The view from inside the Albert Hall

By Gloria Tessler, September 2, 2011
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It seemed peaceful enough outside. Jewish groups waving Israeli flags were joined by pro-Israel Christian supporters outside the Albert Hall last night as they welcomed the Israeli Philharmonic prom. But as a kilted Israel supporter danced in the street, no-one could have anticipated the havoc caused moments later inside the hall, as Palestinian supporters leaped up from every part of the building, screaming anti-Israel slogans and disrupting the entire concert.

No sooner had the orchestra opened with Webern's Passacaglia than some 30 Palestinian activists rose from the orchestra stalls to belt out their protests to the tune of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. A powerful soprano rang out from among them, but her voice was drowned by what seemed a stampede of angry Prommers shouting "Out! Out! Out!", booing and stamping their feet in counter-protest. The activists, who appeared to be mainly white Britons, were ejected awkwardly by concert officials, given the narrow passage of the upper galleries. At one moment it looked as though some protesters were even in danger of falling from the gallery.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign had earlier uged people to boycott the concert, calling for the BBC to cancel it. On its website, it claimed the IPO were complicit in whitewashing Israel's human rights violations. Outside scuffles broke out between the rival groups.

The first part of the concert was broadcast by BBC Radio 3, including the disruption, but eventually it was abandoned – the first time such political protests had stopped a live Prom broadcast.

Moments later, Israeli violinist, Gil Shaham, gently smiling throughout his exuberant performance, joined Israel Philharmonic's conductor Zubin Mehta on stage for Bruch's Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor. Spanish pieces by Albeniz and Rimsky-Korsakov followed, but protesters, who had clearly paid for their seats within a capacity-packed Albert Hall, again emerged from every part of the hall. Although the police were nowhere to be seen inside the hall, the affirmative mood of the audience as they applauded, voting for the Israel Philharmonic with shouts of joy and foot-stamping, gave clear indication of their revulsion for the rejection of Israeli culture at this, its most prominent level.

Outside, two Prommers said that the mood of the audience had delivered a blow to such inappropriate disruption. One, who had travelled from Massachusetts, called it "disgusting – and "like a riot".

Mehta, the grandee elder statesman of Israeli classical music, remained dignified throughout the disruption. At the end, he bowed and smiled both to the audience and the orchestra, before giving an unexpected – and ironic - encore, delivered with great passion: it was "The Death of Tybalt" ( the main antagonist between rival families) from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. In the first act of Shakespeare's play, Tybalt describes his hatred for peace.

Last updated: 9:28am, September 5 2011