Fine by me if Barenboim strikes a false note

The great con­duc­tor’s views on the EU may not move me, but I’m happy to leave that to his mu­sic

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - fol­low Stephen Pol­lard @ stephen­pol­lard; read more at tele­ opin­ion stephen pol­lard

There’s an old Jewish joke about the curse of the Plot­nick Di­a­mond. The di­a­mond is mag­nif­i­cent – one of the largest and purest in the world. But the woman who wears it tells every­one that it comes with a curse: Mr Plot­nick.

That’s some­times how I feel about Daniel Barenboim. There is no greater mu­si­cian on earth. He is in­ca­pable of a rou­tine per­for­mance and his in­sights, ei­ther as a pi­anist, a con­duc­tor or a lec­turer on mu­sic, are peer­less. But to get that side of him you have to put up with the other – the com­pul­sion to tell the rest of us what we are do­ing wrong in our non-mu­si­cal lives.

It’s a price I am more than happy to pay, but his an­tics on Sun­day night at the Proms have riled many. He didn’t men­tion Brexit by name – and was care­ful to say his words were “not po­lit­i­cal” – but you’d have to be ver­bally tone deaf not to get what he meant. “When I look at the world with so many iso­la­tion (sic) ten­den­cies, I get very wor­ried.” He went on to de­liver a rather thought­ful plea for more ed­u­ca­tion about Euro­pean cul­ture and the dan­gers of re­li­gious fa­nati­cism.

Ac­cord­ing to many on so­cial me­dia, as a Brex­i­teer I should take great of­fence at all this. I’ve two ob­jec­tions to this re­sponse. First, I agree with ev­ery word Barenboim said. I don’t want to leave the EU to with­draw into petty na­tion­al­ism. It is pre­cisely be­cause I worry that an anti-demo­cratic EU is fos­ter­ing ex­trem­ism across Europe that I want out. Brexit was about em­brac­ing the rest of the world with equal vigour to our re­la­tions with our Euro­pean friends. In­deed a key prob­lem with Brus­sels is that the drive to­wards EU na­tion­al­ism smoth­ers those Euro­pean cul­tures – Ger­man, French, Fin­nish etc – that Barenboim rightly cares so much about.

But I’ve a deeper is­sue with the idea that Barenboim should be, as it were, seen and not heard. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a large num­ber of great artists and for many of them their en­gage­ment with the wider world be­yond their mu­sic, lit­er­a­ture or act­ing is in­te­gral to their art. For the likes of Barenboim you sim­ply can’t have one without the other.

Take Igor Le­vit, the pi­anist who opened the Proms on Fri­day. I’ve rarely heard a more in­tel­lec­tu­ally rig­or­ous mu­si­cian, equally blessed with pi­anis­tic tal­ent. His en­core on Fri­day was his own po­lit­i­cal state­ment – a tran­scrip­tion by Liszt of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU an­them. But he is some­times un­able to con­tain him­self to such sub­tleties and has been known to make overtly po­lit­i­cal re­marks from the stage.

Would I rather they kept their mouths shut when they’re per­form­ing and con­fined pol­i­tics to other oc­ca­sions? Cer­tainly. Does it mat­ter that much when, ev­ery so of­ten, they can’t help them­selves? Not re­ally.

But al­though the car­i­ca­ture of the lefty-lib­eral artist be­rat­ing the rest of the world is prob­a­bly ac­cu­rate when it comes to lec­tur­ing us af­ter a per­for­mance – when was the last time you heard an ac­tor in­ter­rupt a cur­tain call to at­tack the Govern­ment for let­ting the na­tional debt rise too high? – it’s mis­lead­ing in other re­spects.

Take our great­est liv­ing com­poser, Sir James Macmil­lan. Once on the Left of Labour, Sir James now says he votes Con­ser­va­tive – and is a pow­er­ful voice for a form of thought­ful con­ser­vatism that one might – wrongly – be led to think is en­tirely ab­sent from the arts.

In 2015 the Catholic Herald made him its Catholic of the Year for what it called “his fight against the new sec­u­lar es­tab­lish­ments… wag­ing a holy war on 1970s-style Mass set­tings that he de­scribes as ‘mu­si­cally il­lit­er­ate’”. And he is an un­stint­ing de­fender of what he de­scribes as “a civil­i­sa­tion shaped by Ju­daeo-chris­tian val­ues and cul­ture”. That has led him, as a long-stand­ing an­tifas­cist, to take a stance against the SNP, whose rhetoric dis­turbs him greatly.

Or take the Rus­sian pi­anist Evgeny Kissin, a Bri­tish cit­i­zen since 2002. Some years ago he wrote a piece at­tack­ing the BBC for its anti-is­rael bias. On the back of that I ar­ranged to in­ter­view him. I thought if I was lucky I might get 45 min­utes. Three and a half hours later I turned off my tape recorder hav­ing been treated to an in­tel­lec­tual tour de force of mod­ern con­ser­va­tive think­ing, rooted in his time grow­ing up in the Soviet Union. He has just pub­lished his Mem­oirs and Re­flec­tions – mu­si­cal and oth­er­wise.

In­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ment is a key part of be­ing an artist. If the pol­i­tics of the for­mer over­whelm the beauty of the lat­ter, there is, of course, al­ways the op­tion of walk­ing out.

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