Conductor Vladimir Jurowski grabbed international headlines recently when his performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony in Lucerne with the orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper was interrupted by climate activists. Jurowski’s response, pausing the performance between movements, allowing the protestors to make their case before continuing, and insisting they were given a fair hearing by the audience, won him widespread praise for skilfully walking what can be a daunting tightrope for artists during a live performance. But what does he think, in hindsight? And what advice does he have for freelancers facing a similar situation? In an exclusive interview, he shared his thoughts with FMTW’s Paul Carey Jones.
Speaking after celebrating the 100th birthday of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, of which he is Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, I started by asking Vladimir Jurowski whether he had any warning beforehand that anything out of the ordinary might be about to take place that night in Lucerne.
“No, I didn’t know anything in advance, and I only realised who these people were when they were already on stage; I could look over my shoulder, I heard the screams in the audience, and then I heard the two of them screaming, and I immediately understood that those were climate protestors. I didn’t have much time to think – that’s why I decided to win time, and signalled the orchestra to play on. In the theatre, sometimes performances are disrupted by people who dislike the staging or whatever other concerns they have to voice, and we tend to carry on until such a thing becomes impossible, or if someone needs medical help. So using my experience from the theatre I decided to play on. The movement went on for another six or seven minutes, in which time I had the possibility to think – thanks to Bruckner, the conducting of the third movement of the Fourth Symphony is not such a difficult issue technically, so while conducting I just kept on thinking what would be my next step.”
Was he concerned for his safety, and that of his fellow performers, at any stage? “By the end of the movement I knew those two were extremely young, and obviously passionate about their cause, but I didn’t view them as potentially dangerous. Obviously, having read the reports about various other occasions where activists endangered other people, I was cautious about my reaction, but here I was convinced these two looked no older than 23 or 24. (In fact the girl was 28, so she’s the age of my eldest daughter, and the boy turned out to be 20, so he is a few years older than my son.) I decided by the end of the movement that I needed to talk to them and strike a deal. And everything which followed was a pure improvisation. So no, I didn’t fear so much for the safety of my colleagues on stage, because I saw there were no sprays in their hands, and they didn’t attempt to spray on the stage or the music, or the instruments – God forbid. They simply glued themselves to the wooden conductor’s podium. I didn’t know whether they glued themselves for real or whether it was a fake – it turned out to be a fake because they could free themselves very easily when I started talking to them, so it meant they were not properly glued.”
I hope this will bring about some kind of a dialogue between musical performers and climate activists.
But does he have any concerns that his positive response in giving a platform for activists to speak might encourage further disruption at future performances? “No, I don’t think it will because you see they have realised – too late of course – they were preaching to the converted. Since the concert, the two of them have contacted me. They wrote me a very nice email thanking me for what I’ve done for them, and for the climate activists’ cause, and I wrote back to them. I don’t know if further dialogue will occur, but we’ve been in touch. And it doesn’t make sense to disturb an event which is conducted, or sung or played by a person who anyhow is trying to defend the climate with their means, so I hope this will bring about some kind of a dialogue between musical performers and climate activists. That’s exactly what I suggested in my email, that we look at ways of finding common paths – even if I do not approve of such actions. I don’t think you can save the world by interrupting a concert of classical music, and I tried to explain to them that there is also such a thing as the ecology of the spirit, and that classical music is trying to do exactly that: trying to save the human soul, which is wrecked and potentially killed by internet mass media, this uninterrupted flow of fake news and spiritual pornography.”
Jurowski is clearly in favour of this more constructive, two-way conversation between performers and activists, seeing an opportunity for bringing disparate groups together for the benefit of all; not just “preaching to the converted” but reaching out beyond that. “Classical music lovers are often people in charge of the important economic sectors; such was the case in Lucerne, because I would say nearly half of the audience were Swiss bankers, and their reaction was unmistakably negative. If you want to reach these people who are not converted – and you do need to convince them about the necessity to act on climate change, – I think you have to look for other ways which would infuriate them less and make them think more.”