Classical Music Cancels Russians | City Journal

Yoshiko Yap

Compelled speech is becoming routine in academia. On campuses, faculty candidates for hiring and tenure increasingly must attest to their dedication to diversity to be considered for a job or a promotion. At least one university requires professors to post a “land acknowledgement”—a statement declaring that the space being used was originally the habitation of indigenous people—on their syllabus page.

Now the classical music establishment is adopting that same norm. Russian musicians are being asked to condemn President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to retain jobs and performing engagements in the West. Staying above the fray is not an option, and denouncing the war will not ward off cancellation. Russian musicians must criticize Putin by name or be blacklisted.

Classical music’s recent self-abasement for its “whiteness” laid the groundwork for this presumptive group guilt. Since the George Floyd race riots in May and June 2020, directors of orchestras, opera companies, and conservatories have lambasted their own field for its historical demographics, said to be inextricably linked to racism. Music critics have sneered at Beethoven and other composers for having allegedly leveraged their whiteness to achieve undeserved acclaim. Mea culpas and promises of fealty to Black Lives Matter have become de rigueur in mission statements and fundraising pitches. Now these coerced confessions are demanded of a subset of musicians whose Russianness makes them as suspect as whiteness does the entire Caucasian population. Even Russian music itself faces a political litmus test.

The most recent casualty of the compelled-speech norm is 20-year-old pianist Alexander Malofeev. He is the latest in a long line of Russian keyboard masters, including Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Lazar Berman, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Evgeny Kissin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Anton Rubinstein, and many more. The cherubic-faced Malofeev has no known ties to Putin and has not defended Putin or the Ukrainian invasion. Nevertheless, the Vancouver Recital Society cancelled his contract for an August 2022 recital. Artistic director Leila Getz explained in a written statement that she could not “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.”

In a subsequent interview, Getz claimed to have been looking out for Malofeev’s well-being. “The first things that came to my mind were, why would I want to bring a 20-year-old Russian pianist to Vancouver and have him faced with protests and people misbehaving inside the concert hall and hooting and screaming and hollering?” she said. Such professions of paternalism have become standard among cancellers. Malofeev could have decided for himself whether he wanted to risk protest.

“Speaking out publicly against this war,” as Getz put it, does not, in fact, prevent cancellation. Malofeev explicitly criticized the Ukrainian invasion after the Vancouver termination: “Every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict,” he wrote on Facebook. Yet he was cancelled again. He had been scheduled to play Sergei Prokofiev’s fiery Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) on March 9, 10, and 13. The day before his first performance, OSM pulled the plug. “Considering the serious impact on the civilian population of Ukraine caused by the Russian invasion, the OSM must announce the withdrawal of pianist Alexander Malofeev,” the orchestra said. It wanted the public to know, however, that it was not biased against Russians: “We continue . . . to believe in the importance of maintaining relationships with artists of all nationalities who embrace messages of peace and hope.” Why Malofeev fell outside of that category was left unexplained.

Michael Tilson Thomas would have been conducting Malofeev for the Prokofiev performances. In his telling, “political situations” cancelled Malofeev, not his own agency: “I was very pleased to be working in Montreal for the first time with the extraordinary young pianist Alexander Malofeev,” he wrote. “It is regrettable that political situations have made it impossible.” Some OSM musicians had refused to play with Malofeev, CBC News reports. If Tilson Thomas and the orchestra management believe in “peace and hope,” they should have stood up to such closed-mindedness.

The Annapolis Symphony in Maryland also purported to be acting out of altruism in cancelling violinist Vadim Repin. “We don’t want to put [Repin] in an uncomfortable, even impossible position,” the press release explained. So “out of respect to Repin’s apolitical stance and concerns for the safety of himself and his family,” he would not be allowed to play the Shostakovich concerto with the orchestra.

The Dublin International Piano Competition seemed to be responding to unnamed forces outside its control when it revoked its acceptance of nine Russian pianists for its 2022 competition: “We are unable to include competitors from Russia,” it wrote, without disclosing what disabled it from including them. If any of those nine pianists has expressed support for the Ukraine invasion, the record does not reflect it. One of them, Arsenii Mun, stated the obvious on Facebook: “People should know, being from Russia does NOT mean that we are taking part in [invasion] decisions!”

