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INTERVIEW | Toronto Symphony CEO Jeff Melanson Breaks His Silence (exclusive)

By Michael Vincent on April 8, 2015

Jeff Melanson, CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Photo: Rick Madonik
Jeff Melanson, CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Photo: Rick Madonik

In what is quickly becoming one of the biggest classical music news events of the year, Toronto Symphony Orchestra President and C.E.O. Jeff Melanson contacted me late last night to set the story straight on their decision to ban pianist Valentina Lisitsa from performing with the TSO.

His voice sounded firm and resolute against the court of public opinion that has called the TSO out for censorship.

Speaking by phone, Mr. Melanson stated, “We did not go public with this story because we were trying to protect Valentina and her reputation. We are now going public because she basically forced the issue on us and now we are speaking to you.”

According to the timeline, Mr. Melanson said it goes back to December 2014, when “Torontonians approach us with great concern […] Over the course of the last four months the concern over these deeply offensive and intolerant tweets has built to a chorus of a very large group of Torontonians, of not just Ukrainians. We are in the world’s more ethnically diverse city – a tolerant city.”

Mr. Melanson said that they compiled Ms. Lisitsa’s Tweets into a seven-page document, and asked Ms. Lisitsa to explain them. “She had originally led us to believe that these might be someone else’s words, and that someone else was managing her blog or twitter, so we wanted to give her the opportunity to address these things, which really are some of the most egregious things one could possibly read, or write.”

Mr. Melanson added that she got back to them a week and a half ago, and confirmed that the Tweets were her words, and stood by her right to say them.  It was at that point Mr. Melanson said “we exercised our right in her contract to remove her from the program with pay […] The pay provision was there because an artist does practice in preparation for a performance and we felt it would be fair to live up to that.”

The TSO agreed to send us the original seven-page document, which included thirty Tweets that were heavily political, and decidedly crass. After analysing the document, it is our opinion (we are not lawyers) that they do not cross the threshold into hate-speech, and are indicative of the extraordinarily negative political situation surrounding the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, in which Ms. Lisitsa is involved.

Mr. Melanson said the document “would help people understand why we made this decision, and understand as well how this is not a free speech issue, but rather an issue of someone practicing very intolerant and offensive expression through twitter.”

Readers can download the original document here. (PDF Password: “MusicalToronto“)

Beside the Tweets, a webpage URL was included at the top of the first page linking to an article written by Adrian Bryttan for a Ukrainian website in Edmonton, Alberta. Mr. Bryttan wrote a scathing report of Ms. Lisitsa’s Tweets, and has been very critical of her political stance. The link is also of interest because his website shows a similar article dated December 12, 2014, which is around the same time Mr. Melanson said he was contacted by the Lobby group representing a community of Ukrainians.

Incidentally Mr. Bryttan’s article mentions Ms. Lisitsa’s upcoming scheduled performance in Toronto, “Ukrainian communities might be interested to greet Ms. Lisitsa at her upcoming concerts in Quebec, the Netherlands, Paris, Washington, Leipzig, London, Cincinnati, Stockholm and in April, 2015 with the Toronto Symphony.”

Three protesters are shown outside of Heinz Hall September 20, 2014, where Ms. Lisitsa performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony, holding signs stating “German Artists support Nazi Killers” “Valentina promotes Putin’s Invasions + Fascism” “Racist Valentina” Valentina’s Mu-sick of Hate + War”.

When asked who initially contacted the TSO regarding the Tweets, Mr. Melanson declined to name names, other than to say he was contacted by many different people representing the Ukrainian community.

When asked if Ms. Lisitsa was ever given an opportunity to respond to the lobby group who raised the issue to the TSO, Mr. Melanson stated “… There are lots of reasons why we wouldn’t go there – given what I’ve faced, and what other people have faced in terms of the ‘twittersphere’ in response to these discussions.”

Further to discussions,  Mr. Melanson said Ms. Lisitsa was given all seven pages of the document and did not make this decision to cancel her appearance until they had her response. “We said to her: ‘Here is the collection of what hundreds of people have given us in terms of concern, how do you respond to this?’ Her response was, ‘Those are my words. That’s my right.’”

In an article published in the Globe and Mail, Ms. Lisitsa stated the only correspondence she had with the TSO was an e-mail to her manager from TSO lawyer Michael C. Smith that stated her tweets may possibly violate section 319 of the Criminal Code concerning willful promotion of hatred. The TSO lawyer then said they were concerned Ms. Lisitsa could be stopped at the border and prevented from entering the country. Ms. Lisitsa replied that Mr. Melanson avoided speaking with her directly, and would only take up the matter up with Ukrainian community.

“Unfortunately we were hoping for clarification that indeed someone else did write these very hateful things,” Mr. Melanson stated, “We did not receive that.”

When asked about a possible donor threat, Mr. Melanson said, “There was no pressure whatsoever by donors. That is complete fabrication, and she is basically distorting the truth and making this up. We did not cave to pressure by one lobby group over another, and we absolutely are not taking a position politically between Russia and the Ukraine. This is really about offensive tweets about people by Ms. Lisitsa.”

Ms. Lisitsa had a different account. She told the Globe this was definitely a donor issue, and could prove it. “Ms. Lisitsa showed The Globe and Mail an e-mail from her agent, Tanya Dorn at IMG Artists, dated Feb. 27, in which Ms. Dorn said she had spoken with Loie Fallis, TSO vice-president of artistic planning, who told her (in Ms. Dorn’s words) a “Ukrainian donor wants to pull his sponsorship.”

Considering the TSO’s reaction to the tweets, I asked Mr. Melanson what the TSO were specifically trying to avoid by not having her perform.

“In our case we live in a community of Toronto. As a Toronto arts organisation we are responsive to that community. So when we present anything, be it a programme or artist, and we get a disproportionate feedback from our upset community; that is something we respond to.”

When asked about a similar controversy surrounding the New York Metropolitan Opera’s decision to cancel the broadcast of John Adam’s The Death of Klinghoffer over accusations by a lobby group suggesting the opera was anti-Semitic, Mr. Melanson declined to comment. Instead the conversation turned to conductor Valery Gergiev, another highly political figure involved in the Russian- Ukrainian conflict, who publicly called the current Ukrainian government ‘fascists’ and went to far as to endorse the annexation of Crimea. Gergiev was dropped from a festival in Germany last November after the Polish Embassy registered a complaint.

Mr. Melanson said, “… I think it’s really important for people to understand the nuance here […] “Gergiev has made a political statement, which is free speech, which we respect – it is his right. To the best of our knowledge Gergiev is not prolifically using his twitter feed to tweet disparaging, offensive, intolerant comments about any group of people. That’s how we would distinguish between the two – this again is not about free speech, or political persuasions, and in fact, being pro-Putin is neither here nor there for the TSO. That is not our business. But when it does get into offensive, intolerant speech, that is an issue for us to consider.”

In regards to the backlash surrounding the TSO’s decision to cut Ms. Lisitsa from the program, Melanson said, “It’s a principal decision on the part of the TSO and you we don’t make decision based on consequence. We do the right thing from a moral and ethical perspective and we have.”

Ms. Lisitsa is currently scheduled to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, on June 5 & 6, 2015. We contacted CPO’s Director of Artistic Planning Heather Slater, and asked if they will follow suit with TSO’s decision. “Whether or not one agrees with Ms. Lisitsa’s political views, at this time at the CPO,” Ms. Slater said, “Our agreement with her is as a guest artist, to perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with our orchestra in June.”

For more on Valentina Lisitsa, in her own words see here: (via RT.com)


Michael Vincent
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