Shell targeted by musical protest at South Bank concert

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The audience was told to expect "biting satire" and "menacing bohemian wit" from Friday's performance by members of the Berliner Philharmoniker of cabaret songs from the Weimar era. But the crowd at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London looked nonplussed when a choir of climate activists climbed to the stage in the foyer during the interval to launch Shell Out Sounds, a new campaign against the oil giant's sponsorship.

The group of 20 musicians, singers and music-lovers sang specially written lyrics about the damage they say is caused by oil company's activities in the Arctic and elsewhere, to the tune of the spiritual Down to the River to Pray. Dressed in black with purple sashes, they ended with the chorus "Oh, Shell, not your name! No more oil, no more pain! Oh, Shell not your name! Art not in your name!"

"Some people think the song has Native American roots and that chimes with the issues we are trying to raise," said composer Chris Garrard, one of the group's founders. "It is about climate change but also about the treatment of indigenous communities and the Ogoni people in Nigeria. There is a list of injustices we need to make people aware of."

Garrard added: "The current Southbank Shell Classics season began with a performance of Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem. Britten was famously a pacifist so that sits oddly with the fact that Shell is giving money to the Nigerian military. We need to have some ethical red lines."

Peter Hart, a hedge fund manager who trades in oil futures derivatives and was at the concert with his family, said the protest was "quite interesting. Ultimately there will always be winners and losers – maybe when Shell shareholders are winners local people can be losers."

Alex Coatti, a neurobiology student at UCL, said he thought the protesters were "very brave. Is it just for convenience that these companies fund the arts? I don't know."

Shell, which this week suspended a controversial drilling project in Alaska, has faced objections in the past to its sponsorship of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum. Last year climate activists wearing skull masks attended the company's AGM and played drums outside another concert. But Friday's performance was the first time musicians have formed their own protest group.

Composer Matthew Herbert, who is working on commissions for the Royal Opera House and National Theatre, says protests by artists are important "because a creative response can engage people in new ways, and challenges the institutions themselves by saying that art should be provocative and directly engage with the issues".

Shell Out Sounds joins protest groups already focusing on oil company sponsorship of theatre and museums. Last year members of Liberate Tate carried a chunk of ice to Tate Modern's Turbine Hall to draw attention to its relationship with BP, and installed a 16.5 metre wind turbine blade there. A petition of more than 1,000 names asked Tate trustees to accept the turbine blade as part of its permanent collection, but was declined. In Stratford-upon-Avon the Reclaim Shakespeare Company targeted BP sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Last week the RSC renewed its partnership with BP with a scheme to provide £5 tickets to 16 to 25-year-olds.

BP and Shell are among the biggest arts sponsors in the UK. Shell supports the National Theatre and National Maritime Museum as well as the Southbank Centre. BP sponsors the National Portrait Gallery, British Museum, Royal Opera House and Natural History Museum. Former BP chief executive Lord Browne is Tate's chair of trustees.

Tate director Nicholas Serota and others argue that the benefits brought by the arts mean organisations cannot afford to be picky especially when facing cuts. Others including actor Mark Rylance and composers Matthew Herbert and Steve Martland argue that the urgency of the environmental crisis means relationships with funders must be looked at again. Just as sponsorship by tobacco and arms companies was ended, so must relationships with oil companies.

"One of the things that is striking to me as someone who performs in these spaces is that over many years you notice the presence of Shell on the South Bank," Matthew Herbert says. "Arts institutions are giving oil companies a social licence to promote fossil fuels. Climate change is getting to a pretty alarming stage and part of art's responsibility is to point that out, to suggest alternatives, to imagine the horror of environmental disaster in ways that might stimulate action."

Vaughan Bhagan, Queen Elizabeth Hall manager, would not comment on calls for Shell to be dropped but said: "The Southbank Centre does not allow protests on its site but we recognise the right to peaceful protest. If activists had obstructed any of our patrons then we would have asked them to leave."

A Shell spokesperson declined to comment on Shell Out Sounds' launch but issued a statement: "Shell respects the right of individuals and organisations to engage in a free and frank exchange of views about our operations. Recognising the right of individuals to express their point of view, we only ask that they do so within the law and with their safety and the safety of others in mind."

• This article was amended on 2 March 2013 to correct the spelling of "Ogoni".