A week ago I finally got around to doing something which I probably should have done a few years ago. Sitting somewhere up in the left mezzanine (I’m not sure precisely where — my ticket has since become a bookmark in something or another), knees askew and jutting out uncomfortably into the seat-back in front of me, I finally saw a live performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, his “Ode to Joy,” as part of an all-Beethoven program that spanned nearly a quarter-century of the composer’s life.
Under the baton of Iván Fischer, last Friday Hill Auditorium was host to the Budapest Festival Orchestra, one of the world’s leading symphonic concert groups. Before the performance began — indeed, before the orchestra was even on the stage — the longtime president of UMS, Ken Fischer (who is retiring at the end of this season, after 30 years with the organization), took the stage to introduce the musicians. In his remarks, Mr. Fischer included the usual comments about how pleased UMS was to welcome the orchestra, but the end of his speech included a rather unique tag: The orchestra was thrilled to be here that night, including every member of the cello section. “If you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Fischer said, “ask your neighbor, or take a look at the New York Times.” And then we heard Beethoven.
Well, to my surprise, I didn’t know what he was talking about, and I’m altogether too shy to ask a neighbor about anything. But it really didn’t take an extraordinary degree of deductive reasoning to hypothesize about the situation — and after the concert a quick Google search confirmed what I had already suspected. “An Orchestra Triumphs Over Trump’s Travel Ban,” the headline read. It seems that our amateur president hadn’t quite thought through the nuances and complexities of his “complete and total shutdown” idea (to say nothing of its legality or morality), and in the chaotic hours and days following the ban’s ham-handed implementation, the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s US tour was jeopardized by the fact that one of their cellists was being told that he could not enter the country because of his dual Hungarian/Iraqi citizenship. Fischer (Iván, that is) lodged a complaint with the State Department, and a day later, following an international effort, dual-passport holders were deemed to be exempt from the ban.
Let this be a lesson: Art is not immune from politics.
Not that many people would have seriously suggested the opposite, but often it seems that art serves for many people as an escape from the increasingly-alarming information surrounding national and international affairs. In the last few weeks I’ve certainly used it in such a manner. And that’s fine, even necessary — art can be an emotional balm for artist and recipient alike. But we also can’t ignore the fact that art is a political act. Perhaps it doesn’t always mean to be, just as sometimes it does, and maybe not everyone notices that it’s political. But ultimately, like almost every decision made, like the act of living itself, art is one of the infinite intricate pieces of the vast world machine we describe through the lens of politics. Art reflects life and life reflects art — and right now especially, both are pretty full of politics.
In light of this, it was fitting that the centerpiece of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s concert was Beethoven’s 9th symphony, a work which was meant as a paean of universal brotherhood — a fact which was not lost on Doyle Armbrust, who wrote the remarkably unconventional program notes for the UMS concert. But by this point — perhaps because of its universal popularity, or maybe because of its sheer brilliance — Beethoven’s symphony has sort of become the go-to example of a political composition. I wrote about it on November 9th, my insomnia-addled mind desperately seeking for some small consolation or sliver of solace, and the New Yorker’s ever-eloquent Alex Ross discusses it in his characteristically percipient article “Making Art in a Time of Rage” on February 8th (Ross also gave a shout-out to Armbrust). All of which makes sense: Beethoven himself meant it as a statement, and was a rather political person. As a republican living under the careful watch of Metternich’s secret police in autocratic Vienna, the failure of the French Revolution and the imposition of the arch-conservative post-Napoleonic order surely ranked among one of his many sorrows in life.
But Beethoven certainly isn’t the only composer to deal with political topics. The first opera I ever truly loved was “Nixon in China,” the 1987 work that springboarded the American composer John Adams to prominence. Though I had enjoyed various operas I saw before, until “Nixon” I had never loved one with the same sort of unreserved, fierce and unabashed abandon which characterized my feelings towards Adams’s composition. And part of this love, I think, stemmed from the fact that “Nixon” dove directly into the political, raising ethical and moral questions in the context of beautiful art, aided by Alice Goodman’s stunning libretto.
Adam’s does this in other works as well — his opera “Doctor Atomic” deals with the subject of nuclear war, and the highly controversial opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” focuses on the 1985 hijacking of a passenger liner by Palestinian terrorists. This last work especially waded into the public fray of the emotionally fraught politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the opera has been accused of antisemitism (which its creators deny) and of being sympathetic to terrorism (what, after all, does it mean if terrorists are able to sing beautifully?). But setting aside the specifics of these examples, all of them demonstrate that art and politics are often inextricable. One cannot create art without participating in the world, and to some degree or another, this means that art will turn out to have political implications. And often art can help us better understand the political world we experience. Though Adams has recently stated in an interview with KQED: “The idea of a Trump opera doesn’t interest (him) in the least,” because “you don’t want to spend time as an artist giving your very best to a person who is a sociopath.” The work he has done on previous projects can still provide insights into the contemporary climate.
As I look around at the way events are unfolding today, I’m put in mind of a scene from “Nixon.” In it, the president is in discussion with Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai when the Premier addresses Mao.
“You’ve said that there’s a certain well-known tree that grows from nothing in a day, lives only as a sapling, dies just at its prime when good men raise it as their idol.”
“Not the cross?” ventures Nixon.
“The Liberty Tree,” comes Mao’s reply. “It was a riddle, not a test.”
But perhaps now the riddle has become a test for us all.