The Lucerne Festival’s Push for Diversity Stirs Debate

LUCERNE, Switzerland — The Lucerne Festival here, one of classical music’s premier events, has long had a reputation for exclusivity.

For much of the event’s 84-year history, women and people of color have struggled to be heard onstage, and audiences have remained overwhelmingly white and wealthy.

But this summer, the festival, which officially begins on Friday, is trying to remake its image, programming its season with an emphasis on diversity: a series of concerts featuring Black and Latino artists, as well as women.

“We don’t have to be radical, but we should be aware,” Michael Haefliger, the festival’s executive and artistic director, said in an interview. “We should have this feeling of shaking the ground a little bit and realizing that we have for a long time excluded a certain part of the public.”

That drive is part of a broader effort to address severe racial and gender disparities in classical music, a field in which women and people of color are still underrepresented among performers, conductors, composers and administrators.

“This is a big step toward shining a spotlight on the problems in our field,” said Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder and leader of the Chineke! Orchestra, a British ensemble made up largely of musicians of color that will be featured at Lucerne this year. “A lot of the classical music that we pride ourselves on today is inspired by Black artists, Black musicians and Black composers. But we don’t hear that side of the story.”

Lucerne’s leaders hope that the focus on diversity will help prompt discussions about racism, sexism and exclusion across classical music. They have tried, with mixed success, to capture the public’s attention. A series of talks related to the theme have been added to the agenda, including a recent one called: “Seeing is Believing? Black Artists in Classical Music!” A marketing campaign features an assortment of chess pieces reimagined for an era of inclusivity: a knight reborn as a purple unicorn, a bishop bearing zebra stripes.

But the festival’s efforts have been met with skepticism by some artists, audience members and commentators, who see the drive as mere publicity and say it will do little to address systemic disparities in the industry. And others say the festival’s focus should be on art, not social problems.

“This kind of P.R. may alienate the natural audiences of this festival,” said Rodrigo Carrizo Couto, a freelance journalist based in Switzerland. “Why are we doing this? Why are we following some sort of California agenda?”

Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed, orchestras have come under pressure to appoint more women and minority artists as music directors; opera companies have faced calls to program more works by overlooked composers; and performing arts organizations have been criticized for not moving swiftly enough to recruit leaders of color. Some groups have been denounced for having performers use dark makeup in productions of operas like “Aida,” long after racist caricatures had disappeared from many stages.

At Lucerne, the debate about equity and inclusion has been particularly heated. The festival’s board is made up mostly of white men. Its orchestra includes 81 men and 31 women; only two musicians represent ethnic minority groups.

Haefliger said that he had begun thinking before the pandemic about ways in which the festival could use its platform to shine light on issues of racism and sexism across the industry — inspired by the festival’s 2016 theme, “PrimaDonna,” which featured female conductors. He said he wanted to “break the ice” around discussions of race and gender.

“We’re not a political organization,” he said. “But in a way, culture is also social responsibility, and we’re part of society.”

The idea of devoting this year’s festival to diversity quickly prompted pushback in Switzerland.

Der Bund, a German-language newspaper in nearby Bern, published an article calling the theme “an affront,” saying that while it seemed well intentioned, it could have the effect of making guest artists feel they were invited only because of their skin color.

Although this year’s festival, which runs through mid-September, will feature regulars like the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic, there are many newcomers. All of the soloists making debuts this year, including the trumpeter Aaron Akugbo, the violinist Randall Goosby and the pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, are people of color. Several renowned artists of color will also take part, including the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the sopranos Golda Schultz and Angel Blue, and the composer Tyshawn Sorey. As part of the pre-festival programming, Ilumina, an ensemble of young South American musicians, performed works by Schubert, Bach, Villa-Lobos and others.

A particular emphasis will be placed on music by Black composers; 16 will be featured over the course of the festival. At the red-carpet opening on Friday, the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who is also on Lucerne’s board, played a concerto by Joseph Boulogne, a Black composer born in the 18th century.

Some musicians said they were pleased that Lucerne’s leaders were tackling issues of representation head-on. Still, they said it was too early to judge the success of the effort, and that the festival could demonstrate its sincerity by inviting back performers and composers of color in the future.

“I don’t believe we should embrace diversity as a buzzword,” said Schultz, who will sing a recital at the festival and appear in a semi-staged production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” “I appreciate their willingness to grapple with these issues. Someone has to take a risk, and it’s not going to be perfect.”

Gerard Aimontche, a pianist of African and Russian descent who performed in the run-up to the festival this week, said it was important to make a special effort to feature Black and Latino artists, given the lack of diversity on the world’s top stages. Still, he added that he longed for a day when it would no longer be necessary to use terms like “diversity” at a festival.

“For now, you have to provide a special introduction because otherwise no one would never know about us,” he said. “But I hope that in 50 years from now it will be different. Even if the whole orchestra consists of people of color, we will be just another orchestra, and people will come just like they do to hear any other orchestra.”

On Tuesday evening, Lucerne’s main concert hall was filled with the sounds of the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, which performed pieces by the Black composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Stewart Goodyear, as well as a Tchaikovsky symphony. The auditorium was not full, but the orchestra was warmly received, with whistles and shouts of “Bravo!”

During rehearsal, the Venezuelan conductor Glass Marcano, who led the concert, told the orchestra’s players that performing in Lucerne was a special opportunity. She took selfies with the orchestra and assured the musicians that they would rise to the occasion.

In an interview, Marcano said that classical music would thrive only if it welcomed a wide range of voices.

“We are presenting classical music in all its richness and diversity,” she said. “From now on, this should be seen as normal.”