The Jerusalem Quartet: Should classical music really be a legitimate target for political demonstration?

The performers were heckled by anti-Israeli protesters at the Wigmore Hall this week.

The last thing you might expect to hear at a lunchtime classical concert is a political protest. But at the Wigmore Hall this week, that is precisely what the audience, who had been looking forward to a civilised programme of Mozart's String Quartet in D K575 and Ravel's String Quartet in F, experienced.

The subject of the heckling? The award-winning Jerusalem Quartet. To the surprise of the largely elderly audience, 10 minutes into the performance a female protester stood up to demonstrate against the Israeli government. Then, at 10 minute intervals, came further interruptions. With just four or five protesters strategically positioned around the hall, protesters were able to disturb the concert throughout, before being escorted from the building.

Bloggers recorded the disruption and tension caused by the commotion, which meant that Radio 3's live broadcast had to be broken off and, in a bizarre turn of events, saw the musicians having to defend their performance from the stage. One blogger, Boulezian, wrote: "A woman rose to her feet and made a noise. For a split second, I was unsure what it was; then I realised that she was singing – in a reasonably [sic] imitation of a trained voice. 'Jerusalem' was the first word, followed by 'is occupied'. She proceeded to shout out denunciations of Israel, 'an apartheid state', the attack on Gaza, the use of phosphorous, and so forth, seeming to implicate the quartet."

The Jerusalem Quartet have faced such protests before, as far as Australia. In fact, the date of this concert, 29 March, also happened to be the day when a group of protesters – five members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign – were appearing in court for disrupting a performance by the Quartet in Edinburgh in August 2008. The problem, it seems, is a result of the group's name and their being perceived as cultural ambassadors for Israel, with Jerusalem Music Centre's website stating: "The four members of the Quartet joined the Israeli Defense Forces in March 1997 and are serving as Distinguished Musicians." Of course, military service is compulsory for any Israeli citizen at the age of 18. Even violin virtuoso Maxim Vengerov served for a short time in the IDF.

Still, as classical music writer for The Independent, Jessica Duchen, states in her blog, association with the IDF leads to inevitable presumptions. "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. 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 distasteful 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."

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."

Surely this should all become irrelevant anyway, in the setting of the classical concert. After all, the Jerusalem Quartet are musicians, and on Monday were simply entertaining people, as usual, with peaceful classical music in a respected cultural institution. The concert hall is not the place for a political debate; it is a place for high culture.

They are not the first classical group to be drawn into political debate. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra were targeted in 2007, when the group Women in Black held vigils in protest at their performances in New York and Los Angeles. The protesters explained their reasons for the action as being because the Orchestra's conductor, Zubin Mehta, had called it "Israel's flagship", and because they had performed for Israeli soldiers. Fortunately for the 2000-strong audience at Los Angeles's Disney Hall, the silent vigil spared the performance from being disturbed, although the unwanted tension, as a result of heightened security and the large signs bearing messages such as "Boycott Israel Philharmonic", would have been similar to that experienced by the audience at Wigmore Hall on Monday.

The choir of Clare College ended up missing some performances when their planned six-concert tour of Israel was opposed by protesters from the London-based Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. Joining the Israel Camerata Orchestra to sing Bach's Christmas Oratorio, the choir were unable to perform in East Jerusalem or Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Such contentious locations were not an excuse on Monday, however. The Wigmore Hall's director, John Gilhooly, told me: "To use a lunchtime event attended by elderly people defeats any cause. We can't possibly condone any kind of disturbance to any artistic event. The protesters completely take away the meaning of an artistic event which is something which completely transcends politics.

"The Jerusalem Quartet said from the platform that in no way do they represent the state of Israel. Two of them play in Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. So what the protest was about, I've no idea.

"The Wigmore Hall is a totally non-political venue. We are just interested in music. I'm very upset for my staff who had to endure abuse, the public and the performers who very heroically played the concert. I would hate for any audience to have to go through that again. When I asked if they wanted the concert to continue, 500 people shouted back and cheered. That was the answer to the protesters."

There is only one answer to the question of bringing politics into the realm of the classical recital, summed up by the Jerusalem Quartet themselves: "We are musicians. We want our audiences to enjoy our music, whoever they may be, whatever their religion or nationality or ethnicity, without unthinking interruptions."

Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella

books
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Bell in the new BBC series Posh People: Inside Tatler

Review: Posh journalists just can't get enough of each other

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital