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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