Saturday, July 15, 2017

Proms Get Political

The headline comes from The Guardian, not me:
The BBC has been known to go to some lengths to avoid political statements being made at the Proms, but this year, pianist Igor Levit sneaked one in before even an hour of the season had passed.
The Russian-German pianist’s encore – demanded in no uncertain terms by the audience after his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 – was Liszt’s transcription of the Ode to Joy, the chorus to hopeful words by Friedrich Schiller that forms the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9.
It is also, of course, the anthem of the European Union, and a worldwide musical symbol of assertive unity. If there could have been any doubt that a performer of such political awareness and responsibility as Levit meant it to be taken as such, he was wearing a small EU pin. The BBC’s cameras couldn’t miss it.
I think this deserves a brief note. I am a big fan of Igor Levit; I think he is the most promising of the new generation of pianists and I have all of his CDs. I put up a recent post about this issue of Venezuela and music that also involved Igor Levit.

Here are some further thoughts: in the case of Venezuela, a horrific situation of an entire nation apparently committing suicide before our very eyes, it is frankly hard to see why we should ignore it. And in the case of a musician of Venezuelan nationality, we should not only allow them some leeway to express their opinions, but perhaps even listen to them. But Brexit is an entirely different situation and musicians should perhaps steer clear unless there is some compelling reason to make a statement and in this case, the Proms concert, I really don't see one.

On the other hand, perhaps all this is imaginary and dreamed up by The Guardian. After all, just because Levit played Liszt's transcription of this particular movement doesn't necessarily imply a "statement" at all, even if he was wearing an EU pin. I have a Canada pin I wear sometimes, but I don't mean to make a statement with it.

Envoi, Beethoven Piano Concerto #3: a little sample of a performance by Igor Levit and the Mannheim Philharmonic:


Steven said...

Eh, it was unquestionably political. When Trump won, Levit made a speech before a concert against bigotry, neofascism etc. But I couldn’t take this protest too seriously. When I heard him play the Ode to Joy, what came to mind was Gerald Barry’s opera Alice’s Adventures Underground, in which he sets that famous tune to Humpty Dumpty’s absurd song:

‘In winter, when the fields are white,
I sing this song for your delight -
I took a kettle large and new;
Fit for the deed I had to do.
My heart went hop, my heart went thump:
I filled the kettle at the pump.’ etc.

Plus, we’re getting James MacMillan’s European Requiem later in the Proms season, which, if it has a cultural/political point to make, will be the opposite of Levit’s, and ten times the length.

Bryan Townsend said...

You were at the concert?

I was not aware that Levit had made a speech relating to Trump. That is unfortunate. Musicians of the older generation would not have done that.

Let us know your Prom experiences!

Steven said...

That's interesting to hear. It seems unexceptional to me. When I went to a concert in London the day after the terrorist attack, I expected a speech, and that's what we got. And a politically-charged one at that.

No, watched it live on BBC4. Will be going to a couple though, and will happily share if interesting!

Bryan Townsend said...

At the height of the Cold War, Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave a tour in the US in which he played six different recitals at Carnegie Hall over the course of just a few weeks. The audiences were ecstatic. This was just a couple of years before the Cuban missile crisis. Mind you, when he did another tour in 1970, there were anti-Soviet political protests which led him to say he would not return. It was during the 60s that politics broke out of its own realm and started to invade other realms like music and culture generally.

Yes, please do!

Marc Puckett said...

Certainly the MacMillan European Requiem, at 43 minutes or so, is about ten times the length of the Liszt Beethoven! I think it's probably indicative of something (am not sure what, though) that the Proms have the MacMillan and Beethoven's Ninth programmed in the same concert but so far as I can tell JM's concerns about 'European unity', at least as represented in the Requiem, are not so much political as they are historical, sociological, cultural, religious-- but of course I pay attention only very sporadically.

Humpty Dumpty's song begins at about the 33 minute mark here, at YouTube-- won't ever be able to listen with a straight face to the version used at Mass. I see that a Steven has made that listening possible. :-)

Marc Puckett said...

Won't ever again be able to listen....

Steven said...

Ah, yes that was me. Bit of a Barry fan -- glad you gave it a listen!

Yes, you're quite right about MacMillan. It's a bold statement to programme the two, but as you say, it's not clear what that statement is. One suspects, though, that it has something to do with 'relevance'. If you're interested and haven't read it, MacMillan has written about European union (small 'u'), for his column in Standpoint:

Marc Puckett said...

The last time I looked at Standpoint was to read JM's essay there about 'music and the sacred', a year ago (which essay was more or less his public lecture that is given during the course of the Oregon Bach Festival): the English tenor Charles Daniels talked about the Evangelist in Bach's St Matthew Passion this time and I can assure you that audience reaction in this bastion of Progressive Good Think was a great deal less mystified this year than last! Had no idea that he writes there regularly. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Based on what I observed of the man last July, it's difficult for me to believe that JM would feel himself entitled to deliver, on stage, a dose of political rhetoric.

I wish I had read that 'What Really Unites Europe' piece before last night's Missa Solemnis, particularly for JM's insight that the pax of the Agnus Dei responds to the violence of Revolution-- alas, I'm too ignorant of the chronology of Beethoven's working life to know how seriously to take that.

Will Wilkin said...

Much of my comfort in music is it takes me to a place mentally and emotionally where the stupidity and futility of politics are irrelevant and ignored. I tried to save my country, but I was only spitting in the ocean --and my country doesn't want to be saved anyhow. So now I seek happiness and to help and appreciate the people I love, meanwhile I will "fiddle while Rome burns."

Steven said...

Ha. I had forgotten that MacMillan appeared at the festival. Did you hear his Requiem?

Yes, the first time I saw him speak I was struck by how humble and mild-mannered he seemed, refreshingly so.

Marc Puckett said...

Steven, Yes, I did; was in the fourth or fifth row, just beyond the frame of that Standpoint photograph. Too close but.... Am very much looking forward to the 30th's Proms, to see how 'now' agrees with 'then': was predisposed to find the Requiem wonderful etc then; we shall see. Will add that at the intro to the next OBF concert, the festival director said that 'they' were trying to arrange a second performance before all the artists dispersed-- didn't happen of course but I did interpret that to mean that some music people more influential than I had also been impressed.

Steven said...

Well that has certainly whet my appetite, thanks. And I hope you enjoy it as much the second time round.

Marc Puckett said...

I see that Daniel Barenboim added his two cents' worth to the pot last night in between encores (from Andrew Clements on the Berlin Staatskapelle's Proms performances): "And between the items in the second concert there was a short speech by Barenboim about the importance and coherence of European culture in all its diversity, and of the crucial role of education in maintaining it." The speech itself is available to listen to at the BBC but I haven't.

On the Culture page at the G. there is a different article, by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, on Maestro Barenboim's wise words that puts a perhaps more political spin on what he said-- I know enough about Barenboim's politicks that I don't need to listen to his every word... but that is beside the point: I endure homilies at Mass, and if I want to listen to political nonsense I suppose I could turn on the television, but I don't attend concerts to be lectured by the performers.

It's only going to get worse, alas.