Politics In The Concert Hall

I read this brief complaint from columnist Jay Nordlinger of the National Review regarding politics on the podium.  Here is an excerpt:

So, on Friday night, I go to Carnegie Hall for a Christmas concert. The King’s Singers are performing with the New York Pops Orchestra; Marilyn Horne is a special guest. This should be an evening away from politics — just a little fodder for my next New Criterion music piece, you know?

Shortly into the concert, the conductor turns to the audience and speaks about “the holidays.” This year, he says, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are overlapping with Christmas. (According to what I can find, Kwanzaa begins on December 26, but never mind.) Then we have New Year’s Day. And “on January 20, there will be a new beginning for our country.” The crowd, of course, erupts into cheers. Then he says, “I see I’m not the only one who’s ready.”

This type of behavior seems to be commonplace among artists of all disciplines.  The Sean Penns, George Clooneys, Green Days, and Dixie Chicks of the universe seem to have an incessant need to keep us informed of their political slant.  We listen, at least enough to keep them talking.  They makes films with veiled political messages (The Day The Earth Stood Still is about global warming now?), not-so-veiled political messages (you can’t fight terrorism with guns, right Munich, Syriana, The Kingdom, Body of Lies?), and satires about sitting presidents.  Music and art are also filled with such examples, like “American Idiot,” one of the most popular albums of the year.

Choosing to express your political views in your chosen medium is something I have no problem with…I can choose not to go see Tim Robbins’ stupid war journalist flick, I can not buy the Dixie Chicks album (of course, I wouldn’t buy it if it was about Mahler, the 49ers, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and The Big Lebowski), I can skip a politically charged art exhibition if I don’t want to see it.  As the saying goes, “there’s a time and a place.”

A concert is not one of those places.

I don’t know who the conductor in question at the performance is, but I agree with Mr. Nordlinger’s call for some degree of condemnation for this breach of at best intelligence, at worst etiquette.  The types of comments being made absolutely do detract from what you’re doing, and what you should be doing is providing the best concert you can.  Taking stupid cheap shots in the political realm should be off-limits, mostly because it can ruin an otherwise noteworthy performance for the patrons.  Your service must be to art, not your opinions.

I consider myself one of the most annoying loud-mouthed, opinionated people out there, and I have extremely strong opinions about many things (like the fact that Joe Montana IS the greatest quarterback of all-time…I DARE you to argue with me on this!).  I’m not Captain Couth either…I’m almost happy to embarass myself with foul language, off-color humor, and a hearty, boisterous, obnoxious laugh.  But I’ve continued to improve my decorum, and I’m happy to pass judgment in this case.

There is never an appropriate time to bring politics into the concert hall.  Even if you are performing a piece like El-Khoury’s “Lebanon In Flames,” it is important to try to give the audience an understanding of where the composer is coming from without injecting your own opinions into the situation.  Feel free to talk about it in private circles, or on your blog.

Which reminds me…hunting bears and wolves from a helicopter is wrong.


2 thoughts on “Politics In The Concert Hall

  1. So true, but give someone the spotlight and you’d be surprised what comes out. This is similar to the preachers who overstep their charge by doing the same thing (or entire religions, for that matter). The thing we must remember is that the majority of our audience comes to a concert (especially like the X-mas program mentioned) to escape reality, to have a respite from the media blitz that is our world.

  2. I think the biggest thing is to remember and respect the fact that people in the audience (and orchestra) might have differing opinions and beliefs and be sensitive to those. That being said – I think mere programing of certain works can be a taken as a political act in and of itself. I think that was clearly the case with Corigliano’s First Symphony back in the 90s, as well as Robert Ostertag’s “All the Rage.” Others works will be taken politically (Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer) even if making an overy political statement wasn’t the programmer’s intent. It can be difficult to present such works without at least acknowledging the politics behind them.

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