These defenestrations pale, however, in comparison with the epic downfalls of superstar soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev, who have become international pariahs.

Since 1996, Gergiev has directed St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, home of a government-subsidized theater, ballet, and opera company. He brought the storied organization, associated with Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Chaliapin, Petipa, Balanchine, and Nureyev, to new levels of excellence, while maintaining a frenzied international conducting career. The Davos elite, including the heads of British Petroleum, Nestlé, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, sought the charismatic maestro’s friendship and showered his far-flung musical enterprises with funds. Forty heads of state, including Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroeder, attended a 2003 gala at the Mariinsky hosted by Putin and conducted by Gergiev. The Wall Street Journal observed at the time that Gergiev was achieving humanistic ends unmatched by any other classical music impresario.

Gergiev’s partnerships with Western orchestras have introduced Russian masterpieces into belated circulation. In 2002, New Yorkers had their first opportunity to hear Prokofiev’s War and Peace at the Metropolitan Opera, thanks to Gergiev’s advocacy. His performance of that monumental work, with its magnificent, bittersweet waltzes and sinuous melodies, was unforgettable, not least because of another Metropolitan Opera debut—that of Gergiev’s protégé Netrebko, alongside the late, great Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

The classical music press has grumbled intermittently in recent years about Gergiev’s association with Putin. The Mariinsky is a quasi-governmental body, funded by Moscow, so that association is in part ministerial. But it is also personal. In 2012, Gergiev recorded a video during the Russian presidential campaign implicitly lauding Putin’s leadership. Putin in turn has lauded Gergiev: “I will serve my term and disappear,” Putin has written, “but Gergiev will last forever.” (The Russian president was wrong on both counts.) Putin’s stance on LGBTQ education has particularly exercised music journalists and gay advocates. Queer Nation disrupted a concert Gergiev was conducting in Carnegie Hall in 2013 because Putin had signed a law that banned schools from distributing to minors “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships” (not so different from grassroots efforts in the U.S. to preserve a zone of childhood innocence regarding sexuality). “Gergiev, your silence is killing Russian gays!” protesters shouted. In response, Gergiev has insisted that he has never discriminated against anyone; no one has disputed that claim.

In 2016, Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra from a Roman theater in Palmyra, Syria. Syrian forces, with Russian air support, had retaken the historic site, which ISIS had used to execute prisoners. Gergiev characterized the concert, featuring the music of Bach, Prokofiev, and the twentieth-century Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, as a protest against barbarism; Putin’s Western critics denounced it as a propaganda ploy. A Mariinsky concert of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky in South Ossetia in 2008, following a bombing attack on the breakaway region by the Georgian government, was likewise dismissed.

Charlie Rose admiringly interviewed Gergiev numerous times over several decades. Rose invariably pressed the conductor to weigh in on Russia’s politics and political leaders, whether Yeltsin or Putin. Naively or not, Gergiev did not demur. His answers implicitly addressed tradeoffs that Americans have never had to make—between security, economic and political stability, liberty, national identity, and culture. To dictate how Russians should resolve those tradeoffs is arrogance.

Gergiev has not spoken publicly about the Ukrainian invasion. Because he has denounced neither it nor Putin, he has lost virtually every conducting engagement and leadership position he has held outside of Russia. The Munich Philharmonic, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Bayerische Staatsoper, the Teatro alla Scala, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philharmonie de Paris, the Lucerne Festival, and the Verbier Festival have all severed their ties with him. Failing some future engagement with a Chinese orchestra, say, his conducting career outside of Russia is over.

Anna Netrebko has denounced the invasion, but she has been cancelled anyway. “I am opposed to this senseless war of aggression, and I am calling on Russia to end this war right now, to save all of us. We need peace right now,” she posted on Instagram. “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.”

Unambiguous, but insufficient. Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb said: “In the case of somebody who is so closely associated with Putin, denouncing the war is not enough.” Gelb, too, was apparently responding to forces outside of his control in cancelling Netrebko’s engagements: “With Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine there was no [other] way forward.”

