Musicians punished for public criticism of Israel

September 21, 2011
Sarah Benton

LPO suspensions hit the wrong note
Charlotte Higgins, Guardian Arts Diary

The whole London Philharmonic affair has made the orchestra look unbelievably, well, stupid. Last week, four of its players were suspended for adding their names to a letter to the Independent, denouncing the Israel Philharmonic as a cultural smokescreen for Israeli human rights abuses. The statement from Tim Walker and Martin Höhmann, respectively chief executive and chairman of the orchestra (which is run by its players), states that “the board’s decision will send a strong and clear message that such actions will not be tolerated by the LPO”.

The cultural and academic boycott of Israel has been going on since 2004. University lecturers have been signing letters by the dozen, identifying themselves by their workplace, for years. None of these people has been suspended, or are regarded as representing the institution for which they work – and yet, according to the LPO, it is because they named the orchestra that this sentence has been imposed on the four (two of whom are Jewish). The player-directors of the LPO may strongly object to the orchestra’s name being dragged into Arab-Israeli politics, but they have merely inflamed the row.

Other signatories of the letter include members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Have they been suspended? No. Do readers of the letter assume that the OAE as a whole is up in arms about the state of Israel? They do not – although I understand the players involved have been reprimanded.

To somehow imagine that “for the LPO, music and politics do not mix”, as the statement asserts, is absurd. (My colleague Tom Service writes more on this on his blog.) Politics runs through music: it is there whenever one plays a concert or receives a donation. Indeed, the LPO itself recently made a film in solidarity with Dutch musicians, in the wake of government arts cuts in the Netherlands: hardly an apolitical act. The baffling thing is that the LPO board have chosen to take such measures against senior musicians, who have devoted their careers to this wonderful orchestra; it is a distraction from their superb musicianship. The LPO plays its season opener at London’s Southbank Centre tonight: if it is disrupted by protests, the orchestra will have only itself to blame.

But music and politics have always mixed

The LPO’s chief executive claims that music and politics do not mix. Tom Service begs to differ
Tom Service, Guardian music blog

– and with all the sound and fury, as Charlotte Higgins says in her arts diary, the London Philharmonic Orchestra management seem rather to have scored an orchestral own-goal by suspending four musicians for putting their name, and that of their employers, to a letter protesting the appearance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms. Tim Walker, the LPO’s Chief Executive, and its Chairman, Martin Höhmann are hoisted by their own petard in claiming in the same breath that the orchestra “would never restrict the right of its players to express themselves freely” – and then suspending them for doing precisely that. The claim that “for the LPO, music and politics do not mix” is not only philosophically wrong, it’s historically inaccurate as well. It’s not just that the musicians recently participated in what can only be described as a political act of support for their colleagues in Holland’s orchestras who are currently threatened with redundancy, by filming a special performance of Soldier of Orange for them. Further back in its history, the LPO itself has form in dismissing players for political reasons. AsRichard Witts points out in a letter to the Observer, the LPO sacked its manager, Thomas Russell, in 1952. The reason? He was a communist.

There may or may not be a hidden back-story to the LPO saga – pressure perhaps to take action against the musicians by the orchestra’s backers. But the point about all this is that whatever you think about the Israel Phil’s concert at the Proms and the protests (my opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the protests in the hall were misguided, but to take any action against a musician for putting their name, and their job title, next to a letter expressing their views, is a counter-productive over-reaction), there’s a bigger question about music and politics at stake. You can’t separate the two, and the attempt to try is itself political. To pretend that the performance, reception, and composition of music are activities that exist in a separate realm from the social and political realities of the world is a dangerous, utopian fantasy. If it were true, music (classical musicespecially) would only ever have the possibility of being an aesthetic entertainment, as opposed to the foment of ideas, emotions, and poetry that it really is.

In another letter to the Guardian, cellist Steven Isserlis makes the point that he wouldn’t want his appearances with British orchestras abroad to be protested because of our government’s decision to invade Iraq. And yet they could be, in the same way the Israel PO’s concert was. That’s only the crudest sense in which the huge machines of orchestral concert-giving and classical music in general are enmeshed in national and political questions. Some recent, concrete examples that disprove the LPO’s point: Valery Gergiev’s intervention with his Mariinsky Orchestra in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia conflict, Krystian Zimerman’s interruption of his own recital to make a political speech in Los Angeles, and Daniel Barenboim’s manifestly supra-musical project with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. And that’s before you get to the entire history of classical music under the Soviets and the Nazis. Even more fundamentally, think of how Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner – to name but three composers of hundreds who did the same – made their vision of the betterment of humanity an intrinsic part of the music they wrote. Cornelius Cardew, Luigi Nono, Hanns Eisler … the list goes on and on.

