Having not been able to get back home to London this summer I’ve missed one of the highlights of the musical year there: the BBC Proms. Quite aside from all those memorable performances, I’ve always rather appreciated how the Proms generates a kind of mythology about certain evenings at the Royal Albert Hall over the long years. Perhaps none is more spoken of than the 21st August 1968 when the Rostropovich performed the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra whilst Soviet tanks rolled on to the streets of Prague. It was an event I was reminded of this week when I came across a recording of the second half of that concert, where the orchestra – under Yevgeny Svetlanov – performed Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. The hushed opening of the symphony is nearly drowned out by protesters in the hall, though these soon die down, and the audience seems spellbound by the tense atmosphere in the hall that night. Hearing these sound of protests captured on the recording brought back memories of the night in 2011 when I was in the audience for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s visit to the Proms.
The audience in 1968 responded to the Shostakovich with shouts of acclamation, and this reaction would seem to prove that the politics of the day did not end up defining the possibilities of their musical experience that night. But I have always been wary of claims that this might show music’s power to transcend politics. Frankly I can recall very little of the Israel Philharmonic’s performance in 2011, so charged was the atmosphere in the hall, but I can at least speak for myself when I say that my applause at the end of that concert responded to a complex mix of emotions from appreciation for the orchestra’s music making to an intense discomfort at how the evening had proceeded. In both cases the protests were hushed but – at least in 2011 – this is because those responsible were taken from the hall, not because the music somehow overcame their objections. Thus to claim here that music transcends politics seems to me a misrepresentation: rather the politics did not overwhelm the music. Alas, the political rancour that existed before those concerts in 1968 and 2011 remained little changed as the audience wended their way home and the hall reverberated with the silence of the evening’s history.
I say all of this not to undercut the extraordinary power that music has to speak to the historical moment, nor to discredit the beauty in those occasions where music brings together performers and audiences who stand on either side of a political chasm. But I think that there are legitimate concerns about recourse to the possibility of music’s transcendental power over politics. From issues of funding as affected by the national economy, through the administrative decisions of an orchestra’s management, to disquiet about the seating arrangement within a particular section, politics pervades performance. By seeing music as somehow above these political situations is to be blind to the grip they hold on the practicalities of performance. I’m not suggesting that these factors can or should define the entire performance experience, but being oblivious to them seems only to hasten the collapse of that false ivory tower wherein resides music’s ability to float above the concerns of the world.
Nevertheless, though politics might reign supreme in the ways that we organize our performing life, the concert hall does create the environment in which music can supplant – if perhaps only briefly – the vagaries of quotidian politics with tantalizing glimpses of the sublime. This is the extraordinary power of performance: a quality that is more complex than can be explained with the measly adjectives like “heroic”, or “relaxing” that classical music tends to be labeled with. And by framing music’s power not in how it resides above the concerns of the world, but in its ability to intermingle the mundane with the best artistry that we have to offer, we might well stumble across the very practical means by which to speak to the political reality of maintaining our orchestras and our musical culture today.