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A star opera singer is changing classical music with a radical idea: Listening

Davóne Tines in Philarmonia Baroque Orchestra’s production of Handel’s “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo.” (Frank Wing)

How do you fix a house in rough shape? It depends on how rough the shape.

If the issues merely mar the surface, the place may just need a cosmetic refurb — a paint job, a sweeping redecoration, maybe some cheery landscaping to make the old beast look more approachable.

But if the problems are more serious, if the structure is starting to shift and sway and struggle to support itself; if undiscovered faults have gradually deepened and widened to reveal real damage; if unfilled cracks and unchecked corrosion threaten to bring the whole thing down, you may have a bigger problem on your hands. You may need to fix the foundation.

So it is across the post-coronavirus classical landscape, where institutions large and small are taking fresh measure of their stability, recovering from the shock of lengthy closures (if they survived) and at long last reckoning with widespread calls for increased diversity in every sector of American life. This has meant drafting blueprints of how best to get back to normal — and that means determining whether “normal” itself was the root of the rot.

That sound you’re hearing is classical music’s long overdue reckoning with racism

Orchestras and ensembles all over the country are attempting to update their images and meet the new aesthetic, social and financial demands of this 21st-century classical milieu, an endeavor largely pursued through diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives commonly known as DEI.

“This is the music of, you know, wealthy Western European people,” bass-baritone Davóne Tines says by phone from Amsterdam, where he has been spending time with his partner. “So what does it mean for people outside of that context to engage with this music?”

It’s one of several questions Tines intends to pursue on- and offstage as the first creative partner for San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

If that title sounds broad, it should. Tines’s role extends well beyond the usual purview of an artist at a company. He’ll play a key role in PBO’s strategic planning, programming and governance; he’ll have full access to the orchestra’s financials and inner workings and he’ll conduct important conversations with the community surrounding the orchestra — including board members and ticket holders — about what it means to effectively engage with early music in new times.

“Davóne’s voice will be heard at all levels of the organization,” says Courtney Beck, executive director of PBO. “And I think what’s important about that is that he also brings an incredible external lens. So we’re not just talking to ourselves.”

“How do we talk about contextualizing this repertoire? What does it mean to hire more Black people?” says Tines. “We will talk about those things ad nauseam in terms of literally laying the groundwork for how those billions of dollars are spent over the next decade. But the important thing is that I literally have a seat at that table. That these decisions are not being made devoid a minority perspective.”

Representation matters, but it isn’t everything. And while every art form has some soul-searching to do in terms of how the issues of race, privilege and inequity invariably seep into the structures of our institutions, classical music has demonstrated particularly pronounced difficulties with diversity.

For just one metric, a 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras estimated the number of non-White musicians at less than 15 percent, with Black musicians “hovering at around 1.8 percent.” The same skew echoes through the industry: from the podium, in the back offices, on the programs, in the conservatories.

I’ll leave it to the commenters to pile up all the Perfectly Valid Reasons why this imbalance is and has always been the case. Deficiency of diversity across the classical world is certainly a product of many factors — with economic access and music education often the first things on the DEI fix-it list.

An imagined lack of Black musicians is another popular excuse — one that floats atop a number of cultural assumptions, conveniently omits the many ways the classical pipeline narrows when it comes to communities of color and obscures the stubborn biases that define an art form still struggling to shed the vestiges of its origins in the courts and concert halls of (brace yourselves, everyone) the White European aristocracy.

But initiatives like El Sistema and organizations like Sphinx — both geared toward increasing access to music education to students in underserved communities — have served tens of thousands of young Black and Latino musicians, a strong indication that they exist.

To imagine the disproportionate number of non-White musicians in classical music as having no blood relation to other glaring discrepancies in American life that track along racial lines — from distribution of wealth, to incarceration rates, to employment opportunities and salary gaps, to experience of police brutality to disparities in health care — sure seems like an effort to whistle one tune just loud enough to drown out another.

Inequality in American life is a foundational problem that needs immediate repair — and too many arts organizations are frankly too scared to venture into their own basements.

“The only way to understand the present is really to delve into the past,” says Beck. “Sometimes I hate saying that because it sounds sort of trite and almost silly, but a period instrument orchestra isn’t relegated to the music of the 16th or 18th centuries. Baroque music is just music. It’s how we examine it in the present that counts.”