One of the most coherent thoughts on the subject comes from Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. In the forward to his epoch-making piece De Staat, composed in 1976, a setting/explosion/analysis of Plato’s words on music from The Republic and its effects on society, here’s what he says:

“Many composers view the act of composing as, somehow, above social conditioning. I contest that. How you arrange your musical material, the techniques you use and the instruments you score for, are largely determines by your own social circumstances and listening experience, and the availability of financial support. I do agree, though, that musical material – pitch, duration and rhythm – are beyond social conditioning: it is found in nature. However, the moment the musical material is ordered it becomes culture and hence a social entity.”

What’s true for composition is even more obvious for performance. Music and politics do mix. If they didn’t, the world would be a much less interesting place.

Proms exploited for arts propaganda campaign

Letter published in the Independent

As musicians we are dismayed that the BBC has invited the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to play at the Proms on 1 September. The IPO has a deep involvement with the Israeli state – not least its self-proclaimed “partnership” with the Israeli Defence Forces. This is the same state and army that impedes in every way it can the development of Palestinian culture, including the prevention of Palestinian musicians from travelling abroad to perform.

Our main concern is that Israel deliberately uses the arts as propaganda to promote a misleading image of Israel. Through this campaign, officially called “Brand Israel”, denials of human rights and violations of international law are hidden behind a cultural smokescreen. The IPO is perhaps Israel ‘s prime asset in this campaign.

The Director of the Proms, Roger Wright, was asked to cancel the concert in accordance with the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott (PACBI). He rejected this call, saying that the invitation is “purely musical”.

Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians fits the UN definition of apartheid. We call on the BBC to cancel this concert.

Derek Ball (composer)
Frances Bernstein (community choir leader)
Steve Bingham (violinist)
John Claydon (saxophonist)
Malcolm Crowthers (music photographer)
Raymond Deane (composer)
Tom Eisner (violinist LPO)
Nancy Elan (violinist LPO)
Deborah Fink (soprano)
Catherine Ford (violinist, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment)
Reem Kelani (Palestinian singer, musician and broadcaster)
Les Levidow (violinist)
Susie Meszaros (violinist, Chilingirian Quartet)
Roy Mowatt (violinist, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment)
Ian Pace (pianist)
Leon Rosselson (singer-songwriter)
Dominic Saunders (pianist)
Chris Somes-Charlton (artist manager)
Leni Solinger (violinist)
Sarah Streatfeild (violinist LPO)
Sue Sutherley (cellist, LPO)
Tom Suarez (violinist, New York)
Kareem Taylor (Oud Player/Guitarist and Composer)
Miriam Walton (pianist, organist and French horn player)

Orchestra suspends four musicians who opposed Israeli musicians’ concert

London Philharmonic Orchestra punishes cellist and violinists who wanted Proms appearance by Israeli players cancelled

Stephen Bates, Guardian.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra has suspended four musicians for nine months for using its name when they called unsuccessfully for the cancellation of a concert by an Israeli orchestra at the Proms.

The move follows the indefinite suspension of an unnamed LPO violinist after she allegedly launched an anti-Israel “rant” when Israeli musicians appeared at the Royal College of Music before the concert at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this month.

In a statement, Tim Walker, the LPO’s chief executive, and Martin Hohmann, its chairman, said the suspensions sent “a strong and clear message that their actions will not be tolerated … the orchestra would never restrict the right of its players to express themselves freely, however such expression has to be independent of the LPO itself.

“The company has no wish to end the careers of four talented musicians but … for the LPO, music and politics do not mix.”

They added that the orchestra had no political or religious affiliations and strongly believed in the power of music to bring peace and harmony to the world, not war, terror and discord.

The LPO suspended cellist Sue Sutherley and violinists Tom Eisner, Nancy Elan and Sarah Streatfeild until June 2012 after they signed a letter as members of the LPO denouncing the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) as an instrument of the country’s propaganda.

It said: “Denials of human rights and violations of international law are hidden behind a cultural smokescreen. The IPO is perhaps Israel’s prime asset in this campaign … Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians fits the UN definition of apartheid.”

Other signatories of the letter, which appeared in the Independent newspaper two days before the concert, included: the composer Raymond Deane; violinists Catherine Ford and Roy Mowatt (of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment); violinist Susie Meszaros (of the Chilingirian Quartet); and 16 other musicians.

The IPO’s concert on 1 September was barracked by protesters so noisily that the BBC suspended its live broadcast, although the musicians completed their performance of works by Bruch, Webern, Albeniz and Rimsky-Korsakov, conducted by Zubin Mehta.

Sarah Colborne, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which organised protests against the concert, said: “Would the London Philharmonic Orchestra have punished musicians speaking out against apartheid South Africa, when a similar call for boycott was supported by artists, performers and sports people internationally?

“It is staggeringly bad judgment for the LPO to be seen to be attacking musicians who are simply voicing support for human rights and defending the civil right to call for a boycott of institutions which lend strategic support to Israel’s occupation.

“If the LPO really wishes not to appear to be taking sides, and supporting an occupying nation against an occupied people, it must end the ridiculous suspension of these four musicians immediately.”

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