals. We delve into work written by people from around the world, during a span of many hundreds of years—through this music, we get to know those who have long been dead and those whose voices are just coming to the fore. We find ways to empathize with and interpret the work of people we will never meet. We create, and hope that, long after we are gone, someone will see our world through the music we leave behind for posterity.

Consider opera: stage crews, academically minded dramaturges, white-collar administrators, and superstar artists all work intimately together, in the moment, to create a single organism. Each contributor is absolutely essential to the process, and to the product, that we deliver to our audiences.

In this way, music is enlightening: It allows us to have a wide, kaleidoscopic view of the world, and to see beauty in every corner.

Today, perhaps more than ever, it is the musician’s responsibility to remind the world of this beauty. Exclusionary politics and the demonization of the other are utterly contrary to what musicians do on a day-to-day basis, and we must make an effort to fight this hatred. It is the duty that comes with the incredible gift of music.

Exclusionary politics and the demonization of the other are utterly contrary to what musicians do on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, most of us are not policy experts, and many specific political matters are outside our purview. Yet, when it comes to matters of inclusion, collaboration and cultural understanding, musicians are better positioned than people in just about any other field. More importantly, there are some matters that are purely political and others that—in a democratic context—should never become political at all.

In spring 2016, when the Refugee Orchestra Project had its first concert showcasing the contributions of refugees to American culture, the performance was an activist, but not politically divisive, undertaking. While anti-immigrant sentiment toward particular groups seemed to be growing, it was still typically accepted that the United States had been built as a country of immigrants and could reasonably be expected to continue accepting refugees and other groups. Over the last three years, the political climate changed dramatically, and any positive attitude toward immigrant—especially refugee—communities is now viewed as an incendiary political statement. Our programming choices—featuring refugee performers and composers—were suddenly seen by some as contentious, even antagonistic. We received both hate mail and accusations of questionable patriotism. (Never mind that ROP concerts typically end with a performance of “God Bless America,” written by refugee Irving Berlin.)

I formed the Refugee Orchestra Project because the divisiveness that was taking shape in our country had a direct relationship to my own life. I then used my experience, together with my professional connections, to create a platform for change. But we do not need to have personal history with specific kinds of hatred to fight it. Yes, it can be challenging to speak genuinely and authoritatively about the experience of an underrepresented group to which you do not belong, but every one of us can be an ally by supporting organizations that promote acceptance and plurality within our world. And the value of this plurality is something we, as classical musicians, actually understand.

We do not need to have personal history with specific kinds of hatred to fight it.

Organizations currently fighting for positive change include those promoting diversity, like Sphinx Organization and Castle of Our Skins in the U.S. and Chineke! Ensemble in the U.K. All three of these organizations use music to increase the plurality of voices in our field (see last week’s article for more on this topic). There are also many organizations working to support a very specific marginalized group within a given community—like Eureka Ensemble, which provides a musical experience for homeless women, or the numerous musical initiatives that work within prison systems. Large-scale programs like Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra and André de Quadros’s choral projects in the Middle East help foster peace on an international scale. Chicago Sinfonietta has recently gone the direction of impacting social change more widely within its mission, and has dubbed itself “an activist orchestra,” with programs that address inclusion, diversity, and environmentalism, among others.

Lidiya Yankovskaya conducting the Refugee Orchestra Project

The very first concert of the Refugee Orchestra Project took place at First Church Cambridge in Cambridge, MA on May 10, 2016 (Photo by Scott Bump, courtesy Verismo Communications)

All of these organizations have been built by musician-activists—artists who wanted to see a better world and were willing to work to make it happen. All of us can make a difference by seeking out organizations that promote causes that matter to us, taking part in their performances, and volunteering our time to spread the message. We all have personal resources – time, money, expertise, connections. I have chosen to invest mine in ROP. This includes everything from covering my own travel to/from performances, drafting press releases, seeking potential partners, and spending hours organizing parts and marking in bowings. The ROP staff are highly qualified arts leaders who have decided to volunteer large swaths of time outside of our primary careers to this undertaking because we want to make a difference. Many of the musicians who play with us have given the organization extra time on the administrative or marketing side, and some, who have the flexibility, have donated their concert fees to the refugee aid organizations which our performances support.

Organizations that do not have a specific activist mission also can and should do more. Those of us in a position of power can use our musical experience, connections, and public position to promote a message of inclusion and acceptance. It can be as easy as taking a moment to reiterate a simple and powerful message that is inherently a part of our art: we all matter. Some organizations are doing this by ensuring that their programs are inclusive of many voices or by organizing new initiatives within their organizations. An example is the Oregon Symphony’s “Sounds of Home” series, which brought attention issues such as homelessness, immigration, and the environment.

If we focus solely on overt activism, we may lose some of the transformative power that art can have on each listener.

Of course, many of our musical experiences will not be activist in their primary mission—and that explicit intent is not required to make an impact. Music for its own sake is immensely valuable and has the capacity to move people on an individual level. If we focus solely on art as a means to overt activism, we may lose some of the transformative power that art can have on each listener. Last week, I sat on a lawn with hundreds of people, listening to a free performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival. It was powerful to simply experience the massive forces of Mahler 2 together with the many families and individuals—music lovers and those who just happened to stumble onto the lawn of the public park.

That being said, when we see the society around us moving in the direction of hatred, we can and should—at least occasionally—look outside our regular programming and use our skills to do more. We can join in the ceaseless fight to make our world more interconnected through mutual understanding (for more on conductors’ role in affecting change, see “The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as musical leaders for the 21st century”).

Last fall, the Refugee Orchestra Project performed a feature concert at the United Nations as part of the annual U.N. Day. As I sat in the small green room just behind U.N.’s Assembly Hall, I felt the weight of the many people who have sat in that very room, likely on that very chair: national leaders both revered and hated, cultural icons, makers of peace and of war, artists, politicians, scientists, and more. On stage that day, we brought together the classical music tradition of India with that of Europe, in THE American City, to a truly international audience. Next week, I have an opportunity to perform with ROP again—this time in the country of origin of North America’s first European settlers, in London. When I perform with the musicians of Refugee Orchestra Project, the deeper meaning behind the music-making gives great focus and intensity to the musical experience, often rendering it more meaningful to all involved. There is nothing more exhilarating than sharing this experience with audiences across the world, hopefully making a difference in the minds of some, and helping others feel a sense of community as they partake in our music-making.

If the recognition of every human being’s inherent value is political, then the creation and performance of classical music is irrevocably political. It is important for all of us to remember this, and to remind others—the next time we are presented with the opportunity to do so. We should never just “shut up and play.”


Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya is a champion of Russian masterpieces, operatic rarities, and contemporary works on the leading edge of classical music. As Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, Lidiya is the only woman to hold that title in a multimillion-dollar opera company in the United States. In the 2019/20 season, Ms. Yankovskaya leads the world premiere of Dan Shore’s Freedom Ride and the Chicago premieres of Joby Talbot’s Everest, Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, and David T. Little’s Soldier Songs at Chicago Opera Theater. She conducts Ricky Ian Gordon’s Ellen West at... Read more »


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