Gelb had not been so fastidious before. On the eve of the Ukrainian invasion, he was in Moscow for the premiere of a joint Met–Bolshoi Theater production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, one of three such co-productions initially announced in 2017. Putin had approved the collaborative project.

Netrebko is not “closely associated” with Putin, however. Her protestations that she is “not a political person” or “an expert in politics” are an understatement. An allegedly incriminating photograph from 2014 shows her holding one end of a flag used by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. She had just donated $18,500 to an opera house in Donetsk that had been partially destroyed by fighting. She had wanted to “help and support” her fellow artists, she explained, because she believed in “the power of art in times of conflict and crisis.” At the donation ceremony in St. Petersburg, the theater director had handed her the large banner right before the picture was taken and before, she claimed, she understood what it was. In 2012, Die Presse reported that Netrebko was among a list of 499 arts and sports celebrities endorsing Putin’s reelection. Until recently, these actions had no effect on the opera company managers who made Netrebko the most sought-after soprano in the world.

Serge Dorny, director of the Bayerische Staatsoper, said that cancelling Netrebko and Gergiev was necessary out of “respect for each other and dialogue with each other.” Ironically, it may have been Netrebko’s protest against compelled speech that sealed her fate. After calling for an end to “this senseless war of aggression,” she wrote that “forcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right.” This outburst was too much for New York Times classical music editor Zachary Woolfe. “Ms. Netrebko’s caustic irritation at the notion that any statement might be expected from her” negated her war opposition “by making it all about her,” Woolfe claimed. But Netrebko had not made it all about her. She had offered principled opposition to the pressure being put on Russian artists to utter a specific set of words about Putin.

Objecting to cancel culture may have doomed Alexander Malofeev as well. He was being pressed to make more antiwar statements, but in light of his family back in Russia he felt “very uncomfortable” doing so. He obliquely criticized the ongoing purges: “It is very painful for me to see everything that is happening. I have never seen so much hatred going in all directions, in Russia and around the world. Most of the people with whom I have personally communicated these days are guided by only one feeling — fear.”

Conductor Tugan Sokhiev testified to the same pressure: “I cannot bear to witness how my fellow colleagues, artists, actors, singers, dancers, directors are being menaced [and] treated disrespectfully. . . . We musicians are there to remind through music of Shostakovich about horrors of war [yet] we are being divided and ostracized.” Sokhiev resigned from his position leading the Orchestre national du Capitole de Toulouse after French officials insisted that he denounce Putin. The mayor of Toulouse explained that “it was unthinkable to imagine that [Sokhiev] would remain silent in the face of the war situation.” Sokhiev responded that he had “never supported . . . conflicts in any shape and form. For some people even to question my desire of peace is shocking and offensive.” Sokhiev is scheduled to conduct the New York Philharmonic on March 31. Don’t be surprised if he is not allowed to perform, despite his having resigned as well as from the state-supported Bolshoi Theater.

Russian composers and compositions are being purged, though their opportunities to denounce Putin are slight. On March 1, the Polish National Opera scrubbed Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov from its April 2022 calendar in order to honor the “heroism of the Ukrainians fighting to defend their Homeland.” But Mussorgsky’s opera, based on a Pushkin drama and composed between 1868 and 1873, is a coruscating take on power and the psychological deterioration of a despotic ruler. It offers no support to imperialism.

In the next cancellation, Mussorgsky was the good guy. The University of South Carolina orchestra replaced Tchaikovsky’s March Slav with Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev for a March 3 concert. Never mind that Tchaikovsky was the most cosmopolitan of Russian composers and Mussorgsky arguably the most nationalist of the affirmatively nationalist “Mighty Five”—Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin, in addition to Mussorgsky. Tchaikovsky worshipped Mozart, calling him the “musical Christ.” Don Giovanni inducted him into that “world of artistic beauty inhabited only by the greatest geniuses,” he wrote in his diary. The March Slav was commissioned to raise money for the Red Cross Society in the Serbian war against the Ottomans. It also does not celebrate Russian imperialism.

Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev,” the concluding section of Pictures at an Exhibition, by contrast, has stronger ties to the Russian state. The title refers to a design for a monument celebrating Tsar Alexander II’s survival of an 1866 assassination attempt. The artist, Victor Hartmann, was himself a Russian nationalist and part of the contemporaneous Slavic revival. Hartmann’s unrealized design features the Russian state eagle and a cupola in the shape of a Russian war helmet. But because Mussorgsky’s composition has “Kiev” in its title, it passes the new litmus test.

Wales’s Cardiff Philharmonic booted the March Slav, along with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, from an upcoming program.

Many of the people demanding explicit anti-Putin statements undoubtedly share academia’s view that race is a social construct. Yet they are treating nationality as an inherent, reified trait that makes individuals complicit with their leaders, absent action to the contrary. California congressman Eric Swalwell has called for all Russian students in the U.S. to be expelled. A New York Times reader, commenting on the classical music purges, would go further: “Every Russian currently in the United States should be deported. This would include some of my own students, all very nice people whom I like. But as long as their nation is murdering innocent people in Ukraine, I don’t want them in my class, my city, my state or my nation.” This professor probably supports his college’s “equity and inclusion” mandates.

Meanwhile, Biden administration officials went on bended knee to Venezuela to beg for more oil to offset the loss of Russian imports. Dictator Nicolás Maduro had denounced U.S. sanctions against Russia as a “crime” and had noted Putin’s “serenity, wisdom and moral conviction.” Don’t expect any boycotts of Venezuelan oil from the anti-Russian cancellers, however, nor any calls for Biden’s cancellation.

The Metropolitan Opera has not responded to a query asking what Peter Gelb hoped to accomplish by cancelling Anna Netrebko’s upcoming appearances and what he hoped to avoid by rejecting as insufficient Netrebko’s condemnation of the Ukrainian invasion. The director of the Canada Council for the Arts provides a possible answer. After the Vancouver Recital Society cut off Malofeev, Simon Brault explained that concert venues were sending a signal that “the arts are not in a bubble.” This is the same virtue-signaling that has motivated the racial mea culpas from classical music organizations over the last two years.

But the forcing of speech suggests that the arts are in a bubble. There are many reasons why a performer may decline under pressure to denounce Putin—worries about repercussions to his family; a more complicated understanding (whatever a performer’s repugnance toward the war itself) of the Russian–NATO–Ukraine situation than is currently allowed in the West; an instinctive reluctance to be dictated to, including on issues of nationhood; or a belief that the sanctity of speech and conscience are the bedrock of a civilized society and must be defended on principle. These reasons are apparently beyond the ken of music leaders.

Compelled loyalty and anti-loyalty oaths are a slippery slope that would complicate, if not eliminate, the international project of music-making. Who decides which national actions and leaders require censure? The U.S. has engaged in bombing campaigns that have not been universally praised. Should American musicians be required to denounce contested foreign policy, and if so, why limit those denunciations to American foreign policy alone? And why are only Russians on the hook for denouncing Putin? Why not every musician?

Some classical music organizations understand these complications. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor JoAnn Falletta, declined to remove Alexander Malofeev from an upcoming concert, noting that he was “not responsible for the war.” The Busoni Competition “strongly” encouraged pianists from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus to participate in its forthcoming contest. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is welcoming 15 Russian pianists. President Jacques Marquis explained: “We can help the world by standing our ground and focusing on the music and on the artists.”

Among the cancellations to date, Gergiev’s is the close call. Mariinsky directors are government appointees. Though Western governments have not put Gergiev on any sanctions list, a policy of punishing Russian officials for the Ukraine incursion could conceivably sweep him in. So far, however, only classical music organizations have blacklisted him, sidelining one of music’s greatest cultural entrepreneurs and ambassadors.

The other cancelees have no official ties to Putin. None has endorsed the war. A musician should not have to issue a prescribed statement in order to perform; doing so violates the very principles that arts leaders purport to stand for. International music-making is the strongest rebuttal to the nationalism that Putin’s Western critics pretend to loathe.

Photos by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images (left) / Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images (right)

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