A group of school children from a privileged British music school are set to travel to Calais in January, to perform a classical concert for the migrants camped out there, and hand out food parcels. Their teachers will be taking the children in a school minibus, despite the roads around Calais being described as a “war zone”.
Around 7,000 migrants are currently camped outside the port town, looking for opportunities to jump aboard vehicles heading into Britain. At times when the traffic is flowing freely, that can mean throwing detritus into the middle of busy highways, or simply standing in the roads in large gangs in a bid to bring lorries to a halt.
For the last month the migrants have been engaged in pitched battles with the limited security forces available, in turns pressing forward, throwing rocks and other missiles at both police and the windshields of passing vehicles; at other times pushed back to the makeshift shanty town known as ‘The Jungle’, by police bearing tear gas and batons.
Yet into this chaos, the teachers at the Yehudi Menuhin School for gifted young musicians, which is based in Cobham, Surrey, have decided to take a number of senior students so that they can play a classical concert for the migrants at The Jungle.
The visit has been spearheaded by the school’s Director of Music, Malcolm Singer, who earlier this year travelled with his wife to The Jungle to distribute aid.
“The January visit by the school group is something of which Yehudi Menuhin would surely have approved,” Singer has told Classical Music Magazine.
“He was very supportive of minority communities and was such an internationalist. He had a vision about the relationship of the school to the world outside… in the early days, for example, students went to play in the mining community. The goal was that we should embrace each other as human beings. And the fact is that Calais is very close to us here in Cobham.”
The students and staff will be taking a minibus to Calais via the Eurotunnel – which last week was stormed by 1,000 migrants making a break for Britain. There they plan to hand out food parcels directly to the migrants, if possible, before playing a selection of classical pieces by composers including Tchaikovsky, Bach and Saint-Saens.
The concert will take place in the Geodome, a make-shift theatre which has been set up in The Jungle, where migrants can listen to concerts and take part in music and theatre lessons.
But Singer is keen to emphasise that this is a whole-school event. “During the day we’ll hopefully be feeding information back to the school via Skype, so that students can keep in touch with our progress,” he said. “The entire school has been very excited about the whole thing. The day before the trip, everyone will have been involved in making up the food parcels.”
Headmaster Richard Hillier has explained that the trip is part of a wider program of involving children in the response to the migrant crisis at Calais, which has included regular school assembly talks and charities to raise money for the migrants.
“[T]here’s nothing political about the trip to Calais. It’s a purely humanitarian exercise. It follows on from the talks I’ve given about the refugee crisis through the term just ended at our ‘morning meetings’ —the school assembly. There’s no doubt Menuhin would have supported what we’re doing.
“The food parcels are being funded by the proceeds of retiring collections following Christmas concerts at the school, money which will also benefit the local Cobham Food Bank. We didn’t know how the audience would react to the idea of donating to the benefit of refugees in Calais, but we’ve been overwhelmed both with the money they gave—well over £2,000—and what they said in support of the project.”
The school is named after Yehudi Menuhin, a Jewish American violinist born in 1916 who later held joint British / Swiss nationality. Following World War II, he was the first Jewish musician to perform in Germany, visiting the country in 1947 to play with the Berlin Philharmonic.
In 1991, eight years before his death, he was awarded the prestigious Wolf Prize for Music by the Israeli government. He used his acceptance speech, delivered in the Knesset, to criticise Israel’s presence in the West Bank, which he said showed “contempt for the basic dignities of life”.