Were you at the Proms last night? Even if you weren’t, you probably know by now that the concert, given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with Zubin Mehta and Gil Shaham, was interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters who barracked and sang, thus forcing Radio Three to abandon its broadcast of the concert. It is not the first time a concert given by Israeli musicians has been interrupted by protest – and it won’t be the last either. Although more rigorous security checks were in place ahead of the concert, these did not prevent protesters invading the hall: they had booked their tickets way in advance. Hints that there would be trouble at this concert were made ahead of event, via Twitter (where I heard about it) and various other social media and news channels, and petitions had been made to the BBC, suggesting the concert be cancelled.
Reading various reactions, including a hefty handful of tweets and links from Norman Lebrecht, I felt an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. Last March I attended a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, given by the Jerusalem Quartet, four young Jewish string players who reside in Jerusalem. There was a rag-tag group of noisy protesters outside the hall when I arrived, being fielded calmly by John Gilhooly, the hall’s Director. Stupidly, perhaps, I thought little of it, because I never believed the “sacred shoebox” of the Wigmore Hall could be invaded by protest, anger and violence. I was wrong. At least six protesters were dotted around the hall (they had also purchased their tickets in advance), and each made their best effort to interrupt the performance, knowing that it was being broadcast on Radio Three. One protester, a perfectly respectable-looking middle aged woman, was sitting next to me. She stood and heckled loudly, and was immediately attacked (this is the only word I can think to use) by a gentleman sitting in front of me. He dragged the woman by the hair across my lap and roundly demanded that she shut up so that we could enjoy the concert. But of course we couldn’t: by now the Mozart quartet was spoiled, for all of us, and certain members of the audience, angry that their lunchtime music had been disturbed, were now heckling the hecklers. Eventually all the protesters were removed, and we tried to settle down to try and enjoy the rest of the performance. But the dynamic within the hall had changed because a space which had, until then, been sacrosanct, a place of refuge and comfort to escape the exigencies of everyday life, politics, war, celebrity gossip, had been invaded by anger and protest. I suspect that the concert-goers at the Proms last night felt very much the same. One thing is certain: the protesters have not particularly helped their cause by invading the Proms in way that they did.
The UK is, supposedly, a free country. To me that means we have the right to protest, to express our views freely. It should also mean that certain places, such as the Wigmore Hall, are permitted to remain separate from the important issues of the day. It is naive to deny that there is no relationship between the arts and politics, but that does not excuse the invasion of art spaces and venues by those who chose to deny the rest of us our freedom, our human right, to enjoy music or art, no matter who is performing it, or who created it. Places like the Wigmore Hall should be refuges, places where no one can reach you, and the Wigmore guards that privacy most assiduously. It is this preciously guarded freedom which the protesters last night, and last March, set out to destroy. Incidentally, the members of the Jerusalem Quartet, who behaved with great dignity and calmness during their interrupted recital, spoke to the audience and the protesters simply to state “we are musicians, not soldiers”.
I am not sufficiently conversant with the politics of the Arab-Israeli situation to comment here: what I do know is that such issues should be kept out of the way of music. Leave music alone, please. The Wigmore Hall is my “church”, and the wonderful music I hear there regularly transports me to another, better world: it is one of the few places left where we can escape governmental politics and protest.