Who really wields the baton at the London Philharmonic Orchestra?
by Chris Somes-Charlton, Mondoweiss
Calls for the boycott of Israel’s cultural ambassadors just won’t go away. Now London’s Globe Theatre is being criticised for its invitation to Israel’s Habima Theatre, the latter having performed in Israel’s illegal settlements. Prominent arts figures such as Mike Leigh, Emma Thompson, Jonathan Miller, and Mark Rylance, the Globe’s founding artistic director, have publicly called for the theatre to cancel Habima’s appearance. Meanwhile Günter Grass, author of the classic anti-Nazi novel The Tin Drum, created a storm with his poem Was gesagt werden muss (What must be said), which seeks to free Germans from the ancestral guilt that Israel exploits to secure their obedience. An outraged headline in the Jewish Chronicle equated the boycott call with Nazi book-burning, and Israeli politicians smeared Grass as a Nazi for his conscription into the Waffen-SS, which German youths ‘joined’ to stay alive.
These prominent figures have the forum to counter the smears. But classical musicians? We’ve yet to hear from the four musicians (Tom Eisner, Nancy Elan, Sarah Streatfeild and Sue Sutherley) in the world-renowned London Philharmonic Orchestra who were summarily suspended last September without pay for six months for being among 24 musicians who signed a letter, published in The Independent newspaper, objecting to a London Proms concert by the Israel Philharmonic at the invitation of the BBC.
Indeed, anyone perusing the ample media coverage of their suspensions would not find a single word from any of the four musicians themselves. Nothing. The media’s sole source of information was the very management that suspended them, and in his news releases the orchestra’s chief executive seemed inexplicably bent on making villains out of his own musicians. The whole situation begs explanation.
In fact, journalists got nothing from the ‘LPO4’ (as they’ve become known) because the orchestra management had put them and their families under a gag order. I’d heard some of what went on before the gag order was imposed.
The media could report only what the orchestra’s chief executive, Timothy Walker, told them: that the musicians had been suspended because they’d included the letters ‘LPO’ after their names in the letter. If six months’ unpaid suspension seems excessive punishment for this claimed three-letter indiscretion, there was also much that Mr. Walker did not tell the media.
He did not tell the media that one of the four musicians had not put her affiliation. He knew that it had been mistakenly added by someone else who had immediately taken full responsibility for the error. Yet she was suspended anyway, making a mockery of Mr. Walker’s public claim that the musicians were not being punished for their views.
Nor did he tell the media that an ‘in personal capacity only’ disclaimer for all signatories had been inadvertently omitted by the professor (not a musician) who submitted the letter to The Independent. This, too, the management knew.
Why did the orchestra management withhold these facts from the media, when they could have defused the issue? Perhaps Mr. Walker himself let the reason slip out when he told the BBC, The Times, and The Telegraph, that “some Jewish supporters had threatened to … withdraw financial support from the LPO.” The Jewish Chronicle, indeed, carried an article entitled “‘Jewish pressure’ led to suspensions”. Given what was withheld from the public, were the punishments demanded for the four’s inclusion of the affiliation, or for their criticism of Israel?
Whatever went on behind the scenes, the investigative journal Private Eye adjudged that “the LPO has acted rashly, possibly unlawfully and with a lack of transparency that ill-becomes a charity partly funded by the public purse.” Mr. Walker, Private Eye concluded, “must come clean about what’s happened.”
It gets worse. A few days after the musicians’ letter, the Israel Philharmonic Proms concert was disrupted by protestors inside the hall, and the false rumour circulated that the four London Philharmonic musicians were involved. Understandably, any upset about the measured letter in The Independent paled by comparison to the uproar over the disruption of the concert. Amid the furore, it was baffling that in all the press attention afforded the London Philharmonic’s management, nowhere does Mr. Walker attempt to clarify that its four musicians had nothing to do with the disruptions, that indeed none of them was in the hall.
Even though the public knew only the management’s version of events, their reaction was overwhelmingly in support of the suspended musicians. Outraged pro-LPO4 postings on the orchestra’s Facebook page so embarrassed management that it eventually closed the page and deleted all the postings. The London papers printed numerous letters of support from respected academics and artists, notably one signed by 117 arts figures, including film directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, theatre director Michael Attenborough, and actress Dame Harriet Walter. They wrote that artists should be allowed to express themselves freely “without fear of financial or professional retribution.” Letters warned of the chilling effect such “retribution” would have on a free society.
It’s worth noting that two of the ‘LPO4’ are Jewish, and one of them is the child of a Kindertransport survivor—the rest of his maternal family was wiped out by the Nazis. Both have been to Palestine and witnessed Israeli apartheid first-hand.
The letter that got them suspended is similar to that now arguing against the Habima Theatre’s invitation by The Globe—that the Israel Philharmonic is used by Israel as a “cultural smokescreen” for its “denials of human rights and violations of international law.” It noted that “Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians fits the UN definition of apartheid,” paralleling its stand to the now-venerable boycott that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
And it is this issue that is perhaps Mr. Walker’s most cynical misrepresentation. Twisting their purpose 180 degrees, he laments that it is “abhorrent” to try to stop musicians from performing, whereas the original letter’s very point was solidarity with Palestinian musicians who, along with all aspects of Palestinian daily life, are paralyzed by Israeli apartheid and occupation.
Mr. Walker’s response to those who complained was that the LPO is self-governing, and that the decision to suspend the musicians was made by their own colleagues. But his lack of public candour makes this claim all the more suspect, and although the LPO4 are now back at work, they are still not free to speak about what happened. In January, however, the media reported that one of the four is suing the orchestra , and perhaps this will shed more light on what went on behind the scenes.
Boycott of apartheid South Africa began as a contentious device and eventually proved itself to be the constructive, moral response to the white supremacist system. Here in London, the Musicians’ Union itself had a boycott of South Africa in place by 1970. Are we finally nearing the tipping point when a boycott of Israel is similarly accepted as the appropriate, necessary and principled stance?
1. “Proms exploited for arts propaganda campaign,” The Independent, 30 August, 2011
2. Richard Morrison, Times Modern, 16 Sept, 2011, p3 (print only); “’Philharmonic Four’ in Proms protest backed by Mike Leigh and Ken Loach,” The Telegraph, 22 Sept, 2011; “Mike Leigh defends suspended Philharmonic musicians,” BBC, 22 Sept, 2011; and others. “‘Jewish pressure’ led to suspensions,” Marcus Dysch, The Jewish Chronicle, September 27, 2011.
3. Private Eye, 30 September, 2011
4. Richard Morrison, Times Modern, 16 Sept, 2011, p3 (print only), and others.
5. Alex Needham, “Violinist suspended for Israel Proms protest takes claim to tribunal,” The Guardian, 13 January, 2012.