Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Valentina Lisitsa and the Toronto Symphony

The Globe and Mail today has an article on Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa who has just been cut loose from engagements this week playing with the Toronto Symphony. Somewhat unusually for the Globe and Mail, the report seems fairly well-balanced--they aren't always!

Here is the reason for the dismissal:
A terse statement by TSO president Jeff Melanson said Ms. Lisitsa was let go over “ongoing accusations of deeply offensive language by Ukrainian media outlets.”
Isn't that a bit odd? Mere accusations? Ms. Lisitsa, who is an avid user of social media, had this response:
“Someone in the orchestra’s top management, likely after the pressure from a small but aggressive lobby claiming to represent the Ukrainian community, has made a decision that I should not be allowed to play,” she wrote, referring to her scheduled TSO performances on Wednesday and Thursday. “I don’t even know who my accusers are, I am kept in the dark about it.” 
You should go and read the whole story at the link as I am not going to quote it all here. The story has quotes from various parties to take note of. They even dig back into the history of the Toronto Symphony when they blacklisted six players in the 1950s for communist sympathies. The last two paragraphs of the story sum up the dispute as follows:
Ms. Lisitsa wrote that the TSO, which offered to pay her entire fee for the cancelled shows, threatened reprisals if she went public about the reason. “If they do it once, they will do it again and again, until the musicians, artists are intimidated into voluntary censorship,” she wrote. Her replacement for the concerts is Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear.
“As one of Canada’s most important cultural institutions,” Mr. Melanson’s statement says, “our priority must remain on being a stage for the world’s great works of music, and not for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive.”
So, on the one hand, people are being coerced through loss of employment into suppressing their political opinions, and on the other hand, the symphony wishes to keep any political controversy away from their presentations, which are simply about music. Well, there are arguments to be made on both sides, certainly.

In recent years one important trend in musicology has been the acceptance that all music is engaged in some way with its social context and history. As I said in this post:
 much as we like to think that the music we love floats above the grimy realities of life like a fragrant cloud, the truth is that music is part of history and life and society. It has a context and an audience. It even has composers and performers who are, most of them, real human beings. There is music that is guilty and stained with blood. There is some music that is morally courageous and other that is morally cowardly, hypocritical and sincere, emotionally direct and pure phony melodrama.
But this is only one perspective on music and it is often better to take music for itself, without trying to identify every chord as "progressive" or "fascistic" which can become comical when taken too far.

You need to know that the Ukrainian community is a large and long-established one in Canada, which is one reason why this issue seemed so fractious.

There have been a long string of political disputes in music in recent years from protestors at a London concert of an Israeli string quartet to the quite recent one of a work being pulled from performance because it quotes a Nazi anthem. Plainly it is problematic for the performing institutions of classical music to tolerate anything that suggests political controversy. They have decided that such things are "offensive" and will drive away audiences. I doubt very much that this is really the case. Recent performances of the very controversial opera by John Adams, "The Death of Klinghoffer" were probably well-attended because of, not despite, the controversy. Publicity about Ms. Lisitsa's views might have added a bit of spice to the Toronto Symphony presentations as well, but we won't know because they decided to sidestep the possibility of controversy.

On the other hand, you could argue that performers with a high public profile should, out of simple courtesy, avoid making offensive statements of any kind. Just because you have an opinion doesn't mean that you have to keep blurting it out. But countering this is the indisputable value of freedom of speech, something Canada has never had quite enough of.

I have to confess that I am undecided about this, though leaning slightly towards Ms. Lisitsa.

What do my readers think about this? While you are mulling it over, let's listen to Valentina Lisitsa. Here is an excerpt from the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2:

UPDATE: Upon musing over this a bit further, I think that the right solution might be to make concerts a "politics-free zone". In other words, have some respect for your audience who undoubtedly have a variety of views. Don't assume that they are supportive of whatever cause you are promoting this week. So shut about about it. That's onstage during the concert. Once you are away from the concert hall, feel free to express whatever opinions you like. And the corollary is you can't fire someone for expressing an opinion in their private life. So, the Toronto Symphony should not have replaced Ms. Lisitsa with another pianist. At least, not for the reasons given. Another consequence is, no you can't promote any other political cause onstage either. Be even-handed in the restriction. Benefits for a particular cause, when advertised as such, are an exception, of course.


Anonymous said...

The TSO is pathetic. Were it an American institution, it would lose badly in court if Lisitsa chose to sue. It's disgraceful behavior.

However, I do agree with your suggestion that the performer should stick to the contract and not engage in political speechifying during the concert. But outside the concert hall, there is this little thing called freedom of expression which has been dear to Western societies since the Enlightenment...

Marc Puckett said...

I agree: inside the concert hall, one should keep one's political opinions to oneself, and outside, you can speak as you like... well, I do suppose that the institution's management can take some notice of an artist's political speech if it becomes notorious in some egregious way (such a lot of ambiguity there, however!)... hmm; I would think in this day and age that something about all of this would be in the contract. If Miss Lisitsa has become a famed apologist for e.g. the Moscow regime's purposeful starvation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians-- well, as an arts administrator in a Canada heavily populated by people of Ukrainian descent I'd do what I could to persuade her to go perform somewhere else (which of course raises the question why no one at TSO was aware of this when she was hired-- surely such things aren't arranged so far in advance?).

I don't know if she might have a case at law in the US or not: it would depend on the wording of the contract, I should imagine. That TSO would think it could require her to remain silent about their action seems ludicrously outrageous.

Marc Puckett said...

I know fellow Catholics who will not patronize programs that feature Wagner, and of course his concert and stage presence in Israel is (or, at least, was) practically non-existent. While I don't think there is any music I will not listen to, it's a different question whether I would patronize N.'s lieder recital if he were well known to be a rabid anti-Semite or anti-Catholic bigot. But it doesn't seem to me that VL is anywhere near that category.

Bryan Townsend said...

I suspect that the kind of contracts used for this sort of engagement probably do not contain language that would deal with expression of political opinion outside the concert hall. But it would certainly be interesting to see the contract. I wonder if Ms. Lisitsa has a case under Canadian law?

For some reason I started thinking about the case of Luigi Nono, whose every composition was a political statement.

Marc Puckett said...

I shall have to search for Luigi Nono, now. :-)

Marc Puckett said...
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