For­bid­den stages

Pi­anist Nick van Bloss on why dis­abled per­form­ers are be­ing badly let down by the clas­si­cal mu­sic world

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - Nick van Bloss will per­form Bach’s Gold­bergs at Wig­more Hall on 27 Dec as part of the Lon­don In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Se­ries

S ome­thing about the sen­tence just didn’t look right. So I read it again.

‘For the record we have pre­sented dis­abled artists on many oc­ca­sions and will con­tinue to do so where we feel they are a good fit for our programme.’

Then it clicked. I re­placed the word ‘dis­abled’ with ‘black’ and sud­denly I was read­ing some­thing racist. Then I re­placed ‘black’ with ‘gay’, and ‘gay’ with ‘for­eign’, and ‘for­eign’ with ‘old’, and ‘old’ with ‘fe­male’, and watched as the sen­tence mor­phed from racist to ho­mo­pho­bic to xeno­pho­bic to ageist and finally to misog­y­nis­tic.

Could a di­ver­sity-aware per­son have writ­ten that state­ment re­gard­ing the dis­abled? The au­thor was the chief ex­ec­u­tive of one of this coun­try’s ma­jor sym­phony or­ches­tras, and it was writ­ten in re­sponse to my man­ager’s query about per­ceived dis­crim­i­na­tion to­wards me. Bri­tain is surely one of the most in­vig­o­rat­ingly di­verse places in the world. But clas­si­cal mu­sic has a di­ver­sity prob­lem, and many of those who run the in­dus­try are not only in de­nial of the fact, but could also be said to be con­tribut­ing to it.

Arts Coun­cil Eng­land (ACE) funds clas­si­cal mu­sic in Eng­land and Wales to the tune of sev­eral hun­dred mil­lion pounds an­nu­ally, with ACE in­sist­ing its ben­e­fi­cia­ries ‘cel­e­brate di­ver­sity’. Di­ver­sity was front and cen­tre of its an­nounce­ments last year, with or­gan­i­sa­tions re­quired to ‘look like their com­mu­ni­ties’ in terms of gender, eth­nic mi­nor­ity make-up and dis­abil­ity. ‘Di­ver­sity is ab­so­lutely cen­tral to what we do,’ said Dar­ren ★en­ley, ACE’S chief ex­ec­u­tive, in Jan­uary. ACE’S own an­nual di­ver­sity re­port high­lighted the un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of mi­nor­ity and pro­tected groups within its funded or­gan­i­sa­tions. Speak­ing about the re­port, ACE’S chair­man Ni­cholas Serota said: ‘I want the arts to be an in­clu­sive world; a build­ing open to all. Not an ex­clu­sive club. Our mis­sion to de­liver on di­ver­sity is dou­bly vi­tal.’

De­spite Serota’s words, it could be that some of the big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of pub­lic money, the top or­ches­tras, don’t grasp the ‘cel­e­brat­ing’ or ‘in­clu­sive’ parts in the con­text of di­ver­sity. Un­der scru­tiny, do they re­ally live up to ‘look­ing like their com­mu­ni­ties’? At­tend any reg­u­lar con­cert by pub­licly funded or­ches­tras and you won’t see much that makes you be­lieve so. Eth­nic mi­nor­ity play­ers in or­ches­tras? Rarely. Women con­duc­tors? Not of­ten. Peo­ple of colour in­vited by or­ches­tras as soloists or con­duc­tors? ★ardly ever. Soloists or orches­tra mem­bers with a dis­abil­ity? Prac­ti­cally never. The list goes on.

I’m a con­cert pi­anist and I have a dis­abil­ity

– I have se­vere Tourette’s syn­drome (the non­swear­ing va­ri­ety). My body twitches and con­torts some 30,000 times a day. It’s shat­ter­ing. But as soon as my fin­gers make con­tact with pi­ano keys my symp­toms van­ish. Imag­ine try­ing to forge a ca­reer as a con­cert pi­anist with a body that vi­o­lently con­torts every wak­ing moment. As my friend, the late neu­rol­o­gist Oliver Sacks once said to me, ‘If you sud­denly gave some­one se­vere Tourette’s, they’d prob­a­bly die of ex­haus­tion

in the first 24 hours’. But I don’t trum­pet the neg­a­tives of my con­di­tion; I cel­e­brate the mir­a­cle of brain chem­istry that al­lows my symp­toms to dis­ap­pear when I per­form. Af­ter a 15-year absence from pub­lic per­for­mance, I made a ‘come­back’ in 2008 and have recorded and per­formed in­ter­na­tion­ally since. But not once in nearly a decade has a Bri­tish orches­tra se­ri­ously en­gaged in dis­cus­sion about the pos­si­bil­ity of my per­form­ing as a soloist with them.

At face value, my plight seems the same as so many mu­si­cians – all vy­ing for work and most not get­ting it. But last year, via an orches­tra man­age­ment in­sider, I heard that I wasn’t be­ing in­vited to per­form be­cause orches­tra bosses didn’t ‘like or ap­pre­ci­ate’ my back­story – my Tourette’s, my dis­abil­ity. So, set­ting out to find out if there was any truth to it, my man­ager wrote to the CEOS of six pub­liclyfunded or­ches­tras whom he’d been in con­tact

‘‘Imag­ine try­ing to forge a ca­reer as a con­cert pi­anist with a body that vi­o­lently con­torts every wak­ing moment


with many times, pos­ing our con­cerns given their di­ver­sity re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Far from gen­er­at­ing a di­a­logue, the replies re­ceived were de­signed to in­tim­i­date or shut us down, and none en­gaged with my spe­cific con­cern. Apart from their mul­ti­ple de­mands for apolo­gies and re­trac­tions, it was dis­heart­en­ing that every se­nior ex­ec­u­tive missed the point: ‘We don’t dis­crim­i­nate’ didn’t open doors for dis­cus­sion; ‘We’re deal­ing with hun­dreds of re­quests from man­agers’ is ir­rel­e­vant to di­ver­sity;‘we had no idea he had Tourette’s’ is un­likely given my profile. But it was what was go­ing on be­hind the scenes that per­haps more vividly il­lu­mi­nates the mind­sets of the CEOS.