The lip service of DEI can often come off as a quick fix, a quantitative correction without much substance, executed without changing how race and difference are engaged onstage, or altering people’s perspectives of each other.

“Yes, okay,” says Tines, “the organization will look more colorful on the stage, sure, and also behind the curtain,” he says. “But the under-engaged aspect of that is the annoyance, tiresomeness and trauma-inducing nature of having marginalized identities, minorities and Black people bear witness to the trauma they caused.”

One might reasonably (if a bit lazily) presume that the enclaves of Baroque and early music — devoted to the preservation and performance of rarely heard compositions from historically distant composers on forgotten period instruments — exist primarily as a rigid counterpoint to our insatiable cultural craving for innovation and experimentation.

And while PBO is a sturdy, skilled and sensitively attuned Baroque-focused orchestra, employing original instruments for historically informed performance of Baroque, classical and early Romantic music, it has also built its growing reputation for adventurous commissions of new music.

Its forthcoming live season features programs that would fit snugly within the expectations for any period instrument orchestra: Recently appointed music director Richard Egarr will make his in-person debut for a program of “Reawakened Masterpieces” by Schumann Oct. 14-17, and the Philharmonia Chorale is slated to perform Bach’s Christmas Oratorio Dec. 9-12.

But the calendar also strikes a deftly engineered balance between old and new. PBO’s “New Music for Old Instruments” series has commissioned new works from a slew of contemporary composers including Jake Heggie, Caroline Shaw, Mason Bates, George Lewis, Paul Stanhope and PBO’s newly minted composer-in-residence Tarik O’Regan, whose centuries-sprawling “Voice Crossing ” program premieres in April.

And Matthew Aucoin’s genre-fluid “The No One’s Rose” — the first full-company production from his American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) — got its world premiere Aug. 25-29. Based on the poetry of Paul Celan, the show features Tines and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo along with soprano Julia Bullock and tenor Paul Appleby.

Last January, Tines joined Costanzo and soprano Lauren Snouffer in a gender-fluid production of Handel’s rarely staged serenata, “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo” directed by Christopher Alden. Costanzo played Galatea, Snouffer appeared as Aci and Tines played Polifemo, the monstrous (and monstrously jealous) cyclops.

The production and Tines’s portrayal in particular won accolades, but Tines was left wondering what audiences walked away with — what it meant for a largely White audience to watch him embody the monster, overwhelm the space with his voice, and take control of the narrative. We hear much of the power of beauty, but Polifemo — written for a vocal range that, at times, seems to tear the character in two — offered Tines a chance to flip the script and embody the beauty of power.

“I hate that, because I have to be the monster,” he says, “but also I love that, because even within the fantasy of performing that show, for at least an hour and a half, I am the most powerful person in the room.”

The experience informed how Tines has defined and envisioned his new role at PBO. (Add to this his own studies of sociology at Harvard and years of experience working in arts administration in various capacities at Harvard, the American Repertory Theater and George Mason University.)

But for Tines, it’s not just the open ears and collaborative spirit of this particular organization that has expanded possibilities in the Baroque. He sees it as a fundamental quality of the music itself. While performing early music as a graduate student in vocal performance at Juilliard, he was struck by the agency held by individual players, the interdependence of the musicians as a group and the importance of understanding each other.

“[Early music] is a space that has been calibrated for people to be sensitively listening to and engaging with other people,” he says. “It’s just a tenet of Baroque and early music-making that collaboration is critical. For me, that shows that there is hope — and this could be a bit crass, but that there’s hope for White people. There actually is a part of essential White culture that has the capacity for listening and connecting built into it. That’s a cultural artifact that has survived, and to me that’s extremely encouraging.”

In what could be interpreted as a sly jab at the vagaries of DEI initiatives, Tines plans to launch an online discussion series titled “The Ultimate Outcome,” bringing audiences, administrators and artists into overdue conversations about how the music of the distant past can serve to introduce more humanity into the culture of the right-now.

“I think it’s too commonly misconstrued that there’s some sort of nebulous, uber-White-person monoculture, and I think that’s a danger,” he says. “When you take away the specificity of people’s lineages, you take away the variety of human existence.”

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