David Lister: The pianist doth protest too much

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The Independent Online

As classical music concerts go, it was certainly out of the ordinary. The renowned Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman was about to play the final piece in his recital at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He sat silently for a moment, then turned to the audience and said he would never play again in America, as its military wanted to control the whole world.

"Get your hands off my country," he declared. For those who think they may have missed headlines about American troops rampaging over Warsaw, Mr Zimerman was presumably referring to President Obama's decision to stick with the previous administration's plan to install a missile defence shield in Poland. About 40 people walked out of the concert, shouting obscenities at the pianist. Others booed. Zimerman retorted: "Yes, some people when they hear the word military start marching."

Who said piano recitals were staid affairs? The blogs that followed last weekend's drama were quite animated too. "What a jerk. Hates the USA but is still here to take our money," wrote one piano aficionado. Another with a sense of history as well as rhythm wrote tellingly: "If it wasn't for our military, Mr Zimerman, your country would still be under the iron fist of the Soviet Union." And one blogger showed he could move effortlessly from classical to pop in his knowledge of music's anti-America protesters. "Go, Zimerman, and take the Dixie Chicks with you!" he wrote.

It's possible that Mr Zimerman's hatred of the US is personal as well as political. He travels with his own Steinway, and shortly after 9/11 he had it apprehended at JFK airport in New York because customs officials thought "the glue smelled funny". (Don't ask.) Those same officials then destroyed the instrument. That could turn any concert pianist a little hostile. Indeed, Mr Zimerman now ships his piano in parts, which he then reassembles by hand. And when he has to transport the piano from city to city, he drives the truck himself.

Mr Zimerman certainly suffers for his art, but I still find that my sympathies are with that impolite blogger. If Zimerman does hate the US, why was he touring there in the first place? Why did he not make public his contempt for the country when he was approached to play there, rather than take the money and then protest? And by the way, is he also demanding that his record company cease selling his CDs in America? Oh, and another by the way – Mr Zimerman was born in Poland, and calls it "my country", but for the past 20 years his home has been in the tax haven of Switzerland.

He has compromised his protest. But even if he had not, it is a questionable protest. I'm not a fan of artists boycotting countries. The job of an artist surely is to bring nations together. Those who think that is an easy cliché need only look at the work of Daniel Barenboim with the young Israelis and Palestinians of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Yes, I do believe that there are moments in history when a nation has gone so far down the totalitarian route that the best gesture an artist can make is to keep them in cultural isolation. But America is not on a par with such countries. And if Mr Zimerman truly believes that it is, then as a political analyst and historian he is a darn good piano player.

Covent Garden's secret is out

The memorial service last Tuesday at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in London for the much liked arts PR Ewen Balfour had quite a guest list of those wanting to pay their respects. The Prime Minister's wife was in the front row. Sarah Brown worked in arts PR with Ewen before she moved to 10 Downing Street.

The BBC's James Naughtie gave a reading, and a tribute was delivered by the former head of the Royal Opera House, Sir John Tooley.

A rather political tribute it proved. Sir John who hired Ewen said: "It remains a mystery to many of us why he was later made redundant." That decision was in fact made by Sir John's successor at Covent Garden, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, and staff at the Royal Opera House signed a petition urging Sir Jeremy, in vain, to change his mind. It was something of a cause célèbre at the time at Covent Garden.

The belated public admission that Sir John disapproved of Sir Jeremy's action makes an interesting footnote to the troubled history of the Royal Opera House.

The draft programme for the Hay-on-Wye literary festival at the end of this month has as one of the highlights a talk by the veteran Hollywood actor Tony Curtis. It is sure to be a hot ticket. I was intrigued to see that the sponsor for this talk is a well known nursing home. Is someone trying to tell Tony something? Let's hope that he doesn't cancel when he sees that his name is being bracketed with carers for the elderly. It's not the most delicate message to give to a Hollywood film star.

Tony Curtis might, of course, be delighted with the association. He might be honoured that he is regarded as the celebrity emblem of an ageing population. But I have a hunch that he would still rather be thought of as the man who seduced Marilyn Monroe.