In sev­eral hun­dred pages of com­mu­ni­ca­tions about me, which I’ve now seen, with most be­ing emails be­tween the chief ex­ec­u­tives them­selves, a cul­ture of acute dis­re­gard for my con­cerns and to that of di­ver­sity in gen­eral could

very eas­ily be per­ceived – in fact, di­ver­sity is barely men­tioned in the emails. An in­ter­est­ing in­ter­nal email at one Lon­don orches­tra proved telling, though: a se­nior staff mem­ber ad­mits to not hav­ing replied to a past mes­sage from my man­ager be­cause do­ing so might have opened up a dis­crim­i­na­tion de­bate. But this was from long be­fore I’d even thought about com­plain­ing, and way be­fore I’d even heard that there may be some kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion go­ing on.

The col­lec­tive in­dig­na­tion that ini­tially fu­elled the CEOS’ emails to each other rapidly evolved into melt­down and dam­age lim­i­ta­tion af­ter an ar­ti­cle about my plight ap­peared in The Times in Fe­bru­ary. Still giv­ing no cre­dence to my valid con­cerns, dam­age lim­i­ta­tion was the sole fo­cus of the CEOS, with two PR com­pa­nies tasked with shut­ting down the many fol­low-up sto­ries re­quested of me by the me­dia. I’ve yet to be pro­vided with ev­ery­thing the PR com­pa­nies claimed about me, but their strat­egy worked. I was si­lenced. Given, how­ever, that the CEOS be­lieve my com­plaint holds no merit, and since they con­sider me pro­fes­sion­ally in­ad­e­quate, why were they so fix­ated on shut­ting me up?

In 2016, ad­dress­ing the As­so­ci­a­tion of

Bri­tish Or­ches­tras, the Sec­re­tary of State for Dig­i­tal, Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport stated that Arts Coun­cil Eng­land should be work­ing with or­ches­tras to dras­ti­cally im­prove di­ver­sity.


If those who are run­ning the mu­sic in­dus­try can­not em­brace the di­verse spirit of 2018 Bri­tain, they should step aside


An­other com­ment by the min­is­ter in­spired the cre­ation of Chineke!, the phe­nom­e­nal black and mi­nor­ity-eth­nic orches­tra. Sim­i­larly, Bournemouth Sym­phony re­cently an­nounced its six-mem­ber dis­abil­ity-led en­sem­ble, the first such scheme by any orches­tra. But I can only feel that, as fan­tas­tic as they are, they don’t al­ways tackle di­ver­sity. They cre­ate di­vi­sion. Imag­ine the out­cry if mi­nor­ity groups in so­ci­ety were solely re­quired to work with, and only progress within, their own group – if they were only al­lowed to cross the main­stream thresh­old when deemed to be a ‘good fit’. It would be cultural apartheid. There should be no need for ‘spe­cial’ mu­si­cal en­sem­bles in 21st-cen­tury Bri­tain.

Since my con­cerns be­came pub­lic, I’ve had many emails from world-class dis­abled and mi­nor­ity-eth­nic mu­si­cians who feel they have been the sub­ject of dis­crim­i­na­tion by UK or­ches­tras. ★ave any of them raised their con­cerns? No. With­out ex­cep­tion, they all fear the es­tab­lish­ment will ‘block them out’ if they com­plain. That is sad and very telling. I sug­gest it is now time for all mu­si­cians to de­mand di­ver­sity in the mu­sic pro­fes­sion. But let’s be clear, ‘cel­e­brat­ing di­ver­sity’ and in­sist­ing on pre­sent­ing di­verse soloists or orches­tra mem­bers does not equate to a low­er­ing of stan­dards. A quota of women or di­verse em­ploy­ees is manda­tory in cer­tain in­dus­tries and po­lit­i­cal par­ties – and no one would say these pro­fes­sion­als are less tal­ented than oth­ers. Clas­si­cal mu­sic bosses must now up­hold sim­i­lar stan­dards, or else risk a re­duc­tion in fund­ing. If those who are run­ning the in­dus­try are not able to em­brace the di­verse spirit of 2018 Bri­tain, then maybe it is time for them to step aside. Cor­po­rate fos­sils, by def­i­ni­tion, will never truly evolve, ir­re­spec­tive of how many boxes they tick to pro­cure fund­ing. A shake-up is des­per­ately needed.

In his April col­umn (see box, p50) Richard Mor­ri­son says that my com­plaint go­ing pub­lic has ‘pricked con­sciences’. Un­for­tu­nately, from what I’ve seen, it has done noth­ing of the kind. In fact, it would be hard to find an­other ex­am­ple of a mu­si­cian hav­ing been sub­ject to such vil­i­fi­ca­tion by some of those who run the mu­sic in­dus­try – and all be­cause I posed ques­tions about di­ver­sity. That is fact, not self-pity. And, it is only by ac­knowl­edg­ing facts – in­jus­tice, in­equal­ity and lack of di­ver­sity – that those who run the pro­fes­sion will ever be com­pelled to act upon them and rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion.

Nick van Bloss:‘As soon as my fin­gers make con­tact with pi­ano keys, my symp­toms van­ish’

Baroque con­cert:Van Bloss per­formsBach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions at The In­sti­tut Français, Lon­don in 2013

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