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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

Getting to know: JSQ

jerusalemstring-quartethome_photoIn the beginning… first violinist and founding member Alexander Pavlovsky explains: “We have started to play together at 1994, and our average age then, was 16. That is a very unusual age to start playing in a string quartet. We grew up together, spending about six months together since the very beginning.

I believe all this gave us a big advantage in a very special sound blend. Musically, we can do many interesting and spontaneous things without really spending a lot of time and discussing them. When I listen to our recordings, many times I feel that we are very close to the golden balance between an ensemble unity and the very personal playing of each member.”

Controversy: the JSQ has been the focus on protests and political attacks for its alleged connection to the government of Jerusalem. “The protests that happened were based on a wrong assumption,” says Pavlovsky, “that we are presented, employed or supported by the Israeli government. That is categorically untrue.”

He continues, “As musicians, our commitment is to performing the music at the highest level possible, not to make political statements. We don’t see ourselves as qualified to do that. The protests have not changed that and have not pushed us into getting involved as a group.”

Introducing: a few words from the JSQ press release (February, 2011) announcing the appointment of violist Ori Kam: The Jerusalem String Quartet is delighted to announce, that after period of searching for Amihai Grosz’s successor we have now arrived at the decision to appoint Ori Kam as the new violist of the ensemble.The JSQ had a long personal and professional relationship with Ori Kam dating to the early days of its career. Having performed concerts with him both in the US and Europe last autumn, we are happy to welcome him as permanent member of the quartet.


Trousers, Duct Tape and the Jerusalem String Quartet

Duct TapePaul Gravett, hasn’t worked at the VRS long enough to know that to ask me “to write a few words about something” is like asking me to fly a jumbo jet!  Here is the response to his most recent request… “Would you mind writing a few words about your first encounter with the Jerusalem String Quartet?”

My first encounter with them in the 2000/2001 season was indeed memorable.  I picked them up at YVR when they arrived on a flight from Colombia at around noon. They were to perform at the Playhouse at 8pm that evening.  Kyrill, the cellist was the first one through Immigration and Customs by a long shot. He explained to me that not all their luggage had arrived in Vancouver with them.  And so it was….four instrumentalists and luggage for two.

You can imagine the hullabaloo in the car on the way to the hotel to check in just before their rehearsal and soundcheck at the Playhouse. There were heated discussions about what might be in Sasha’s (first violinist) luggage and what he could lend his two colleagues with missing luggage.

I tried to convince them that I really didn’t care whether or not they played the concert that evening in their jeans and t-shirts…that all I cared about was the quality of the concert.  And I told them that if they played wonderfully I was sure the audience would forgive them.

The run through was absolutely wonderful and I had no doubts that we were in for a great evening.

I took them back to the hotel to rest, and when I fetched them that evening to take them to the theatre they told me that they had solved the problem.  Kyrill had his dark suit and Sasha had his.  They went down to the dressing rooms to put their things down and then came up on stage to do a quick run through again.

I was sitting in the audience waiting for them to appear. And when they did, I thought I was going to collapse. I cannot recall when I have ever laughed harder, longer or louder.  Tears were rolling down my cheeks.  The stage crew came out to see what was going on. I could see them really trying not to laugh.

Sergei, the 2nd violinist had borrowed a pair of dark trousers from Sasha. Sasha is quite tall and very slim, and Sergei is shortish and squat. The trousers were dragging on the floor and he was walking in a manner which clearly demonstrated that the pants didn’t fit him.

The stage manager, offering to be helpful said “wait a minute, I have some duct tape. Duct tape fixes everything”.  He came back with the tape, got down on the floor and taped the trousers Sergei was wearing to the correct length…and which point I could see that the shoes he was wearing were at least three sizes too big.  The shoes stuck out way beyond his heels, which probably accounted for the comical way in which he walked.  Of course, that provoked more gales of laughter from me.  When I could breathe and speak again I told them that there was absolutely NO WAY that they could come out on stage like that, and that the entire audience would collapse in laughter and that they had to play in their travelling clothes.  So we reached an agreement. They would do just that, if I made an announcement at the beginning of the performance.

I made the announcement, and I demonstrated the way Sergei walked on stage, by which time both the audience and I were shaking with laughter. I described the shoes, the duct tape and the whole deal.

Some people said they didn’t know whether they had bought tickets for a concert or a comedy show.

What a great concert it was.  That’s why they are regular visitors to our series.

Leila Getz

Lasting Impressions: Jerusalem String Quartet

JerusalemStringLeila’s great story about the Jerusalem String Quartet’s first visit to Vancouver inspired to ask you for your stories.

Since their memorable debut, they have returned to Vancouver several times, most notably for a week in 2006 when they performed the complete string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, and more recently with clarinetist Martin Fröst in the 2008/09 season. The Quartet returns to the Chan Centre (with a new member!) on Sunday, October 2.

We would like to know what is your lasting memory of the Jerusalem String Quartet? Perhaps it comes from one of the VRS presentations, or from a performance in another city, or perhaps you are especially found of one of their recordings.

Tell us about your lasting memory of the Jerusalem String Quartet.