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Friday, September 02, 2011

I know, as Max Boyce said, cos I was there

This post isn't really all that important in the grand scheme of things, but I was there, and so I kind of feel it's at least relevant to set out exactly what did and didn't happen at Prom 62. I had good seats and therefore had a good view of all the protests which took place, which as far as I can tell puts me at a significant advantage over Denis MacShane MP and over Oliver Kamm, both of whom were expressing quite strong views on the subject on Twitter last night. Here's my timeline, because I like timelines.

A couple of months ago: Mrs Digest and I (I have no idea why I'm still calling her Mrs Digest, by the way - her twitter handle is @TessRead) were looking over the Proms program to see which one to go to. I like the Bruch violin concerto, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is probably going to be good - nearly all the big visiting national orchestras are. I don't really remember giving much of a second thought to the fact that it was specifically the Israeli national orchestra on this performance at the time, but I doubt it would have occupied me for very long if I had - I am not really a fan of cultural boycotts full stop and I am not at all aware of any way in which the IPO is used as an instrument of repression (an orchestra makes a poor tool of repression). Not even a pretty stretched "providing infrastructure for settlements" justification like the one used as a figleaf for the Bar-Ilan University boycott.

Before the concert: There were two pens of protestors (I am not sure what the technical term is - basically little squares made out of crash barriers) as we rocked up to the Albert Hall. To my eye, it looked like the pro-Israel one was rather better staffed than the Palestinian one, but this might have been because the Israeli flag is mostly white and thus shows up better in evening protests.

In the queue: People were handing out leaflets. The assembled British middle classes were basically tutting at them and telling them to get stuffed. A Palestinian bloke tried to hand me a leaflet entitled "Orchestra of the Age of Darkness", which was a reasonably good pun, but then he said "oh so you don't care about Palestinians then", so I indicated to him that the conversation had reached a natural end. Then another bloke tried to hand over a leaflet which as far as I could see was encouraging me to go and watch a performance for which I had bought tickets, while I was standing in the queue to go into the hall. Something of a waste of leafletage, I suggested, then he said something like "show your solidarity with Israel by attending this concert", so I told him to nark it too.

The performance starts: As I sit down I kind of start feeling a little bit guilty about being so sharp with the protestors - at the end of the day, I think it's entirely right that the Israel Philharmonic ought to be invited to perform at the Proms on their musical merits and will defend their right to be treated as a normal state, even to the extent of buying a stalls ticket, although probably no further. But ... surely it's also appropriate that there should be some element of protest by the large and active pro-Palestinian movement in this country, given that it is the orchestra of the Israeli state that is playing, and it's the Israeli state that has the fairly serious human rights problem. I make a mental note that I should possibly have given both groups of protestors more opportunity to speak, albeit that I really don't think anyone was going to change my mind about seeing the performance.

The performance continues. Webern's Passacaglia. To be honest I wasn't really getting on with it - not my favourite period of modernism. About two-thirds of the way through there is a quiet bit, and during this bit I realised that a) this piece doesn't have a choral section as evidence by the fact that the choir seats had been sold, and b) the choir appeared to be singing the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th for some reason. I was slow on the uptake here and followed my neighbouring audience member's gaze to the choir stalls, where a bunch of protestors had stood up, unfurled large handkerchiefs with the letters of "FREE PALESTINE" on them, and started singing. Presumably there was some political or satirical lyric to the Beethoven, but I didn't hear any of the words and (since the quiet bit was followed by a noisy bit, which I think Zubin Mehta might have played up somewhat) I don't think anyone else did either. I caught the word "apartheid" being sung as the protestors were being shoved out. (During the process of ushering them out, the letters got mixed up and Tess is 100% positive that at one point they spelled "FREE PIES"). As one protestor was finally being shoved out the door she yelled "Israel is the only democracy in the world which ...(inaudible)". The total duration of this protest was about three minutes I think. The Webern continued for a short while and then ended to what was in my opinion a level of applause not really merited by the music. This was the only time all evening that the protests really interfered with the performance. I thought it was quite exciting.

The Bruch Concerto Mehta walked off, then the violin soloist came on, with what looked like a really nervous grin on his face. I began to feel a bit more sorry for the performers, and made a mental note that while my sympathies were currently divided, I would come off the fence immediately if there were any protests directed at the orchestra itself (suspense prevention: there weren't).

Mehta stood up and got ready to start, then there was a load of shouting from the top circle. Some people had unfurled two Palestinian flags. As far as I could tell, they weren't shouting anything other than "free Palestine". The audience were all hissing back at them - a guy in the row behind me was loudly shouting "Silence!" a few times. I think the orchestra had two false starts while the protestors were being shoved out - this was quite a difficult operation as they were right in the middle of a row. I think the people in that row were probably inconvenienced a bit. Then the music got started - there was a bit of an incongruous round of applause.

