By Patricia H. Kushlis
Last week 30-some, well- organized pro-Palestinian protesters effectively disrupted the Israel Philharmonic’s popular summer Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall in London four times in two hours prompting the BBC to cut off its live broadcast. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the protesters’ motives or behavior, their actions are just the most recent example of people using culture to send political messages that are otherwise being ignored by the government in question.
Yet it wasn’t just the protesters – some of whom were themselves professional musicians -who were in the hall that night to send a political message: their actions were in direct response to the Israeli government’s decision to send its premier orchestra to London to perform as a cultural ambassador in the first place. Here’s what Zubin Mehta, the orchestra’s Indian born and raised conductor, told the media in anticipation of the concert and possible protest according to John Burns of the The New York Times:
“The IPO is a cultural ambassador for Israel, and it is not “whitewashing Israel’s crimes,” Mehta said quoting a pro-Israel boycott campaign. “People who make music have to be politically aware; we have to know what’s going on. We have to bring people together. In Israel, Arab and Jewish audiences, and on quite a few occasions every year, at least for two-and-one-half hours, there is some sort of peace in the hall.”
I think that’s about the best explanation Mehta could have given in the orchestra’s and the Israeli government’s defense. Music should and often does bring people together and, as Mehta pointed out, the Israel Philharmonic does just that for a few hours several times a year in Israel.
Music and the Beast
Remember the old saying: “music soothes the savage beast.” It may well but it also depends upon the kind of music and the beast’s mood. The wrong music at the wrong time can enrage the beast as well.
Throughout the eons, music is, and has been used as a terrific unifier – but it has equally been a horrific divider that brings out the worst.
The use and misuse of the emotions that music engenders are legion. Just think of Hitler's use of Richard Wagner’s operas in inciting the Holocaust against Europe’s Jews – powerful music, that I believe is still not performed in Israel.
Or consider the proud nationalism encapsulated in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture which depicted Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s Army or Jean Sibelius’ soaring Finlandia composed and performed in the years leading up to Finnish Independence in 1917. Or the singing of equally nationalistic choral music by the Estonian independence movement prior to 1991 poignantly depicted in the film “The Singing Revolution.” These are but a few examples of music as politics.
Over the centuries, Christianity, too, has used the power of music to attract adherents and hopeful converts to its religious services and thereby subscribe to its messages – although I would argue that there are any number of people who have gone primarily to hear the music, and ignored the message.
J.S. Bach’s inventive compositions were written to embellish the Mass in the soaring German cathedrals where he was employed as organist. Italy’s Vivaldi, the “Red Cardinal,” wrote many of his compositions for religious purposes: the good news about Vivaldi’s works – from my perspective - is that he also wrote many so that the teenagers in the girls’ school orchestra where he taught could play them as well. Hence Vivaldi’s beloved “Gloria,” for instance, is playable by the amateur as well as the professional musician.
The same can be said about the use of rock music in today’s American churches – Protestant and Catholic. Or consider the chants and church bells of the Orthodox Church or the Muslim call to prayer – these latter uses of music hark back to the days when clocks and nations didn’t exist and minarets didn’t have electrified loudspeakers.
Where Culture Meets Politics
When a cultural group travels abroad under government auspices, however, it does, in fact, represent the group’s country – like it or not – and this is where culture meets politics. It’s not that the performers necessarily support their government’s policies – or for that matter the government itself. That’s immaterial. It’s the political statement that is made by the cultural group’s physical presence as a representative of the nation that counts.
In the case of the Israel Philharmonic’s recent Proms concert, the counter-concert group pointed out in a letter previously published in The Independent that:
“Israel deliberately uses the arts to promote a misleading image of Israel. Through the 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 Soviet Union regularly lost world class performers on cultural tours abroad but it still sent its best because, like the Israeli government today, it saw these groups or individuals as prime assets in official international image building – as well as hard currency earners for the state coffers - despite the government’s wretched policies.
The old joke - Q. What’s the Leningrad Philharmonic after a tour to New York? A. The Leningrad String Quartet - did, in fact, have resonance. Once the Soviet Union ceased to exist and Russian citizens could easily travel and emigrate abroad, defections also ceased. High profile ship jumping had just become irrelevant.
In spite of those pre-1991 disappearances then, Soviet cultural performances were designed to show off the strength and power of that country on the international scene. This was an example of culture as politics which was emulated by the Israeli government in London last week.
The US did the same: only instead of the Bolshoi Ballet we more likely sent America’s Charlie Parker, The Paul Taylor Dance Company, Bella Fleck or award winning actors and actresses like Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy to grace stages around the world.
Neither first nor last
Many nations have done and continue to follow suit – and like it or not a Chinese acrobatic troupe or Britain’s Old Vic performing Shakespeare at the Kennedy Center – still send political as well as cultural messages abroad. The goal is to attract highly visible positive attention for the nation, not just the cultural group. So no surprises: Such public performances may also attract anti-American, anti-Chinese, anti-British, or anti-Israeli protests inside or outside the hall but, in reality, they rarely do. So the anti-Israeli government counter-concert protests inside Royal Albert Hall were not par for the course and the first experienced by the orchestra. But they weren’t the first and they won't be the last.
I remember when New York’s Jewish Defense League unloosed a mouse on the stage during the Carnegie Hall performance of a young Soviet pianist in the mid-1970s to protest the Soviet treatment of its Jews citizens. The pianist was Alexander Slobodyanik. The JDL used his concert to make a political point against the Soviet government - not the performer. I learned several years later that the frightened mouse had not interrupted Slobodyanik’s concentration or disrupted his performance. If I remember correctly, in retrospect at least, he considered the episode funny.
True, the JDL's tiny mouse and a Soviet pianist in the 1970s and 30-some protesters in London in 2011 - several of whom had delivered counter-concerts before being expelled from the hall -and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra are not identical. There is, however, at least one important similarity. The JDL and the counter-concert singers who refer to themselves as a new vocal ensemble called Beethovians for Boycotting Israel both chose to use high level cultural events to draw public attention to their causes.
In the end, culture and politics can make strange bedfellows yet in most cases cultural diplomacy is well received. But not always: when cultural presentations are used for political purposes they are also vulnerable to political backlash.