An Interview with Jan Vogler
The standard translation for the acronym of the anti-immigrant, Dresden-based protest group Pegida is Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. But the movement’s German name uses the word Abendland—roughly, “Occident”—a term that comes closer to evoking its irrational, almost apocalyptic, clash-of-civilizations mentality.
The cellist Jan Vogler grew up in East Berlin and lives in New York. He is also the artistic director of two international music festivals in Dresden. We spoke to him about the experience of reunification, his move to the U.S., and whether Pegida is keeping concertgoers away.
VAN: As a soloist traveling and performing internationally, how often does Pegida come up in conversation?
Jan Vogler: Less than you’d think. Being a part of a family of musicians is like being in a bubble. Where you come from, what your religion is, your sexual orientation, the way you live your life—all these things don’t matter to us. There’s a big difference between the world I live my daily life in and the world I read about in the newspaper.
What do your friends and acquaintances from outside the music world think?
In Germany there’s a tendency among the upper middle class to be especially horrified by Saxony, and Dresden in particular, since racism is more prevalent there than in other parts of the country. But racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism are increasing elsewhere too. The nationwide success of Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a sign of this.
What about your international friends?
Their concern is more general: they’re worried about Europe, about Austria, France; and about Trump, whose way of appealing to people is so similar to the European right. Brexit is another point which I think would be a big step back for Europe.
Do you know people personally who have been to Pegida demonstrations?
I do have acquaintances who have this incredible fear. Of course, I try to engage with them, to listen, even if it hurts sometimes, because there are some views that I think are non-negotiable. When I’m playing or speaking for an audience, I’m sure there are people who don’t agree with me, but who think that my views make sense for me to have because I’m an artist, and they like the way I play the cello. Recently I was at an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. An invited guest came up to me and said that racism is a myth invented by the left as a way of appeasing people. But it’s all part of a larger context. For example, right across the border from here, in Poland or the Czech Republic, a gay couple can’t necessarily go into a bar and feel safe.
You’ve said that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the decisive moment in your life, allowing you to see the world and get to know other cultures. Does it make sense to you that for some people, that moment was more scary than liberating?
It’s hard to understand. It’s more than I can try to analyze it. My family had a strong connection to Western Europe, we kept banned books in a locked cupboard. Maybe we were looking forward to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle in a way, or maybe it’s a question of personality—that life always fascinated me. After the Wall came down, I moved to New York right away. I wanted to educate myself, learn languages, be an international artist. I still think it was a hugely enriching experience, getting to know a group of friends from all over the world. Of course, many people didn’t have that option—or that need.
In Dresden, a topic of some debate is the right way to deal with the Pegida movement. The conductor Christian Thielemann, for example, wrote an op-ed arguing that its members needed to be taken more seriously, and listened to. Then in late 2015, he said that the group should be banned from demonstrating in front of the Semperoper, in the city center, because it was hurting the Dresden’s image. Can the arts create political change?
I do think that culture and education are the only tools we have for building an enlightened country. We need to learn that material things aren’t always the solution. For example: it’s not hard to get an infrastructure project built for millions, but try getting a government to agree to an intercultural exchange project for less money. The European Union Youth Orchestra is being shut down, and all that’s missing is €600,000. It’s also not enough to give refugees a roof over their heads, a little food and a sleeping bag.
I’ve noticed that classical musicians tend to keep quite about political issues, far more so than artists in other fields. We’re sitting here in Berlin’s Philharmonie, for example—the orchestra is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador—and music director Simon Rattle has declined to comment both on Brexit and on the British government’s previously stated policy, now reversed, of not accepting child refugees. Artists from other fields have been far more vocal on these issues. Why is that?
Because people then get typecast in a way. I’ve found myself defending Valery Gergiev. Christian Thielemann and I are both engaged very deeply in Dresden’s music scene, we’re both musicians who travel worldwide, and our political views are probably very different. But as an artist, you really get stuck if you express a view that someone somewhere doesn’t like.
But isn’t that the point of expressing a political view—that not everybody will agree with it?
A lot of my colleagues take the view that you shouldn’t talk about something in public that you don’t understand. That would probably change if audiences were more receptive to artists’ political views.
You’re the artistic director of two festivals, the Moritzburg Festival and the Dresden Music Festival. Have you noticed musicians or concertgoers being reluctant to come to Dresden?
I haven’t had a single musician say to me that he or she isn’t coming because of Pegida. About once a day, we do get an email from a member of the audience asking to be taken off the list, because they don’t want to have anything to do with Dresden. But that’s a tiny minority.
I think what we need in Dresden is to reach a critical mass of immigrants. Why are people protesting against them? Because we don’t have enough yet. ¶