Classical music: Should we judge Russian musicians who do not speak out against Putin?

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Vladimir Putin presents a medal to Russian conductor Valery Gergiev during an awards ceremony at the Kremlin in 2016. On Monday, Gergiev was asked to step down as honorary president of the Edinburgh International Festival, and he was also lost positions at Carnegie Hall, La Scala and the Lucerne Festival. Photo: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev

The Russian conductor Valery Gergiev is no longer, since last Monday, honorary president of the Edinburgh International Festival. In the words of the official Festival announcement: “The Edinburgh International Festival Board has requested and accepted the resignation of Valery Gergiev as Honorary Chairman of the Festival.

This is unquestionably the right decision, and it should come as no surprise to anyone. Gergiev is a longtime friend and supporter of Vladimir Putin, and enthusiastically supported the Russian president’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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It’s just the latest in a series of firings and expulsions for the man described as ‘the greatest living conductor’ by his European agent Markus Felsner, who removed Gergiev from his roster over the weekend. end last. Gergiev also lost concerts at Carnegie Hall, La Scala and the Lucerne Festival.

Nor is the FEI announcement the only example of solidarity with Ukraine within Scottish classical music. At last Saturday’s concert in Glasgow, the musicians of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (along with guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis) ditched their traditional concert attire in favor of yellow and blue T-shirts, forming the Ukrainian flag on stage. A statement from the orchestra said: “The idea came in response to calls from staff and musicians to make a visual statement of support for the people of Ukraine. Principal horn Christopher Gough expressed RSNO’s support for the people of Ukraine in his opening speech at the concert.

Further on, many other figures from the classical music world have come out in solidarity with Ukraine and condemned Putin’s invasion. The big question, however, is why all of this matters. Cynics might argue that these are meaningless gestures made by well-to-do musicians, safe and comfortable away from invasion, with little at stake. But there are two main reasons why these actions are important, especially in the world of classical music.

First, and most obviously, because of the message sent by these cancellations and expressions of solidarity, outrage at the invasion, and refusal to engage with Putin’s regime. In the rarefied world of classical music, however, they matter deeply because the art form has long been a central pillar of Russian culture. Just think of the proud heritage of Russian singers, instrumentalists, orchestras and conductors – and, more importantly, the crucial role they continue to play in Russia’s self-esteem.

That said, is it fair or just to demand that all Russian musicians condemn their own country’s actions? This is a controversial issue. On the one hand, silence is consent. On the other hand, even Russian musicians with international touring careers may have a network of vulnerable friends and family in Russia to consider. Mariinsky’s star soprano Anna Netrebko made a statement against the war, but also wrote: “Forcing artists, or any public figure, to express their political views in public and denounce their homeland is not right. It should be a free choice. Like many of my colleagues, I am not a political person. I am not a political expert. I am an artist and my goal is to unite people across political divides. Netrebko may have a high enough profile to deter retaliation, but others might not be so lucky.

Some international ensembles have considered removing Russian music from their concert programs. One step too far? Perhaps it is more useful to celebrate the power of change and subversion of music – itself a long tradition in Russian culture, as the RSNO statement points out: “Music has long been used as an act of resistance. Just as we stand with the Ukrainian people, we also stand with those in Russia who have been unwittingly drawn into this devastating conflict. We are proud to play music by Shostakovich, a composer persecuted for expressing the terror of living under Stalin’s regime; Rachmaninoff, a Russian who celebrated Ukrainian culture and was one of the founders of the Kyiv Conservatory; and Tchaikovsky, who himself was posthumously censured by Putin’s government for his sexuality.

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