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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The concert hall should be out of this world

By Norman Lebrecht / April 5, 2010

Monday afternoon, a neighbour came knocking at my door. ‘Did you hear?’ he said, jittery with agitation. ‘Hear what?’ ‘The lunchtime concert from the Wigmore Hall.’ I shook my head.

‘It was disrupted,’ he continued, ‘very well organised, they were. No sooner was one of the demonstrators taken away than another started up. They were barracking the Jerusalem Quartet, and in the end Radio 3 had to abandon the broadcast. Terrible business. Shocking.’

My instant reaction was to reach for perspective. That morning, 38 people had been killed in the Moscow Metro on their way to work, blown up by Chechen suicide bombers. Memories of 7/7 rushed to mind, of our town paralysed five years ago by such attacks, of body parts on the pavement outside the British Medical Association, of a bus with its roof peeled back like a sardine can, of innocent lives heartlessly taken. Beside those appalling images, the disruption of string quartets by Mozart and Ravel seemed trivial, too frivolous to accommodate in the same thought.

Yet, as the day merged into a week when two faiths sought the seasonal comforts of Passover and Easter, the attack on the Wigmore Hall assumed an awfulness all its own. True, no-one was harmed and the incident barely made the next day's papers. Nevertheless, the incident amounted to an assault on an element of civilisation whose value we cannot see until we lose it – a sanctuary where people under pressure can find relief from the world and its woes.

For the past 110 years, the Wigmore has stood inconspicuously behind the heaving department stores of Oxford Street. All the great pianists and violinists of legend have soliloquised beneath its pre-Raphaelite cupola, along with many of the top-C divas. It is a prestigious stage with a pin-perfect acoustic and an audience that does not applaud between movements, a little gem of civilisation, as unique to London as the red double-decker and the Regents Park flowerbeds, useful and decorative at once.

What the Wigmore does best is string quartets, a sumo-like blend of human combat and cooperation, and what the string quartet gives us is the chance to switch off our lives. There are no interruptions at the Wigmore, no street noise, no tweets. For an hour at lunchtime, two at night, you are (as Gustav Mahler put it), lost to the world. The Wigmore is a refuge where no-one can reach you, one of the last places on earth where the right to privacy is rigorously safeguarded.

There are few others left. I have heard mobiles go off in churches, synagogues, theatres and the House of Commons. I have seen men at the urinal jump when their Blackberry beeps and women abandon their facials at the hint of a ringtone. Only at havens like the Wigmore are we free from the demands of rapid response.

It was this precious freedom that the demonstrators set out to destroy. There are two versions of what actually happened. The hall’s management said the event was ‘extremely well planned’, with tickets purchased months in advance and in different parts of the hall. The recital had been chosen for disruption because it was broadcast live on radio and online; there had been no disturbance at the Jerusalem Quartet’s previous recital on Saturday.

The demo’s organiser Tony Greenstein gives a more shambolic account. His blog reports that he overslept in British Summer Time, missed his train, couldn’t find the hall, arrived ten minutes after the recital began and was made to wait outside for the first movement break. Greenstein represents the Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign, along with Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (J-BIG).

In his unscheduled absence, a music teacher, Deborah Fink, stood up to sing anti-Israel ditties. Greenstein was ushered to his seat while Fink was being evicted, saving his rant until some minutes after the music had resumed. Two or three others took up the cry once he was removed, hurling abuse at musicians who, they claimed, were members of the Israeli army and cultural ambassadors of ‘Apartheid Israel’.

No arrests were made and the disrupters reconvened to celebrate their coup at a café nearby. A veteran agitator, Greenstein’s avowed aim is to attract attention. I am aware that by writing about his silly prank I may well be giving succour to his warped world view.

However, the facts need to be set straight, and the civilities restored. The Jerusalem Quartet consists of three Russian immigrants and an Israeli-born viola player who matured as an ensemble under the BBC’s New Generation artists’ scheme. They are musicians, not soldiers. As part of their national service, they play Mozart in army camps. Two summers ago, at their Edinburgh festival debut, they were abused as ‘war criminals’. If that were indeed the case, anyone who objected to the Iraq war would be equally obliged to boycott Katharine Jenkins for flying out to entertain the forces.

The attack on the Wigmore Hall was the work of an eccentric fringe, all too easily dismissed as the inevitable irritants of an open society. The violence was contained with immaculate civility. The BBC asked the Jerusalem Quartet to repeat their recital for later broadcast. Nobody got hurt. There are string quartets at play in the Wigmore Hall tonight, tomorrow and most days after. Life goes on.

But it does not go on unchanged. Members of the Jerusalem Quartet, who have worked with Arab musicians in Daniel Barenboim’s East-West Diwan Orchestra and done what they can to promote Middle East dialogue, would not be artists if they were unaffected by the incident. Next time they come out on stage – be it in Amsterdam, Munich, Zurich or elsewhere on their European tour – they will scan the hall with anxious eyes and prepare to work twice as hard to stop the outside world from breaking their airtight concentration.

And the next time you or I go to the Wigmore Hall we will be subtly aware that something has changed, no matter how discreet the extra security or how hushed the space sounds in that invaluable hiatus between the moment the musicians raise their bows and the instant the music flow. A seal has been broken. The place is no longer impervious to intrusion. We will need to make an extra effort to shut out the world and its nagging concerns. We are no longer alone with ourselves.

Everyone needs a place of safety. As children, we find hidey-holes. As adults, we form nuclear relationships.

Every society needs a sanctuary where it can escape the important issues of the day – the general election, the economic bleakness, the state of Wayne Rooney’s ankle and, yes, the unending Palestinian misery. To be governed by current affairs is to risk losing our individuality. Places like the Wigmore Hall are where we recover that human right, just as in hospital we recover our health. A sanctuary must remain sacrosanct. There is no cause that can ever justify its desecration.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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