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."

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor