Two controversies broke out this week regarding accusations of anti-Black racism in classical music. One involved two high-profile international soloists, pianist Yuja Wang and violinist Leonidas Kavakos. The other features less prominent individuals—a group of academics—but it also points to the slowness of the classical music community to take up difficult conversations about race and representation.
But in both cases, the accusations and the rebuttals have played out speedily on social media—within a community that still relies heavily on hierarchical prestige and institutional power.
On Monday, an anonymous person accused Kavakos and Wang of making racist remarks about a Black audience member after one of their joint recitals in Michigan. The allegation was made via an Instagram account called "Orchestra Is Racist," one of several similarly geared social media accounts that have sprung up this summer.
Wang is one of classical music's few current superstars; she holds endorsement deals with leading luxury brands, including Rolex and Rimowa. (In 2014, this reporter produced a performance video with Wang for NPR Music.) Through a representative, she sent a written statement to NPR late Tuesday night that read in full:
"It has come to my attention that a post has been shared on @orchestraisracist, with an anonymous report of a post-performance conversation in a car between Leonidas Kavakos and myself a couple of years ago in Michigan. I have no recollection of this conversation, but language and actions that are judgmental or discriminatory against anyone are unacceptable. The most important thing is how we treat each other, and I offer my sincerest and most humble apology, if I have ever offended anyone.
I have faced personal and professional criticism, discrimination, and sexism countless times throughout my life and career. I know how hurtful that can be, and would never want to contribute to a negative culture or atmosphere that disparages others. It goes completely against what I believe. It's important to listen to the many voices speaking out right now. We have to be open with each other to allow for the opportunity to acknowledge our missteps, to forgive and to grow from these experiences."
Within the comments section on the "Orchestra Is Racist" post, Kavakos republished a comment that he had originally made on his own Facebook page on June 2, in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing. He wrote in part: "If WE want to look at Humanity as an accord consisting of human lives, and attempting to create its own Harmony, the atrocious act of killing George Floyd, has destroyed that attempt. It is an act that stabs US ALL creating severe wounds, that threaten OUR Existence! If, additionally, this act is 'justified' by some kind of 'life rating according to skin color,' then I'm afraid, Humanity is suicidal." Kavakos did not address the specific accusation made against him and Wang.