Saturday, September 24, 2011

London Philharmonic Members Suspended for Signing Pro-Palestinian Letter of Support

The title page to Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, showing how he scratched out the name of Napoleon Bonaparte, after Napoleon declared himself Emperor
I. The London arts scene is one of the most energetic, creative and cutting edge on the planet.  Young artists flock there from all over the world to take part in its visual arts shows and showings, new dramatic works, musical premieres and what not.  All these elements are combined in cinema, happenings and multi-media events that challenge categorization.

At the same time, London is home to hundreds of very traditional arts presenting organizations, companies, ensembles and venues.  The brash avant garde arts scenes and the venerated institutional ones sometimes intersect.  I've been fortunate to witness that happening in trips to London dating back into late in the last century, participating in it in 2005.

protest signs outside the London premiere of The Skies Are Weeping at the Hackney Empire - Nov 1, 2005

2011 has seen a rise in artistic resistance to cultural events celebrating the expanding apartheid policies of the government of Israel.  The London arts scene has a centuries old relationship with Jewish artists that may be unique.  Alone among the great European cities, London did not see its vibrant Jewish community fractured and dismantled (as with Moscow and St. Petersburg) or utterly destroyed (as in Nazi-occupied Europe) during the 20th century.

There is a battle going on now in London between activist Jewish artists - some very young, others quite established - who are taking acton against apartheid Israel, and the mostly older Jewish arts supporting community of patrons, managers, board members and event-attending subscribers.  Although this same battle is happening in some U.S. cities, such as New York City and in the San Francisco Bay area,  London is the central front.

This past month has seen the possibly long-term suspension of an unnamed violinist in the London Philharmonic "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."

Soon afterward, when those Israeli musicians, members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, performed at a popular Proms concert, a group of mostly Jewish musicians interrupted the performance several times, breaking out in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from his 9th Symphony, with new lyrics:
Israel, end your occupation:
There’s no peace on stolen land.
We’ll sing out for liberation
’till you hear and understand.

Ethnic cleansing and apartheid
Should belong to history.
Human rights cannot be silenced:
Palestine will soon be free.
Some London reviewers and commentators observed, as did The Guardian's  Erica Jeal, after the demonstration, that its crudeness "seemed to turn the audience – many of whom were no doubt sympathetic to the protesters – into avid supporters of the Israel Phil."  She was there, I wasn't.  But if the immediate impression, watching the orchestra members try to put more meaning into their playing in response to the open hostility, backs Jeal's assertion, the lasting one may be of deepening hostility to cultural programming of organizations such as the Israel Philharmonic, that have direct ties to that country's government.

As the ramifications of the Proms outburst began to play out, word spread that four members of the London Philharmonic who, along with many other UK artists, had signed a letter protesting the upcoming concert, had been suspended for their action, by the LPO, for "up to nine months":
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.
Other signatories of the letter are prominent Jewish London musicians.  In response to the suspension, over 100 artists have signed a letter protesting the punitive action:
Leading names in the arts industry have criticized the London Philharmonic Orchestra's (LPO) suspension of four members who opposed a London concert by Israeli musicians.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, filmmaker Mike Leigh, actress Miriam Margolyes and 115 other prominent arts figures said they were "shocked" and "dismayed" at the suspension of the four musicians, and urged the LPO to reconsider its decision.

"One does not have to share the musician's support for the campaign for boycotting Israeli institutions to feel grave concern about the bigger issue at stake for artists and others. There is a link being created here between personal conscience and employment which we must all resist," the letter said.

"Why should it be so dangerous for artists to speak out on the issue of Israel/Palestine? We are dismayed at the precedent set by this harsh punishment, and we strongly urge the LPO to reconsider its decision," it said.
There seems to be growing support for the suspended musicians in other arenas too. At the classical music forum, Bright Cecilia, commentator Philodor writes:
There's going to be a lot of trouble over this. Presumably the Musicians' Union is organising now. If they've got any balls they'll ballot for a strike. You can't have orchestral managements running about suspending musicians for signing a letter.

Musician unions are interesting organisations. If a management annoys an orchestra sufficiently they can easily find themselves with a very solid strike on their hands. Musicians are trained, for years, from childhood, to play together. Which means they also go on strike together.

Watch this space. If I was a member of the LPO I'd vote to strike. Their management needs knocking down a peg or two.
That forum post launched a wild debate.  Forum members have posted their correspondence with the LPO organization, some framing the question at hand - can we as artists stand by idly as Israeli apartheid grows? - in recent historical perspective.  At issue is the contention of the LPO manager and board that their organization is apolitical, and that the members, by affixing LPO behind their signatures in the protest letter, violated ensemble policy.  Defenders of the LPO Four feel that their having identified themselves that way was not at all what the director and board took it to be.  Here's one example of that argument, in a letter written to director Walker by Serenus Zeitblom:
I am afraid that because of its close links with the Israeli government, and the way that the Israel PO has continued to act as a cultural flagship for a state whose policies in Palestine are systematically in breach of UN resolutions and international law, any concert by that orchestra is a political event. I'm afraid it is simply naive to argue otherwise - in this case music cannot be above politics, in the same way that a visit from a state-sponsored orchestra from South Africa in the apartheid era could not be above politics. There are far bigger issues at stake here than whether members of one orchestra should argue that another should not play - in fact it is the four suspended players whose actions were seeking to keeping politics out of music.

