Monday, January 19, 2015

Inconvenient truths about classical music and free speech

Following the terrible Paris shootings classical music has, quite rightly, has thrown its weight behind the freedom of speech movement, So it is worth noting that next week's Association of British Orchestras conference includes a session titled 'Touring China' which explains how orchestras can exploit the lucrative Chinese market. China is now a regular destination for top orchestras and in the last few weeks both the London Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have been touring the country.

The standard measurement of press freedom is the World Press Freedom Index compiled by respected NGO Reporters Without Borders. In the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, out of 180 countries China is ranked 175th, a ranking which is below the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. In their commentary Reporters Without Borders describes how in China "human rights activists and dissident bloggers such as Xu Zhiyong and Yang Maodong (also known as Guo Feixiong), who were jailed on trumped-up charges are among those who paid a high price in the past year", while the BBC's website was one of many blocked by the Chinese government during the 2014 Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations. American press monitoring group Freedom House has stated that "China’s media environment remained one of the world’s most restrictive in 2013" and currently assigns a press status of 'not free' to China.

Another market that orchestras and celebrity musicians are falling over themselves to exploit is the United Arab Emirates, and following a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert in Bahrain a member of the orchestra wrote that "the Gulf Arab states could well become a popular and attractive part of our touring itinerary". This prediction should be read in the context of the Emirates sharing with China a Freedom House press status of 'not free'. In their overview Freedom House describes how "The government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) continued its efforts to silence dissent in 2013, convicting scores of activists and bloggers and further limiting an already constrained media environment". Reporters Without Borders reports that in December 2014: "the Abu Dhabi federal supreme court has sentenced online human rights activist Osama Al-Najjar to three years in prison and a heavy fine for tweeting about the mistreatment that his father and all the other victims of the “UAE 94” trial received in detention", and goes on to say "Reporters Without Borders condemns this latest case of the Emirati regime’s persecution of cyber-dissidents".

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, who visited the Emirates in 2010, were among the first high profile Western orchestras to perform in Abu Dhabi, and they were followed four years later by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. Like China, Abu Dhabi and the other Gulf states have an appalling record on human rights that extends far beyond press freedom. The misdemeanours in the Gulf states include the persecution of homosexuals, the malreatment of migrant workers, and discrimination against women. Islamic Sharia is a main source for the penal code in the UAE. This means, to quote Diana Hamade, an Emirati lawyer based in Dubai: "Crimes such as the desertion of Islam, fornication, murder, theft, adultery and homosexuality - all crimes classified as "Al Hudud" in Arabic - are punishable by predetermined penalties (flogging and arm amputation among them)."

Despite this, as has been pointed our here many times, celebrity musicians flock to Abu Dhabi. Among those accepting thirty pieces of silver to perform at the 2015 Abu Dhabi Festival are Riccardo Muti and Anne-Sophie Mutter. It is particularly surprising to find Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra among those appearing this year, as Fischer has been lauded for displaying a "subversive streak goes hand in hand with an uncommon political outspokenness" and has been praised for his blunt criticism of the right-wing political drift in his native Hungary. There is not much that I admire about the regimes in China and the United Arab Emirates. But I do admire how both regimes have created a parallel universe for celebrity musicians, where the otherwise universally accepted principles of freedom of speech and human rights do not apply. There is yet another inconvenient truth here.

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davidderrick said...

The trouble is, the Emiratis see Western art as just luxury goods, on a par with shops and hotels. When you've got the rest, you want opera. There is no soil there. Operas singers are on the global shopping list, like London real estate and (for the Qataris) FIFA. But it's nice for performers to add a year or two to their careers by performing there instead of just on cruise ships. And the money is good. There IS soil (and, even today, cultural give and take) in Palestine, Egypt (where I am now), Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, as Barenboim and Edward Said have reminded us.

Pliable said...

David, interesting observation about Egypt, where, as you may have gathered from the blog, I returned recently.

Some related trivia. In 1951, the Berlin Philharmonic performed under Wilhelm Furtwängler in Cairo, and Herbert von Karajan conducted the orchestra at the 1968 Baalbeck Festival and in 1975 in Tehran. The latter concert was, of course, when the Shah was in power. Which takes us down another path -

davidderrick said...

Interesting. And of course, Aida had its premiere in Cairo. I know the point about Said and Barenboim is a bit obvious, and we talk about this territory as Christian proselytisers might have done, as they searched the world for promising audiences! But it does point to the contrast with the Gulf.

Joe Shelby said...

I'm reminded of an 80s rock song from Little Stevie and (many) friends, "I ain't gonna play Sun City". I think that's the only thing that will change it. Audiences can't stop going to concerts just to try to change the orchestra's touring, in and of itself, because they know, as we do, how fragile the orchestra's economy is. Better an orchestra with occasional trips to places we'd rather they not go, then no orchestra at all.

No, this time the change has to come from the musicians themselves. An orchestra is going to have to refuse the invite, and do so publicly and loudly, AND not get (financially) punished for it, for others to wake up and also start to agree not to go.