The Bruch was absolutely fantastic, and went off without further incident. What I mainly noticed is that because of the previous protest, the quiet bits in the concerto were actually really quite exciting; it added a real edge to them that you didn't know if someone was going to shout "Free Palestine" all of a sudden. I thought that the soloist looked nervous throughout - he was moving around a lot. But he played brilliantly. He did an encore (one of the Bach solo violin suites I think), which was uninterrupted. Massive applause, this time totally deserved.

The interval: The Arena Bar is the place to go for half-time drinks in the Albert Hall, by the way. While we were in there, Tess spotted one of the security people and decided to have a chat with him. Apparently, the protestors hadn’t been arrested or handed over to the police, just chucked out of the hall. It's not actually specifically a crime to make a nuisance of yourself during the Proms – I daresay that if John Law was being heavy handed it could be considered a breach of the peace, but the RAH management apparently took the view that it wasn't worth the trouble. Really exciting atmosphere.

The performance resumes: The second half of the concert was an Albeniz, then Rimsky-Korsakov's "capriccio espagnole". To be honest I really hate these orchestral attempts at sketches of Spain, but there you go. The start of the Albeniz was the biggest disturbance of the night. Mehta had reached the podium and ended up standing there for as much as five minutes, with maybe three false starts, as (I think) three separate groups of protestors did the same thing of unfurling Palestinian flags and shouting "Free Palestine". I think there was one more shouted reference to apartheid as they were marched out. As I say, I had good seats and so I was able to see the expression on Mehta's face and he really wasn't liking it. I got pretty bored with the whole thing myself actually – this protest certainly did impair the audience's enjoyment of their night out. I thought this was quite a poor piece really, although not helped by the fact that my seats were on exactly the same level as the percussionists, and therefore they sounded too loud to me. Never a particularly dignified sight, seeing a male professional percussionist having a go at the castanets. One of the cellists dropped his bow, which was quite hilarious.

Part 2 continues: That was it. There was no protest at the start of the Rimsky-Korsakov, although by that point I think the orchestra had got wise – they started playing pretty much the second Mehta's feet hit the podium. It is a somewhat better piece than the Albeniz, although still much too much of the dum da-da dum in harmonic minor scales that orchestral composers do when they get the idea to imitate a flamenco guitar. Rapturous applause and several curtain calls. Mehta then turned to the audience and said the only words he spoke all evening to us – to introduce their encore piece, the death of Tybalt from Rossini's Romeo & Juliet. Fair do's, that was really good. Then we went home. There were two pretty sad-looking types in the pro-Israel protest pen who were apparently thanking me for my solidarity on behalf of the Christian Friends of Israel. I didn't stop.

Then I got home: And found that a) various usual suspects were comparing what happened to "shades of the 1930s", and that b) the BBC had stopped the Radio 3 broadcast at some point (I still haven't found out when).

For the first, this is in my opinion daft. There are some people who think that any use of the word "apartheid" in the context of Israel is per se anti-Semitic, via a fairly involved multi-stage argument involving a very broad reading of the EU committee's proposed definition of anti-Semitism and some waffle about "unique criticism". I don't really agree with that view at all, but if you do, then yes I can confirm that the word was used, pretty faintly. But anyone claiming that the orchestra was prevented from playing and that the performance was prevented by Nazi thugs … well, either they had no idea what happened at Prom 62, or no idea what happened in Germany in the 1930s. It was a total of less than ten minutes of shouting, none of which was directed at the orchestra itself (and I am very clear about this because that was what I was specifically looking out for).

For the second, I think Radio 3 made the wrong decision. I don't think there is anything sacred about a classical music concert, any more than a sports game or a parade, and the protests weren't disproportionate and should have been shown. My personal enjoyment of the evening was much more affected by the decision to program half an hour of ersatz Iberian clickety-clack with far too many loud cymbals in an echoey hall. I think they should have continued to broadcast it, including the protests. I don't think at all that protesting at a performance by the Israeli national orchestra is weird or wrong; it's basically the kind of dialogue that is a large part of the reason that I'm opposed to cultural boycotts in the first place. There was no "heckler's veto" here; the protestors did their thing, then were asked to leave and as far as I can tell, did so peacefully. The protestors also had the common sense not to do any protesting in the standing section of the arena, where a punch-up might have ensued, which was something I was worrying about most of the night.

All in all, I give three stars out of five to the orchestra, and three stars to the protestors. I thought it was the best night out I've had so far this Proms, and the prospect that someone might be about to suddenly stand up and yell really does enliven the quiet bits. I shall be muttering "free palestine" to myself during boring passages for the rest of the season.

34 comments this item posted by the management 9/02/2011 04:14:00 AM

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