Of Sacred Spaces and the Right of Protest: The Orchestra’s Tour of Israel

Music Review

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s just-concluded tour of Germany, Austria, and Israel has been the most controversial in its history. No, visiting Germany, where a resurgent right wing openly invokes the symbols of Nazism, wasn’t the problem. Nor was going to Vienna, where the world had its first public glimpse of the fate that awaited the Jews of Europe as they cleaned the streets of the city on their hands and knees. Rather, it was Israel, where survivors of the Holocaust found their only unqualified refuge after the defeat of Hitler.

Who made the fuss? Palestinians and their sympathizers, galvanized by the Great March of Return, the weeks-long effort, sponsored by Hamas and underwritten by Iran, to breach the Israeli-Gaza border and “reclaim” Israeli territory for, among others, armed Hamas cadres.

I don’t want to litigate the Israeli-Palestinian question. Nor do I uncritically defend Israel, which has its goodly share of flaws and problems. But it is not a one-party state that has stifled the freedom of a fifth of the earth’s population. That would be China, where the Orchestra has performed to acclaim and without incident, let alone with the expectation that it would embrace dissidents or raise embarrassing political questions to its hosts.

The larger question here is whether artists, in general, should have a right to perform without disruption, let alone without fear for their safety. The latter issue was thrust upon us this spring at the Wilma Theater, where a spectator menacingly interrupted a performance he didn’t like.

I’ll give a brief answer. People have the right to protest cultural events they don’t like, as they do anything else. But that right stops at the auditorium door. Audiences may boo, hoot, or jeer performances as such. But if their problem is political, they need to take it into the street. Benjamin Safran, writing in BSR, says “Screw the sanctity of the concert hall.” And why not the church, synagogue, or mosque? Why not any social gathering where you can command a captive audience for a few minutes on behalf of whichever cause you think people should be paying attention to?

I have felt passionately enough in my time to publicly harangue strangers about things I thought should matter as deeply to them as they did to me. I have never thought to do it to people listening to the Brahms First Piano Concerto. It could be, as Mr. Safran suggests, the elitist snob in me. I don’t know what Brahms thought about Bismarck, or what he might have thought about the Vietnam War. I care very much, though, about how he chooses to modulate from one key to another, or where he brings in the horns. When a genius is good enough to give you his inmost thoughts clothed in beauty, you have a more than constitutional right to give them your close attention.

If the Brahms performance interrupted on the tour had been conducted by Herbert von Karajan rather than Yannick Nézet-Séguin, I wouldn’t have been in the audience. Karajan was an unrepentant Nazi. I might have protested his engagement by the Orchestra in the street. I wouldn’t have cut in on Brahms, though. Some spaces really are sacred, or at least off limits.

Yes, music can be used for political purposes, including the worst: think of Wagner at Nuremberg. But great music, performed at the highest level by musicians giving their hearts to it, not only deserves but demands the respect we give ourselves. That’s because if we don’t give it, we only lessen our own worth.

About Robert Zaller 91 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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