A planned tribute to the victims of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub massacre by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra has fallen apart after blowback on social media. The reason: commenters attacked the Philharmonic for planning to play a piece by a straight white man.
The Philharmonic had originally announced it would play a piece by composer Lev Zhurbin, who goes by the professional moniker Ljova. Ljova, himself a Russian-American immigrant, composed the piece as a reaction to his own horror at the attack which claimed the lives of 49 people.
“I was just about to begin composing the piece then, and asked the orchestra if it would be OK for me to dedicate the new piece to the victims,” Ljova said in a statement. “It was my intention to bring attention and comfort to the families of the victims, and to use my opportunity as a composer with a commission to respond musically. I was writing a piece for the Orlando Philharmonic, and Orlando — and indeed the country — was in a state of mourning that I could not ignore.”
The Orlando Philharmonic accepted the unsolicited piece, and agreed to perform it this November as a tribute to the victims of the attack. Previous to Ljova submitting his work, the orchestra had not planned any special tribute commemorating the Pulse shootings. The orchestra also acquired a $6,000 grant from New Music USA to pay the musicians as the Philharmonic has had its finances devastated by COVID-19. Ljova would not have received any of the funds.
The Orlando Sentinal reports that the announcement of the new piece met with surprising backlash on Facebook, with commenters–most of whom are not even from Orlando–attacking the Philharmonic for cultural appropriation. Specifically, they attacked Ljova for being a straight man writing about an incident involving LGBTQ people, and the Philharmonic for accepting the piece from a white man. The night of the Pulse Massacre, the nightclub had hosted a “Latin night;” most of the victims of the attack were Latino.
“The fact that you then chose to go out of your way applying for a grant with this piece as a facade for ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ truly shows that you don’t know what either of those mean,” Orlando resident Matthew Fackler wrote on Facebook. “I cannot believe that somewhere in the pipeline of your company, it wasn’t discovered that this is a horribly tone-deaf decision on your part.”
“Nothing against Lev but this is an unfortunate choice and missed opportunity on the Orlando Philharmonic’s part to not select and support a queer composer of color to represent and write about a tragic event that targeted that community,” said Isabel Castellvi, who is not an Orlando resident. “A shame you all didn’t catch that or decided it wasn’t important, especially in these times when folks are rising up for voices of color and queer voices to be heard.”
Ultimately, the social media backlash prompted the Orlando Philharmonic to cancel the Pulse tribute and return the $6,000 grant to New Music USA. The musicians who would have been paid to perform Ljova’s piece will receive nothing.
The Orlando Philharmonic released an apology to coincide with the announcement of the cancellation of the Pulse tribute. “It’s our immediate goal to take the time needed to have meaningful conversations in our community to create something that everyone can be proud of in the future,” the statement read in part. “We will get this right.”
News of the cancellation comes at a sensitive time regarding how to best represent communities in the arts, and amid charges that so-called “cancel culture” has gone too far.