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.
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
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.