When the news broke about the sexual abuse allegations against the famed conductor James Levine—first in the New York Post, and then in a more detailed follow up by The New York Times, withthree men now on record alleging abuse—I let out an exasperated sigh.
It was a sigh of pain and disappointment in a classical music legend, but also a sigh of relief. As with other victims in 2017’s deluge of harassment and abuse, I was relieved that the cultural moment finally has given alleged victims a space safe enough to tell their stories.
Given the national conversation around sexual abuse by men, I couldn’t stop thinking about eerie similarities between Levine’s story and the accusations against disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Both Levine and Weinstein had rumors swirling around them, along with fuzzy yet persistent warnings about their improprieties. Both men seemingly were untouchable titans in their fields, with nearly unmatched influence. Notably, accusations against both men came on the downside of their respective careers, when their weakened influence held less sway over a musician’s or actor’s career.
It was only a matter of time before classical music found itself mired in the sexual harassment and abuse reckoning now sweeping through American industries, from Hollywood to news media, politics, and beyond.
However, while the disease plaguing these fields is singular—degenerate men in power—the treatments applied by each industry has differed significantly. Which remedy classical music chooses to emulate will be crucial to its success moving forward.
In entertainment and media, judgment has been swift if belated. Hollywood has shunned Weinstein. Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. have lost lucrative deals with Netflix and HBO. News titans Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Matt Lauer, and Charlie Rose were removed from their powerful jobs.
Political institutions have been less agile in handling similar allegations. Democratic Congressmen John Conyers and Al Franken show no signs of resigning their jobs, with only token pressure from their colleagues, even Republicans. Senatorial candidate Judge Roy Moore has rejected calls to withdraw from his race, amid his own accusations of sexual abuse.
Why the difference between Hollywood and Capitol Hill? As Nate Silver argued on FiveThirtyEight, politics is a much more conservative (defined as “change-resistant, not right of center”) institution than Hollywood:
“If there’s a precedent that sexual harassment is grounds for removal or resignation from office, then a lot of members of Congress — including some of Schumer’s colleagues and friends — could have to resign once more allegations come to light, as they almost certainly will…Politics is a male-dominated institution, and a conservative institution, and conservative, male-dominated institutions have pretty much no interest in flipping over the sexual harassment rock and seeing what comes crawling out from underneath it.”
Replace “Congress” and “politics” with “classical music,” and “Schumer” with a prominent musician of your choice: the similarities are stark.
Nearly half of the top U.S. orchestras will perform no music composed by women next season.
Classical music is an inherently conservative institution, illustrated by how its product functionally has changed very little over the centuries. Anne Midgette detailed in the Washington Post that women composers—a demographic ripe for P.R. promotion in 2017—have had to make strides without much help from legacy institutions, and even sometimes in spite of them. Having graduated recently from a music conservatory myself, I find it impossible to ignore the white, male structure that contributes to this conservatism. Among the major American conservatories and music schools, white men serve as dean for Eastman, Juilliard, the New England Conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, Indiana‘s Jacobs School, Rice’s Shepherd School, Yale, USC‘s Thornton School, Mannes, Peabody, and the University of North Texas.
It is worth examining, seriously and urgently, how a conservative structure that so favors powerful men might contribute to abuses by those men. Classical music is a field interwoven with prolonged one-on-one mentorship. Many crucial points in my own career, from marquee Lincoln Center performances to a favorable review in The New York Times, were enabled indirectly by the right recommendation from the right person. Indeed, one Levine accuser submitted in his police report a letter of recommendation from the embattled conductor, written with his signature on Met Opera stationery.
The symptoms of this conservatism already have begun to manifest beyond rumor. Dan Kempson, a former opera singer, penned a widely circulated Medium post detailing harassment experienced by gay men in the opera industry. In jazz, a discipline that shares with classical music a pedagogical model, a tradition of one-on-one mentorship, and often the same brick-and-mortar facilities, at least one prominent institution, Berklee College of Music, is reeling from charges of a culture of sexual harassment.
Even when no illegal offenses are alleged, misogynistic attitudes prevail. Prominent conductor Mariss Jansons remarked recently that women conductors were “not his cup of tea.” Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons (a Jansons protégé), when asked by a Boston public radio station whether sexual harassment and abuse existed in classical music, replied with a firm “no.” (Both men have since apologized for their remarks and expressed support for women in music.)
And somehow, in 2017—and at this particular moment for women—some prominent figures in the musical world still feel the nauseating need to sneer at the way the excellent young pianist Yuja Wang dresses on stage.
The response from the Metropolitan Opera could certainly be worse. As this post is published, the company has suspended Levine “based on these news reports,” according to The New York Times, and has hired an external law firm to look into Levine’s behavior.
Regardless of the result of the investigations, this is the beginning of a long conversation in classical music, not the end. According to a recent U.K. study conducted by the Guardian, as many as six in ten musicians have experienced harassment. (There, the sexual-abuse convictions of prominent musicians and pedagogues Robert King and Philip Pickett still linger.) Not only is this unacceptable, but it speaks to a pervasive rot in the industry so many of us call home and fight tooth and nail to keep relevant and alive.
This is going to get worse before it gets better.
In Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein was just the first domino to fall in a long row of serial abusers of power and privilege. Given Levine’s lofty perch, and the swirl of rumors around others still in the industry, the influential conductor will almost certainly not be the last. The question is, how will institutions affected by these accusations choose to respond. Will the classical music business follow the example of entertainment, expunging its ranks quickly in an aggressive effort at reform? Or will it play politics—dragging its feet, equivocating, and making excuses, in fear of rocking the boat?
The future of classical music may lie in the balance.
John Hong, a trained clarinetist, is copywriter and public relations manager for National Sawdust, and holds a Master of Music diploma from The Juilliard School.