Friday, 13 February 2015

Music is Power

Stand up for something and you’ll get smeared - that seems to be a given in British classical music journalism these days. Musicians are more susceptible to political smears than most artists it seems: the motivations and supposed deficiencies of their work are always open to divisive interpretations that the music itself cannot contest. This morning we heard from Damian Thompson about “Classical music's greatest political butt-kissers”. Gergiev, Pollini, Dudamel and the entire El Sistema are the predictable targets, but Rattle gets a poke too; apparently he’s New Labour.

Thompson has his axes to grind of course, but he undermines every argument he makes by equating the politics he dislikes with poor musicianship. The famously communist Pollini, we are told, “these days plays the piano with all the dexterity of Les Dawson”. Rattle has “been a disappointment” in Berlin, and when the Philharmonic replace him with the nationalist Christian Thielemann, they’ll get the discipline that Rattle is too liberal to impose.

None of which is true. Pollini is in his 70s, but he is as fine a pianist as ever, just listen to the last volume in his recently completed Beethoven sonata cycle. Rattle’s time in Berlin has been a success by almost every available measure – whatever complaints the players may have had didn’t stop them voting him into office in the first place and then voting to renew his contract. And Thielemann gets disciplined performances because of the time and care he puts into preparation and rehearsal, not because he’s a Nazi.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and recent examples from across the political spectrum are numerous. Just look at Gergiev’s recent fall from grace in the UK. When it was fashionable to boycott his concerts (and I suggested doing so for a time), many who should have known better appended their comments about his politics with views on his artistry – as if that were at all relevant. And now Gergiev can do no right. I haven’t noticed any significant deterioration in his work in recently, but it’s not often you’ll read a positive review, in English anyway.

So, it’s back to the old debate about music and politics. But don’t worry, there’s no need to open up that can of worms again, as the issues here are quite contained. Namely: When a musician is of high standing, they have a power that can be harnessed for political ends, and not always their own. The debate about the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms a few years ago only mattered because the IPO is an excellent orchestra. That is why is has the power to promote the State of Israel, and even by extension its government’s policies. Similarly with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, and it seems hypocritical not to treat visits from both orchestras in a similar light.

These and other musicians face two lines of attack. The first is to suggest they are naïve pawns in political games beyond their knowledge or control. Thompson indulges that one, quoting an unnamed but ‘renowned’ conductor as saying of the Simón Bolívar musicians “Politics isn’t something they’ve thought deeply about. They just slip into the soft-left consensus”. I can’t speak for them, but I can for many listeners, and when Thompson says “El Sistema exported pro-Chavez propaganda as well as Mahler symphonies to gullible global audiences” he is taking his argument too far. Audiences are well aware of the political context in which classical performances take place. If not, then why has Gergiev become such a toxic brand that the World Orchestra for Peace can now barely half fill the Albert Hall, a venue that until recently they always filled to capacity.

The other line of attack is easier but more insidious: to claim that the musicians you disagree with are no good. In theory it is an effective policy: If Maurizio Pollini does indeed sound like Les Dawson then his political views must also be junk, right? And if nobody in Berlin likes Simon Rattle, he must be wrong about everything. But it doesn’t work like that. Great musicians have political and social power simply by virtue of their being great musicians. Saying it ain’t so doesn’t change anything.