British music critics incensed by anti-Israel chants at show

Remarks follow interruption of Jerusalem Quartet performance by hecklers.

April 7, 2010 05:27
4 minute read.
The Jerusalem String Quartet.

jerusalem quartet 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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LONDON – Award-winning music author and commentator Norman Lebrecht has blasted a group of anti-Israel protesters who interrupted a performance by the Jerusalem Quartet in London last week, describing it as an assault on a place of sanctuary.

Last week, five protesters interrupted a lunchtime performance by the Jerusalem Quartet at Wigmore Hall in central London, shouting abuse at the musicians. The hecklers called them “cultural ambassadors for Israel,” accusing the Jewish state of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and starving the people of Gaza, before they were ejected. The concert was broadcast live on BBC radio.

In Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, Lebrecht described the disturbances as “the work of an eccentric fringe, easily dismissed as the inevitable irritants of an open society.” He said the incident amounted to “an assault on an element of civilization... a sanctuary where people under pressure can find relief from the world and its woes.

“There are few such places left,” he wrote. “I have heard mobiles go off in churches, synagogues, theaters and the House of Commons. Only at havens like the Wigmore are we free from the demands of rapid response... It was this precious freedom that the demonstrators set out to destroy.”

Wigmore Hall director John Gilhooly told Classical Music magazine that the disruption had been well-planned.

“The protesters must have bought their tickets for the concert a long time ago, because they were all sitting in individual seats in different parts of the hall,” he said. “One stood up and started singing and shouting, and while we were removing him, another one started up somewhere else, and so on.”

In a statement, the Quartet called the protesters “ignorant” and “inconsiderate,” saying they had only managed to upset the audience and concert hall staff.

“We are musicians, not politicians. We want our audiences to enjoy our music, whoever they may be, whatever their religion or nationality or ethnicity, without unthinking interruptions of the kind that we, our audiences and the staff suffered,” the statement said.

“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 continued. “We teach and lead our respective sections of that orchestra. 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.”

The musicians said they were Israeli citizens and not representatives of the government: “We no more represent the government of Israel than the audience at the Wigmore Hall represented the government of the UK.”

Lebrecht said the disturbances had been contained with “immaculate civility,” but would change the dynamics of Wigmore Hall as a place of sanctuary and calm.

“The BBC asked the Quartet to repeat the recital for later broadcast. Nobody got hurt. There are string quartets at play in the Wigmore Hall tonight, tomorrow and most days after. Life goes on. But it does not go on unchanged,” he opined. “And the next time you or I go to the Wigmore Hall, we will be subtly aware that something has changed, no matter how discreet the extra security or how hushed the space sounds in that invaluable hiatus between the moment the musicians raise their bows and the instant the music flows. A seal has been broken. We will need to make an extra effort to shut out the world and its nagging concerns. We are no longer alone with ourselves.”

Organized by Jewish anti-Israel campaigners Tony Greenstein, whom Lebrecht calls “a veteran agitator who avowed aim is to attract attention,” and Deborah Fink, who set up a group called Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, the disruption was condemned by other prominent Jewish members of the boycott and sanctions campaign against Israel.

Activist Brian Robinson said the disturbances would have a negative effect and make people angry.

“I appreciate the strength of feeling behind the interruptions, I understand why people feel moved to actions of this kind, but do we know if they’re effective? Or do they just make people angry with us? I cannot support this kind of action – but I speak only for myself and am not asking anyone to agree with me,” he said.

Veteran campaigner Deborah Maccoby said it could make protesters look like “vandals” and might alienate people.

“I, too, have doubts, which I’ve expressed before, about the effectiveness of disrupting a performance of beautiful classical music – as opposed to a demonstration and picket outside the concert hall. What worries me is that it could make the disrupters look like vandals and Philistines, and it could alienate the people who don’t understand much about the issues and just see their enjoyment of music disrupted,” she said. “It also can be seen as boosting the stature of the performers when they resist the disruption and manage to continue to the end.”

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