Wigmore: Jerusalem Quartet Heckled

Ugly scenes in the most unlikely place yesterday: the Jerusalem Quartet‘s lunchtime concert was being broadcast live when pro-Palestinian hecklers in the hall began to shout at them. Other audience members duly began to shout at the protestors and fisticuffs were narrowly averted by some efficient security. The concert was taken off air.

Fellow-blogger Boulezian was there and has provided a detailed account of the occasion, here. Classical Music Magazine has a response from Wigmore chief John Gilhooly.

Tony Greenstein has also blogged about this and was one of the protestors, a good number of whom were Jewish themselves.

It’s not the first time the JQ has faced such protests, which have followed them to Edinburgh and Australia, among other places. The problem appears to be that they’re promoted as ‘cultural ambassadors’ for Israel and Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Music Centre’s website declares: “The four members of the Quartet joined the Israeli Defense Forces in March 1997 and are serving as Distinguished Musicians.”

That means they’re regarded wherever they go as representatives of the Israeli government, the IDF and their policies, such as the dropping of phosphorus on Gaza, the building of the 9-metre-high “separation wall” and the continued building/enlarging of settlements that according to international law are not legal. Because of that association – albeit inspired by PR material rather than the individuals themselves – I’m afraid they do by default become fair game for the hecklers. That doesn’t mean they’re not great musicians. It’s a horrible dilemma if you love their playing but hate what their government is doing ostensibly in the name of our relations who were victims of the Holocaust.

My first reaction to the targeting of small cultural groups such as the quartet, or the Choir of Clare College Cambridge which was bombarded with angry correspondence when planning a tour to Israel, and so on, is that it’s a deeply distateful form of bullying: they’re easy targets. And in the end it’s not going to make a blind bit of difference and will simply reflect badly on everybody concerned. It would be much more difficult to hit where the difference would really be made: heckling Mr Obama about the billions that the US gives Israel every year. 

Like a great many Israelis, several of the quartet are originally from elsewhere. The first violinist, Alexander Pavlovsky, and second violinist, Sergei Bresler, were both born in Ukraine. Only violist Amihai Grosz is a native. And to what extent the members share their government’s attitudes is not immediately clear. Tony Greenstein’s blog plays up the group’s association with the IDF, but cellist Kyril Zlotnikov, from Minsk, Belorus, has played with Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; in an article in the Australian newspaper The Age, he’s quoted as saying: “I am a musician and am against all aggression.”(Please note that military service is compulsory in Israel and even Maxim Vengerov had to do time there when he immigrated to the country. It relies on conscription, and it would be a brave individual indeed who refuses as a conscientious objector.)

Here’s a question. With hindsight and many years on, most of us have (I think) forgiven Wilhelm Furtwangler for staying in Germany during the Second World War. Yehudi Menuhin was the first Jewish musician to visit in Berlin after it was all over, performing in 1947 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwanger – a gesture of reconciliation.

To both these artists, two of the century’s greatest in their fields, music was a transcendent force that could rise above all else and appeal to the better sides of humanity, building bridges as it does so. 

So what do we do with it now?

Just to clarify: I do NOT approve of or agree with the actions of these protestors.

UPDATE: Wednesday 4.30pm. There’s been a good number of reports and responses to this incident, but here’s a particularly pertinent one from violinist and MusBook founder Simon Hewitt Jones.

UPDATE: Thursday morning. Feature in today’s Independent which contains a robust response from the Quartet itself

However, as the Quartet point out in a statement, the protesters should have been certain of the facts. Only one of the four is a native Israeli, while one lives in Portugal and another in Berlin. Not only did all four serve in the army as musicians and not in combat, but two are also regular performers with Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings Arab and Israeli musicians together.

“As Israeli citizens, we were required to, and did, perform our national service when we were aged 18. As it happens, none of us was in a combat unit. We served our conscription as musicians playing for our fellow citizens. To identify our conscription, particularly since it was so long ago, with support for government policies is irrational. The demonstrators were ignorant of the fact that two of us are regular members of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, composed of Israeli and Arab musicians. It is destructive of our attempts to foster Israel-Arab relations for us to be the subject of demonstrations of the kind we suffered yesterday.

“We no more represent the Government of Israel than the audience at the Wigmore Hall represented the Government of the United Kingdom.”


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