Minnesota Orchestra principal trumpet Manny Laureano did something last Saturday that most professional musicians will never do. He marched off stage in the middle of a concert. He didn't come back again, either.
His reason? The evening's guest artist, piano-pop musician Rufus Wainwright, took a dig at the GOP's tax bill while bantering between songs. "It's a call to arms," Wainwright said of the controversial bill. "We have to fight for this country."
The politically conservative trumpeter was so upset that he made a split-second decision to exit the concert, leaving his colleagues in the horn section to cover several meaty parts (including Laureano's trumpet solo, an orchestra spokesperson confirmed). His actions set off a firestorm, too, inspiring hundreds of digital commenters — not to mention admiring posts from a few conservative bloggers.
Ditching the concert was a clear violation of his contract, Laureano told the Star Tribune. He met privately Wednesday with Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith to discuss disciplinary actions (none were announced). He also sat down to discuss what it's like to be "center-right," as he calls himself, in the strongly liberal arts world. Laureano's comments were lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Were you surprised by the scale of the reaction to your walk-off?
A: Yes. When I did it I knew there would be ramifications. It was a completely spur-of-the-moment thing. When Rufus Wainwright made his comments, I felt completely unwanted — that he would not want anything to do with me if he knew who I was and what I believed.
Q: In your 37 years with the Minnesota Orchestra, have you ever experienced anything like Wainwright's comments before?
A: Not this strongly. The division that has happened in our society this year, seemingly willfully, has really bothered me. It's gotten much worse. I think people are more exercised about things they would ordinarily internalize.
Q: Were you surprised by the strength of your own feelings?
A: Yes, I was. It takes a lot to push my buttons. But this particular tirade of divisiveness just really hit me in a spot that made me feel like I could not sit there and tacitly be seen as in agreement. I've never done anything like that before in a performance.
Q: Is it difficult to hold conservative political beliefs in the heavily liberal arts industry?
A: Yes, it is difficult, and it's become much harder. It's very important to make the distinction between when we are playing in the orchestra and when we're not. When we're playing, we're a unified group, doing what we do. But outside that situation you have to be constantly on your guard, wondering what people are going to say to you — whether it's just going to be a pleasantry or whether they're going to vent. Interestingly, when you're on stage, that's the safest place to be — and that got taken away from me in Saturday's performance.
Q: Are you saying that it's wrong for a performer to express political views of any kind, conservative or liberal, at an orchestral event?
A: I think we should separate political events from social events. For example, when 9/11 happened, it was appropriate for our conductor Eiji Oue to come out and make the philosophical point that through tragedy we have to endure, beat the bad guys by enduring. That was something you couldn't disagree with, whatever political stripe you were. But when you start saying, "This group of people are the ones who are going to solve your problems, and this group are the ones who are going to give you more problems," that's no longer a philosophical statement — that's a statement of ideology.
Q: So if classical events aren't for politics or ideology, what are they for?
A: The audience comes to Orchestra Hall primarily to hear the orchestra play. Not to listen to music as an escape, but to have things added to their lives. I don't think they're looking for things they already have access to at home, like the news. The music doesn't necessarily unite people, it spurs them to individual thoughts — to open their minds, not close them. That is why I was so offended on Saturday.
Q: Should orchestras be worried about guest artists making political comments from the concert platform?
A: I don't think people are interested in coming to concerts and feeling they're in a re-education camp. The great composers give us the opportunity to think for ourselves. Getting political on stage robs you of that opportunity to think for yourself. With all the high-level intensity we're experiencing politically at the moment, wouldn't it be nice to be able to go to a concert and get that off your mind for two hours, not have more of it?
Q: Some composers do have strong political views, though, don't they?
A: Is there a better exemplar of that than Aaron Copland? His views were more than decidedly leftist. And yet when you think of American music and you want that patriotic fervor to be ringing through your heart, you'll put on his Third Symphony or "Appalachian Spring." But you don't hear his politics in his music. What you hear is a philosophical love of his country.
Q: It's been quite a week for you, with all the media attention. Would you do the same thing again in a similar situation?
A: I've been asking myself that question over and over, especially now that I see the problems it's causing for the youth symphony orchestra I work with [Laureano also serves as co-artistic director and conductor for Minnesota Youth Symphonies]. People are going onto our Facebook page and writing horrible things. According to one writer I am a "bigoted right-wing homophobe." And I'm not. I like it when people get along. This is a road I've never traveled before — I've never been the center of a controversy.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic. Reach him at email@example.com.