I am also surprised to see that you write that political and religious views should be private. I am not aware that this was an issue about religion - while Israel is officially a Jewish state there are many Jews who oppose its policies in Palestine and many non-Jews who support them. Are you saying that considerations of religion were taken into account in the suspensions? And if you really mean that religious beliefs must be private, would you suspend a Sikh player for wearing a turban? Or a Jewish player for wearing a yarmulke? Or a female Muslim player for wearing a headscarf? In every case they are making public their religious affiliation.
Philidor, responding to a comment at the forum, writes:
[I]t makes strong tactical and strategic sense for everyone concerned about Israel's conduct to support a Western classical music boycott. I live in central London and use public transport almost daily. Why should I get blown up because the Israeli state has slaughtered yet more Palestinians and manufactured a fresh batch of terrorists to torment us all? Israel must behave, and if they won't, they must be disciplined using lawful and legitimate weapons which are effective. A classical music boycott is just such a weapon. This brouhaha proves its effectiveness.
II. In the early 1990s, Seattle bronze sculptor Peter Bevis and I created a multi-media lecture that we toured in Alaska and Washington, called Artists as Environmentalists. We described our activities and those of others, confronting ecological catastrophes worldwide, as arts chroniclers and organizers.  We bemoaned the lack of strategic approach toward mobilizing artists against egregious industrial and government practices that damaged the environment or spoiled renewable resources irredeemably.

In the mid-90s, I gave a lecture several places, including at the Juilliard School in NYC and at the Cornish Institute in Seattle, titled The Social Responsibilities of Composers. I've brought back a short version of that recently, which highlights some little known facts about composers from Beethoven to Aaron Copland, who raged against the machine just as fervently as Bob Dylan.

Orchestras these days, whether it is in London, NYC, LA, Seattle or Anchorage, are firmly rooted in supporting the status quo.  In Anchorage, for instance, our Anchorage Symphony's board chair routinely rotates between a high-level executive from Exxon, followed by one from Conoco-Phillips, followed by one from BP, followed by one from Wells Fargo, then back to Exxon - and so on.  The large donors to the ASO and most orchestras tend to be people who do not want contentious social, environmental or political issues to aurally poke at their smug satisfaction in the concert hall.

Orchestras in The West (Central and Western Europe and the English-speaking world, plus Israel, Japan, Singapore and China) treat composers of new music as "content providers."  If a divisive or radical subject is presented by almost any of these ensembles, it inevitably needs to be cloaked in metaphor so thick any immediacy is lost.

With so many young performing musicians in London and other European "classical" ensembles, we will probably see moves afoot to bring more "immediacy" and direct action on global issues into the concert hall.

In the United States, Alaska composer John Luther Adams may be the best example of a first-rank composer who, although quite good at cloaking his messages in metaphor, is embarked on a major project to put an issue that is very contentious in U.S. politics - global warming - front and center:
[Adams is composing] a new piece, “Become Ocean,” [which] will debut with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2013. The work is described as “a one-hour long global warming piece about the melting ice caps and rising oceans.”
Ironically, major funding for this new work appears to be coming from the Heinz Foundation, an organization not quite ready to reject the paradigms stifling the world of the performing arts.

Popular music has always provided far more examples of artists raging against one machine or another than has "classical" music.  It is hard to find a social, political, human rights or environmental topic upon which serious orchestral composers have latched that has enough examples to become a category.  There is one exception, though  - The Holocaust.  Back in the late 60s, one of my mentors, a Jewish composition professor, told me the two things that I should consider, to help get a career established:  Marry a very rich young woman (he had), and write a composition about The Holocaust (he hadn't.  Yet).  "The grants and job offers will leap at you, Phil," he assured me.

I did neither.  Perhaps I'll write a work about The Holocaust someday, but so many profound masterpieces already exist.  Whether I'm writing about the mechanized response to battlefield death of our American military, Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina, The Exxon Valdez oil spill, September 11th or Rachel Corrie, the same muse guides me as guided Arnold Schoenberg in A Survivor from Warsaw,  Henryk Górecki in his 3rd Symphony, or Dmitri Shostakovich in the opening movement of his 13th Symphony or his 2nd Piano Trio.

Perhaps soon it will be as easy for classical musicians or composers, such as the dynamic young Australian-American composer, Melissa Dunphy, to get her Gonzales Cantata performed as it is to have Steve Reich's Different Trains produced.

Those who see the lives of performers, composers and other artists as having to be disassociated from current political and societal struggles, as being manageable to the extent of making all art that isn't created within strict norms "out-of-bounds," or subject to severe sanctions like year-long or lifetime suspensions (sometimes known as "blacklisting"), will hopefully see a series of musical, photographic, sculptural, dramatic and poetic Tahrir Squares staring them in their faces as this decade broadens.


Anonymous said...

Nice piece, Phil. While I am not a musician and am not particularly knowledgeable about music - I do know it has power -for change as well as for keeping the status quo.

Thanks for writing this. If I were a musician - I would also vote for a boycott. And I would stand proudly beside others who voted as well.

At some point, perhaps, our leaders in the U.S. and other places will cease to be Israel's lapdogs and stand for simple humanity in working to stop the progressive genocide of the Palestinian people.

Thanks again for saying what needs to be said when others won't.

Anonymous said...