Performing arts can facilitate peaceful dialogue and free speech

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With the recent high-profile cancellation of Cal Performances’ season-opening performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, originally scheduled for the evening of Sept. 21 at the Hearst Greek Theatre, the increasingly uneasy relationship between geopolitics and the arts — and the global issue of free speech — landed directly on my desk.

But it was certainly not the first time; I have been contemplating these issues for many years. In 2008, I had the privilege of working on a very improbable musical project. The New York Philharmonic, with which I served as the head of artistic planning at the time, had been invited by the government of North Korea to perform a concert in its capital, Pyongyang.

The wisdom — and results — of this monumental journey by a flagship American cultural institution has been much debated. For nearly a decade since, one essential question has lingered in me: If the arts are to be considered the key to encouraging free speech or are themselves acts of democratic expression, did that journey do any good?

History will be the judge of that, but perhaps my most vivid memory of the days we spent on the ground in Pyongyang is of the concert hall — the concert itself — with our modest American delegation sitting among sworn enemies and the North Korean citizenry peacefully and respectfully, with the flags of the two nations sharing the stage with the orchestra.

In part through this profound experience — and through literally thousands of nights of music over many years in California and around the world — I have come to realize that sitting in the concert hall is among our society’s most democratizing acts. You may find yourself in a concert hall next to someone you know, or a stranger, by choice or by chance. You may have shared or divergent views, be of potentially highly varied backgrounds, income and beliefs, yet you are each invited to share an experience of art; we are all equal before the music.

In the performing arts, all we require is reasonable accommodation of one another. What we hope for is dialogue; what we aspire to is enlightenment — some kind of collective betterment of understanding as a result of our shared experience.Today, in this fully digital age, expressing opinions is easy, possibly even expected, on commonly available platforms. The conversation can be vociferous — sometimes even overwhelming. Yet this is where we discover the true riches of an open society.

Democracy itself, our highest American ideal, seems reduced to a barrage of tabloid headlines, devoid of nuance. When division and rhetoric become part of the fabric of everyday life, I believe resolutely that it is the responsibility of the arts to elevate discourse. As so many of us seek ways by which to respond to the tumultuous issues of the day, delivered assertively into the intimate proximity of readily available smartphones and laptops, I believe it is more crucial than ever for performing arts organizations to set a contextual frame around the art we present.

Art can never exist in a bubble. Art is, by nature, inextricably linked to our social and civic culture. As such, Cal Performances’ 2017-18 season will explore the idea of boundaries and borders in our flagship Berkeley RADICAL program over the next 10 months. Those who take part will undoubtedly recognize many of the artists, companies, and works — and some, hopefully, will be new discoveries. What I hope will feel constantly fresh, invigorating and welcome are the relationships suggested between one work and another, or one genre or discipline and another, the multiple supporting events that accompany our performing arts presentations, and the ways we are working to draw in the many rich and diverse communities that together form our society.

All are welcome at Cal Performances. This week especially, as we grapple with issues of free speech, we want to inspire greater dialogue between those who agree and those who disagree; those who know each other and those who do not; and with our own intellect. The arts are central to this goal.

The home of Cal Performances is UC Berkeley, birthplace of the historic Free Speech Movement. Let us show the world, this season and always, through music, dance and theater, what that really means.

Matías Tarnopolsky is the executive and artistic director of Cal Performances.