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COMMENTARY | Why Playing Political Hot Potato With Artists Is A Terrible Idea

Par Arthur Kaptainis le 23 mars 2022

Alexander Malofeev; Anna Netrebko (Photos: courtoisie)
Alexander Malofeev; Anna Netrebko (Photos: courtoisie)

The statement by the OSM was firm. “We continue…to believe in the importance of maintaining relationships with artists of all nationalities who embrace messages of peace and hope.”

Except Russians.

Of course, the orchestra did not say this explicitly. Still, this constitutes a logical corollary to the 11th-hour decision last week to cancel three performances by Alexander Malofeev, a pianist of 20 tender years, on the grounds that he was born and schooled in Moscow and, like some 150 million others across the globe, speaks Russian as a mother tongue.

It cannot have helped that he was booked to play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 under Michael Tilson Thomas. Rather Russian, that music. Tilson Thomas is of mixed Russian and Ukrainian descent, but he is American-born. We can look the other way.

The reason for this abrupt termination, almost two weeks after Vladimir Putin launched his murderous
campaign against neighbouring Ukraine, was not much elaborated on. The appearance of a Russian artist was deemed “inappropriate” in view of the impact of the invasion on Ukrainian civilians.

“We look forward to welcoming this exceptional artist when the context allows it,” the statement assures us, as if there are contexts that justify overt discrimination against an artist on the grounds of citizenship and contexts that do not.

When will the climate be right for the reintroduction of Russians to the concert stage? The Vancouver Recital Society is thinking long term. This presenter cancelled a recital appearance by Malofeev scheduled for Aug. 2.

The Honens International Piano Competition followed suit by uninviting six Russian competitors to its final sessions in October in Calgary.

At this point, the reader might wonder whether Malofeev, who looks very much like the teenager he was a year ago, has a history of chauvinistic commentary on Twitter or a cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Such a friendship is alleged in the case of conductor Valery Gergiev, who has lost an array of engagements and positions for declining to denounce the Russian president and his actions (or to say anything at all about the invasion).

Soprano Anna Netrebko, a Russian artist of comparable stature, wrote the following in a Facebook post: “I am opposed to this war. I am Russian and I love my country but I have many friends in Ukraine and the pain and suffering right now breaks my heart. I want this war to end and for people to be able to live in peace. This is what I hope and pray for.”

Not good enough. Nothing less than a specific denunciation of Putin — a manifestly dangerous man — was required. “It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which she will return,” Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, told the New York Times, after the company cancelled Netrebko’s appearances in a run of Puccini’s Tosca. Liudmyla Monastyrska, a Ukrainian, has been hired to replace her.

Gergiev and Netrebko are major figures who function, inevitably, as Russian ambassadors. The case can be made that they have been too supportive of Putin (or too neutral) and should expect to suffer consequences.

Malofeev is not in their league. He is a pianist at the outset of his career who probably spends more than half his waking hours at the keyboard. It is true that he has attracted the notice of Gergiev, as might any young Russian musician of exceptional promise, but we should remember that as lately as three weeks ago such a link was a badge of honour, not shame.

Common sense suggests that Malofeev has the right to be privately horrified and fulfill his engagements to the best of his ability, reflecting what is positive rather than odious about his homeland. In fact, he went on the record by posting this on Facebook: “The truth is that every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict.”

Another post: “I do understand that my problems are very insignificant compared to those of people in Ukraine, including my relatives who live there. The most important thing now is to stop the blood. All I know is that the spread of hatred will not help in any way, but only cause more suffering.”

No dice.

While the OSM’s public statement portrays the cancellation as a matter of principle, there was more to it than this. “The increasing number of messages that we receive on our social media, not to mention those addressed directly to the management, show a deep unease about the presence of Mr. Malofeev with the OSM,” Madeleine Careau, the orchestra’s CEO, wrote in an internal message directed to staff and musicians. “…Some messages received in recent days even hinted at a strong protest in the concert hall, which would not have been conducive to the peace, solidarity and empathy that we so badly need in this troubled period.”

The implication is that potential disruptions by protesters who object to the engagement of Russian citizens (who are themselves victims of Putin’s madness) now play a role in OSM artistic planning. Will other groups with grievances, legitimate or otherwise, take note? And will other musicians from rogue nations will be denied access to the Maison symphonique? The world does not lack for candidates.

It is interesting that OSM players, or at least their representatives, opposed the administration’s action. “We, the members of the [orchestra] committee, believe that music can communicate above the noise and the hatred,” reads an internal message issued March 8. “We have to think flexibly before making decisions out of fear, and in our opinion, cancelling Mr. Malofeev is a missed opportunity to try and use our art as a bridge in these terrible times.”

This fissure of opinion runs through society as a whole. Some contend that Russian culture and artistry should be no less subject to a boycott than Russian vodka. This, shockingly, is the opinion of Simon Brault, head of the increasingly politicized Canada Council of the Arts.

Another camp, no less resolved if distinctly more idealistic, views great art as a universal forum for aspiration and all that it best about humanity. One might have hoped that the OSM, an institution that has long been associated with such values, could stand up for them in circumstances in which they are especially relevant.

Many invoke the Second World War and Germany in their discussions of the invasion. There are comparisons to be made — carefully — but the 20th-century analogue that is most relevant is Russia itself. Its ancestor state, the Soviet Union, perpetrated countless horrors on its own peoples, Ukrainians most definitely included.

Many musicians fled. Others of the highest rank continued to live within the system. Prokofiev opted in 1936 to return after 18 years in the West. Shostakovich never left. Both were persecuted by the Kremlin. Both created works of art that were of their time and timeless.

Shostakovich’s oeuvre functions substantially as a memoir of life under Stalin and the horrors of war. A People’s Artist of the USSR? Yes, but one whose greatest music is now received as an expression of defiance and hope.

No one can deny that the OSM faced a difficult situation last week. The orchestra was also presented with a chance to uphold the universal value of music. Also to affirm that artists should not be punished for the misdeeds, however gross, of their governments, particularly when those governments are dictatorships.

Maybe next time.


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