The Sunday Magazine

Valentina vs. the TSO - Michael's essay

The Toronto Symphony's decision to cancel a concert by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa is just the latest episode in a long history of the intersection between politics and classical music.
Ukraine-born classical pianist Valentina Lisitsa is shown performing live on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London on June 19, 2012. (Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images)

The volatile intersection between politics and classical music has a long and storied history. In 1804, Beethoven abruptly changed the name of his Third Symphony. It was originally entitled The Bonaparte but when Napoleon declared himself Emperor in May, 1804, Ludwig called him a tyrant "who will think himself superior to all men." Which is why the Third has come down to us as the Eroica.

Between 1933 and 1945, the music of Gustav Mahler disappeared from the repertoire of the Berlin Philharmonic because Mahler was Jewish. At the height of McCarthyism in 1954, a poll showed that 64 per cent of Americans believed that any musician who was a self-admitted communist, should be fired. In February 1970, a Carnegie Hall concert in New York, with performances by pianist Sviatoslav Richter and violinist David Oistrakh, was disrupted by demonstrators protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews. After things calmed down, the concert continued. And last June, pro-Ukrainian activists protested the Carnegie Hall performance by Russian pianist Denis Matsuev because he had signed a letter supporting Vladimir Putin. The concert went ahead anyway.

All of this comes to mind in the case of Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, whose performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was cancelled this week by management. She was scheduled to perform Rachmaninoff''s​​ Piano Concerto Number 2. The performances were sold out. The head of the orchestra said Ms. Lisitsa was fired because of some tweets she had written which were highly critical of the Ukrainian government. He said the tweets were insulting and offensive to Ukrainians and that he had received "hundreds" of complaints about them. 

The affair has become a public relations disaster for the TSO, already burdened by a heavy deficit. The whole incident could have been avoided if orchestra management had simply let the concert go ahead. After all, she performed at Brock University a week ago without any fuss or fury. And the Calgary Symphony has confirmed that Ms. Lisitsa will perform with it in June.

The fiasco raises a number of important questions. For example, can you separate the artist from the art and if you can, should you? Should Wagner's notorious anti-Semitism be any reason to cancel public performance of his music? Is the character of the artist a determinant in how we perceive him or her? For example, a dear friend refuses to watch a Woody Allen movie because he married his step-daughter. And finally, should an artist be denied access to the public because of something said or done which has no bearing on the art?

The action by the Toronto Symphony, I think, sets a dangerous precedent. For one thing, it might come to mean that performers from now on, must submit to a political saliva test before signing a contract. The head of the Symphony administration is not the first cultural bureaucrat to silence an artist because of politics.

Sadly, he won't be the last.

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