Top U.S. music school effectively cancels China tour after South Korean students denied visas

The Eastman School of Music's dean initially said the tour would proceed without the South Koreans, but reversed his decision after community backlash.
Image: Eastman theatre
Eastman Theatre.Google

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By Theo Wayt

A top American music conservatory reversed its decision Tuesday night to participate in a tour of China without three of its ensemble members, who were banned by the country from participating because they are from South Korea.

The dean of the Eastman School of Music had initially said the tour would continue without the South Korean students, but changed his decision following backlash from students, alumni and the public. Now the dean, Jamal Rossi, says the tour will not proceed unless every student is given a visa.

Jamal Rossi.Eastman School of Music

“Given the particular circumstances of this tour, the best course of action for the Eastman community and the values we share is to wait until the Philharmonia can perform as one,” the dean said in a statement provided to NBC News.

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“I am relieved, honestly,” Julia Hatamyar, an Eastman alumna who had spoken out against Rossi’s initial decision, told NBC News. “They don’t want to destroy their relationship with China, but what about their relationship with the U.S.?”

China’s refusal to grant the students visas appears to be part of what is effectively a ban on South Korean artists that China implemented in 2016, retaliation for South Korea’s decision to install a U.S. missile defense system. One of the policy’s most high-profile impacts was on touring K-pop artists, but it now appears to also be affecting the classical music students.

Rossi said that the Eastman Conservatory of Music, which is part of the University of Rochester in upstate New York, was informed of the visa denials in late September. He and another faculty member then met individually with each of the three affected South Korean students, all of whom said the tour should proceed, according to Rossi. The other members of the philharmonia also voted by a two-to-one margin to continue, the dean said.

Rossi then announced that the tour would proceed. “Cancelling would likely have a negative impact on Eastman’s reputation within China, and potentially limit other opportunities to recruit, perform, and tour for our faculty and other ensembles,” he wrote in a message to faculty that was later posted online, adding, “This is a tremendous ethical dilemma.”

After Rossi announced that the tour would continue, fifth-year Eastman doctoral student Diana Rosenblum accused the dean of violating the school’s non-discrimination policy in a popular Facebook post. “This action by the Dean has dragged Eastman's name and reputation through the mud,” Rosenblum wrote early on Tuesday, urging community members to voice their concerns to administrators.

When Rossi announced Tuesday night that the tour would be postponed, Rosenblum welcomed the about-face, but told NBC News, “I believe that this reversal has been issued in response to the tremendous backlash generated by his initial decision.”

Hatamyar, the alumna, hopes China will change its mind and grant the South Korean students visas. “It’s a shame to take an exclusionary political stance over something like this,” she said. “Music is such a global means of communication.”