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Music and Politics: a perspective

The connection between music and politics has had a long, varied and interesting history. National anthems inspire a country’s patriotism, and protest songs rally a down-trodden populace. Music has become so important to today’s political campaigns that their success can almost hinge on a well-chosen song.

Classical music has had many great moments of political connections, whether or not it was initially intended by the composer. A hymn by Hebrew slaves longing for their homeland in Verdi’s Nabucco (“Va pensiero”), resonated during a period of Italian emancipation from the Austrians and French.

Beethoven was an earlier proponent of political statements with Wellington’s Victory and the “Eroica” Symphony. Benjamin Britten wrote his masterpiece War Requiem, underscoring the futility of war, and John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer examines the killing of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists.

Recently, classical music performances have been targeted as forums for political protest due to the alleged affiliations of the musicians. Just last month a concert by the Israel Philharmonic was interrupted by a chorus of chanting protesters in London’s Barbican, and not so long before that, audiences in London and Edinburgh endured stop-and-go performances as protesters continually interrupted the Jerusalem String Quartet.

The latter ensemble, a long-time Vancouver Recital Society favourite, gave a very fine performance at the Chan Centre on Sunday, October 2. At this event, our patrons were ‘greeted’ by peaceful protesters handing out leaflets; happily the performance proceeded without an accompanying chorus.

Two days before the performance we learned of the potential presence of protesters, setting off a little flurry of emails and phone calls with the Chan Centre staff, UBC security and even the RCMP. The goal was not to prevent a protest, a civil right, but rather to ensure the safety of, and be respectful to, the ticket-buying public.

This goal was achieved for our patrons, but a similar respect was not, unfortunately, offered to the musicians. The distributed pamphlet, which was cleverly designed to complement the VRS program, effectively put words into the mouths of the four musicians. It was written in such a way that it was misconstrued by a few as coming from the Quartet or, as the pamphlet claims, “the ambassadors of apartheid.”

Responding to an earlier situation, first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky said, “I don’t think we are controversial as musicians. The protests that happened [in London] were based on a wrong assumption — that we are presented, employed or supported by the Israeli government. That is categorically untrue.”

Regrettably, without balanced information some of our patrons took the information to heart and have expressed anger with the Jerusalem String Quartet. In some cases the anger has extended to the Vancouver Recital Society for (supposedly) providing a forum for political ideology.

It is our hope our patrons take the time to learn more about the Jerusalem String Quartet, as there is most definitely more to this than the singular point-of-view distributed on Sunday. A starting point could be the VRS Facebook page where you will find a letter by violist Ori Kam who wrote in response to the recent protest against the Israel Philharmonic.

Paul Gravett
Executive Director

One thought on “Music and Politics: a perspective

  1. We attended an incredible performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta in Seattle earlier this year. I had never before seen such a large number of police officers and security personnel in a concert hall. Before the performance, there were protesters outside Benaroya Hall carrying placards airing their political views – sentiments not unlike the ones expressed in the leaflets discussed in Mr. Gravett’s piece above. During the playing of the Israeli national anthem, a number of people in the audience defiantly remained seated (they stood during the playing of the United States national anthem). Thankfully the performances of Beethoven, Webern and Mahler were not disrupted.

    During the ovation following Mahler’s 5th symphony, a dozen or so people seated close to the stage held up a banner that reads “End the Occupation”. They were quickly subdued by audience members around them, but not, I am certain, before Mehta and the orchestra had a chance to see the demonstration. I am sure that it wasn’t the first time they had witnessed such an incident.

    To be sure, the Israel Philharmonic IS an ambassador for the State of Israel, but a musical one. It is highly unfair for people to vent their anger and frustrations toward musicians who are bringing us the greatest works of art humanity has to offer. A concert is not a forum for anyone to air his or her political views.

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