Wednesday, 14 September 2011

In Defence of the LPO Four

 The visit by the Israel Philharmonic to the Proms has raised passions, and sadly not just through the emotional power of their performance. The event itself was disrupted by protesters (were they the same protesters as at the Wigmore for the Jerusalem Quartet? Could a blacklist keep them out?) but was also preceded by a letter to The Independent newspaper calling for the cancellation of the concert as a form of "Cultural Boycott". Now four members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who were signatories to the letter, have been suspended from duties for nine months as a direct result.
Once again the world of classical music comes up against the political repercussions of its activities. As ever, those in charge appear to be in complete denial about the fact that what they do has any political dimension at all. Roger Wright, director of the Proms, refused to cancel the event on the grounds that the invitation was "purely musical", while Timothy Walker, chief executive of the LPO, concluded his statement on the suspensions by saying "music and politics do not mix".
The tragedy is that the actions of both men are defensible, but a meaningful defence would involve the acknowledgement that there is a political dimension to their activities. Nobody denies that when the West East Divan Orchestra comes to the Proms, or even the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, a strong and well-received political statement is being made.
But to get to the specifics of this case, the call for a boycott of the Israel Philharmonic is part of a wider Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Considering the anti-Zionist feeling in many parts of the world, the aims of this project seem dangerously vague. When specific arguments are expressed, they tend to concentrate on the links between cultural institutions and the Israeli military, and those links tend to be either tenuous or subtly concealed, depending on your point of view. Otherwise, the whole campaign seems aimed at the destruction of Israel. One undoubted political connotation to a tour by a national orchestra is that it supports that nation's right to existence and international recognition. And only Israel's most implacable enemies are going to complain about that.
Even so, the call for a boycott is well within the bounds of acceptable political debate in this country, so the fact that it has supporters in the classical music community should not come as too much of a shock. The LPO's complaint is that the four players, cellist Sue Sutherley and violinists Tom Eisner, Nancy Elan and Sarah Streatfeild, each stated their membership of the orchestra next to their signature on the letter. This, it was felt, gave the impression that their views were those of the orchestra. It is fair to say that the orchestra does have a case here, but not a watertight one. It is a commonly accepted convention that when a signatory to a published letter states an affiliation, they are speaking for their institution. But it is by no means universally held to be the case, and I suspect that legal responsibilities of libel would not transfer to the institution in question if that were the problem.
The issue of broader representation goes both ways. The implicit suggestion by the four players that they represent the views of their orchestra is no stronger than the implication by the BBC that they endorse Israel's policies through the invitation to the Proms of the country’s leading orchestra. The efforts by the LPO management to distance themselves from the views of these players has clearly been an over-reaction. They are obviously trying to appease somebody. It would be indiscreet to speculate as to who and why.


  1. It's sad how anything remotely touching on Palestinian / Israeli conflict becomes so polarised and vitriolic. I've been reading various people's views on the LPO 4 today, plus blogposts of the concert disruptions, and following threads into more general discussions on culture and politics and even views on Daniel Barenboim's activities, and I'm struck by the exhausting abundance of bitterness and closed mindedness. It all reminds me of the bad old days of conflict in Northern Ireland.

    In such a context expressions of moderation, non-violence and non-extremism are to be preferred, and indeed can be heroic. I object to the LPO's action because it seems to me to be an immoderate act; an extreme reaction chosen from those available in the circumstances. It may (or may not) be legally sound; it may (or may not) be democratically supported by the orchestra; but it certainly seems a hot-headed act in keeping with a spirit of violent conflict rather than reconciliation.

    Personally, if I saw my employer giving out punishments like this for a letter to a newspaper I would quickly be looking for a new employer.

  2. Exactly.

    I'm not in agreement with the letter writers, but this punishment is excessively harsh and has the potential to be truly damaging to the LPO's reputation, which the actions for which the players were disciplined most likely didn't have.

    Maybe the LPO's owner base can prompt the board to revise its decision before the damage will be compounded by the embarrassment of it being overruled by a tribunal, which it most likely would be if it ever comes to that.

  3. This punishment was fine. The letter writers put their affiliation after their horrendous hateful letter. They have opened the LSO to possible legal retaliations.

    The dismissal was quite fair.

  4. "They have opened the LSO to possible legal retaliations." I can't see how.

    But there are some interesting new (to me at least) points in today's (article in the Telegraph): the suspended musicians were "freelancers", and it was the LPO's "musicians" (the non-freelancers, presumably) who "decided" the suspension, which was then merely articulated by the orchestra's management.

    I have a nagging feeling that the voting owner-members of the LPO probably wouldn't have liked the fact that those "freelancers" used the LPO affiliation, whatever the context.

    Makes the decision a bit more understandable to me, but I still find the length of the suspension overlong.

  5. All members of London orchestras are technically freelance. It makes things cheaper for the organisations not having to pay the benefits and things associated with full time employment. It's another injustice worth addressing at some point, but one thing at a time.

  6. "...their horrendous hateful letter. They have opened the LSO to possible legal retaliations." Well, maybe you should care to get the name of the orchestra right before you speak of the horrendous hateful letter. Or is that not all that important, as you probably see every word against the jewish state as hateful, and everything this very state is doing to their neighbors in the middle east as their rightful cause of action....?