The boycott of Russia is forcing Canadian arts orgs to make tough choices
A Russian pianist had his Vancouver gig cancelled, in part, for his own wellbeing, say organizers
A wave of global boycotts reacting to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is prompting Canadian arts organizations to rethink their involvement in projects involving Russian artists, resulting in cancelled performances and awkward policy changes.
Last week, the Vancouver Recital Society announced that they were cancelling an August concert by 20-year-old Russian piano prodigy Alexander Malofeev. They had twice rescheduled performances by Malofeev due to COVID. Recital Society artistic director Leila Getz said it was "probably the most difficult decision I'd ever had to make, and I did it with a very heavy heart." On Mar. 8, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) announced that they would also be cancelling a series of concerts featuring Malofeev, in part because some OSM musicians refused to play with him.
In their initial public statement, the Recital Society said that they couldn't "in good conscience present a concert by any Russian artist at this moment in time unless they are prepared to speak out publicly against this war." Malofeev did, in fact, release a statement on social media condemning the war later that day, and another, longer one on March 8, but Getz says she and the Recital Society decided that Malofeev's concert would still be postponed to an unknown date for another reason: she was concerned for his well-being. She points to the recent vandalism of Vancouver's Russian Community Centre as the sort of hostility that worried her.
"The world, including Canada, is full of crazy people filled with hatred and other kinds of opinions," she says. "Witness what went on in Ottawa. The last thing I want to do is bring a 20-year-old pianist to Vancouver and have him face protesters outside the theater and maybe heckling inside."
This comes amid a wave of high-profile international firings and cancellations. Valery Gergiev, the renowned conductor and historically vocal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, lost his job conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra at the beginning of this month, as well as being asked to resign as the music director of the Verbier Festival Orchestra, and losing several other guest conducting and touring gigs. Soprano Anna Netrebko had performances with the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Bavarian State Opera cancelled following her refusal to distance herself from Putin, and subsequently announced her retirement from live performance.
The Recital Society and the OSM aren't the only arts organizations having to make these choices. The Canada Council for the Arts has also decided to cut ties with Russian artists. In a blog post on March 4, Council CEO and director Simon Brault made a blog post saying "all activity involving the participation of Russian or Belarusian artists or arts organizations will cease to be funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. This includes partnerships, direct and indirect financing of tours, co-productions, participation in festivals or other events held in Russia."
Brault explained the decision by pointing out that the Council was not alone in this decision, that arts funding bodies in other countries had made similar calls, and that it was part of a broader Canadian sanctions policy.
"Canada announced very serious sanctions against Russia," he says. "And we are spending public money, right? And our government is asking, you know, it's asking all of us not to spend or invest Canadian public dollars in Russia right now."
He also acknowledges that the move is largely symbolic. There are no Canadian-Russian or Belarussian co-productions currently being funded by the Council, and two groups that had applied for funds to tour Russia voluntarily withdrew their applications prior to the announcement.
Still, the announcement provoked backlash and criticism from social media. Montreal-based author Brad Casey was one of the artists who called out the decision on Twitter.
"Decisions like this do nothing for the cause of peace," he says. "This will end up punishing individuals who have nothing to do with Russian aggression and disenfranchise ordinary people who rely on this funding to live. Even if no actual artists have been impacted as of yet, the intent of this decision emboldens discrimination and bigotry against Russian people."
He also pointed out that such sanctions haven't been imposed on other countries who wage war or violate human rights.
"We should be standing in solidarity with artists from every region of the world, especially those subject to political turmoil," he says. "What we want as artists is cultural exchange, communication, expression, class solidarity, and critical thought. Canada Council's move is antithetical to all of these things."
Brault acknowledges that, hypothetically, the Council's move could prevent Canadians from working with dissident Russian artists, but that, should that type of scenario arise, it would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. He's also sympathetic to the arguments of people like Casey, questioning why some countries are targeted instead of others. He says that if you were to "ask me my opinion as a citizen, I will tell you that I think that there should be more sanctions [of other countries] because there are sanction-level actions that are taken all over the world."
He also adds that Canadian-based artists of Russian and Belarussian heritage are not included in the sanctions. Neither are Canadian groups who want to perform works by Russian authors and composers.
Back in Vancouver, Getz says that the decision to cancel Malofeev's performance was "one of those decisions where you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't." She says she hopes to reschedule the pianist for a time when tensions are lower.
"This war has got nothing to do with this young pianist," she says. "He is a musician and he plays concerts. This is Putin's war. But you never know how people are going to react these days."