(This piece appeared on Dilettante on 14 April)

We were interested to read the comments by Wigmore Hall’s John Gilhooly in Classical Music this week, about the recent disruption of a Jerusalem Quartet concert by protesters expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. There’d been pickets outside the venue on the morning of the concert by the quartet, whose disc of Haydn String Quartets picked up a BBC Music Magazine award yesterday. Then the recital, which was being broadcast by Radio 3, was interrupted when members of the audience stood up and started singing and shouting. ‘By disrupting performances, the protesters completely take away the whole meaning of an artistic event, which is something that transcends politics,’ Gilhooly said.

We’d argue that protests like these don’t in fact ‘take away’ the meaning of an artistic event, but rather attempt to change it by locating the event within a particular historical and political context. Also, it’s unclear what fixed ‘meaning’ Gilhooly is ascribing to a classical music concert, which the protesters are taking away. We need only look to composers like Shostakovich whose life and work reflect the fraught conditions in which art was made and received in the Soviet Union, for proof that things are muddier than Gilhooly implies, for artists and audiences alike.

Besides, the notion that art can be ‘transcendent’ shouldn’t be confused with the assertion that it does not bear on or reflect a moment in time, historically or politically. When Barenboim performed Wagner in Israel, he was reclaiming the composer’s music from the web of meaning in which it had been caught so that it might, once again, transcend. The act was nonetheless a ‘political’ gesture since transcendence relied on acknowledging the meanings it had acquired for Israeli audiences. Conversely, yesterday’s news that Somali radio stations have been threatened with ‘serious consequences’ unless they stop playing music which a radical religious group calls ‘un-Islamic’, shows just how threatening transcendence can look to people choking on their own ideology.

While it’s not surprising that the Wigmore Hall director would attempt to side-step the issue with his rather naive claim, it’s rather more disappointing that the BBC didn’t take the opportunity to ask some of these vital questions about art and politics. We don’t believe Radio 3 receives significant public funds because its output provides a useful palliative when times are tough. Instead, we’d like to think the Beeb is committed to the idea that classical music is relevant to our times, both in its tantalising promise of transcendence and as a medium for such struggles for meaning. As such, it might occasionally get a bit roughed up.

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