America continues to buy Russian oil, thereby partly funding President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked, unwarranted and uncivilized invasion of Ukraine. Yet, at the same time, American organizations cancel Russian musicians who do not directly denounce Putin, the man who wields power not only over their livelihoods, but also over their lives.
It’s easy to make big gestures of smugness and self-righteousness. It is more difficult to consider the complications of musical creation in times of war – and the danger of imposing political prohibitions on art and artists.
Conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko are arguably the two greatest Russian classical musicians of our time. The cultural powers of New York have shown the door in recent days.
First, Carnegie Hall announced the day before Gergiev left for a three-concert series with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra that he would be replaced by the ubiquitous Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Friday’s concert was an all-Rachmaninoff program, and Russian pianist Denis Matsuev was also absent.
The legendary venue gave no explanation — and didn’t announce a replacement for the notoriously difficult second piano concerto, Seong-Jin Cho, until the day of the show.
Cho, who arrived from Berlin that day, had not played the Rach Second for two and a half years. Carnegie later wrote to attendees admitting that “the audience experience this weekend did not meet the standards to which we aspire, including longer than usual lines”.
Then Thursday came the turn of Netrebko. The dazzling diva has been a Metropolitan Opera favorite for years, headlining its 2019 New Year’s Eve gala. Now she won’t be on stage as planned for her highly anticipated debut as Turnadot in April — indeed, she may never grace her stage again.
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“Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine, there was no way forward,” Met chief executive Peter Gelb said. “It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which she will return to the Met.”
Netrebko is not a supporter of the war in Ukraine. “I stand against this senseless war of aggression and call on Russia to end this war now, to save us all. We need peace right now,” she said this week. But the Met gave her an ultimatum, insisting she go further and denounce Putin directly – ending Gelb’s assertion, “We are not interviewing or questioning any artists about their positions.”
It’s not quite like asking Shostakovich to denounce Stalin. But the same principle applies: Gergiev and Netrebko cannot pursue a career in their homeland and criticize its dictator. They need to show some support to survive. Putin’s regime threatens to jail anyone who opposes the invasion; imagine what the strongman would do to a high profile figure personally censuring him.
Whoever dumped Gergiev understands that. Agent Marcus Felsner called him “one of the greatest conductors of all time”, but canceled him as a client, although he noted that Gergiev has “a sustained office by the government” and “cannot” end his support for a dictator. And he stressed that Gergiev is not only thinking of himself: “His life’s work is the thousands of musicians, dancers and other phenomenal employees of the Mariinsky Theater and their families, for whom he has always felt responsible , as a family.”
Classical music is something sacred in Russia. At the White Nights Festival in Saint Petersburg in 2012, I was at the Mariinsky every night for a week and a half, and I was struck by the audience: people of all ages and walks of life were devoted to music classic. And no one has been a better ambassador of his country’s culture than Valery Gergiev.
Carnegie hosted a Russian pianist this week, but Daniil Trifonov lives in New York and doesn’t have to bow down to Putin.
It was during the intermission of Rachmaninoff’s concert at Carnegie Hall that I realized that some were blaming all Russians for Putin’s provocations. Walking into the Russian Tea Room for a drink — Carnegie’s bars are still closed post-COVID — I chatted with a manager and learned that the legendary restaurant was getting threatening calls.
Even innocent animals are punished for Putin: the International Federation of Big Cats has banned Russian big cats from its competitions. Yet the killer regime in Beijing has been allowed to enjoy the international Olympics, and its representatives travel freely throughout the West.
Even at the height of the Cold War, Russia and America shared a common language of music. Texas-born Van Cliburn did a lot for art and peace when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 – a shock to Russians. Gergiev now chairs this competition. Art is still essential to human life, but cultural exchange becomes even more crucial in times of political tension.
Kelly Jane Torrance is the Post’s opinion editor.