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20-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev recently had several Canadian engagements cancelled. (Photo credit: Liudmila Malofeeva)

Russian Programming and Russian Musicians: To Ban or Not To Ban?

 

Controversies abound as international orchestras and concert promoters struggle to work out the best way to support the people of Ukraine — without unfairly disadvantaging Russian artists who have publicly condemned the war and distanced themselves from the actions of Vladimir Putin.

On the one hand, artists like Valery Gergiev, who is in Putin's inner circle and has refused to condemn his actions publicly, are being met with cultural sanctions by orchestras and organizations.

On the other hand, other Russian-born artists are taking it upon themselves to condemn the war and in some instances, like Vasily Petrenko, even suspend all Russian conducting engagements.

Some cultural institutions and organizations are taking the stance to just cancel the participation of all Russian artists, despite their political affiliation. Recently, the Dublin Piano Competition made the decision to cancel the participation of all Russian candidates, including pianist Roman Kosyakov. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, in contrast, is allowing its Russian participants to compete, acknowledging that they are not officials of their government nor are they state-sponsored by Russia.

In Canada, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal canceled their three upcoming engagements with Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev, who was to perform alongside conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

"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 in a statement released this week.

“The OSM feels that it would be inappropriate to receive Mr. Malofeev this week," it continued. "We continue, however, to believe in the importance of maintaining relationships with artists of all nationalities who embrace messages of peace and hope. We look forward to welcoming this exceptional artist when the context allows it.”

Malofeev, aged 20, was also removed from a second recital engagement with the Vancouver Recital Society, which was due to take place in August.

He took to social media following the news of the cancellations. "The truth is that every Russian will feel guilty for decades because of the terrible and bloody decision that none of us could influence and predict," he said.

A subsequent post reads:

"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.

I am contacted by journalists now who want me to make statements. I feel very uncomfortable about this and also think that it can affect my family in Russia.

I still believe Russian culture and music specifically should not be tarnished by the ongoing tragedy, though it is impossible to stay aside now. Honestly, the only thing I can do now is to pray and cry.

It would seem that there are obvious conclusions: no problem can be solved by war, people cannot be judged by their nationality. But why, in a few days, has the whole world rolled back into a state where every person has a choice between fear and hatred?

I do understand that my problems are very insignificant compared to those of people in Ukraine, including my relatives who live there. The most important thing now is to stop the blood. All I know is that the spread of hatred will not help in any way, but only cause more suffering."

Many in the industry agree that Russian musicians (and expatriates who now live elsewhere) who do not support Vladimir Putin or the actions of the state, do not deserve to lose their platform or their income simply because of their nationality.

Two recent cases in France demonstrate this and challenge some of the cancellations. Russian pianist Ludmila Berlinskaya, who has been living in France for the last three decades, addressed the audience before a recent concert in Paris, saying that she and her Russian relatives were devastated by the conflict and thought often of the people of Ukraine.

However, Berlinskaya noted that she had also lost performance opportunities in Germany and Japan as a result of concert providers not wanting to promote Russian artists at this time. She lamented the cancellation of Russian artists, stating that a ban on Russian culture did nothing to alleviate the war.

"We must not ban all Russian culture, it is discrimination that does not lead us to peace but even more to war," Berlinskaya said. "Artists who are not close to the state are not guilty of the situation even if they are Russian."

For Patrice Moracchini, founder of the Paris concert series Les Nuits du Piano, it was an easy decision: he would not cancel Russian pianist Viktoria Postnikova's March 7 concert appearance at the Salle Cortot simply because of her nationality. Despite receiving many messages urging him to take a stand against Russia by calling off the concert, Moracchini noted that it is crucial to distinguish between artists such as Valery Gergiev, who are strongly in support of the Russian regime, and those other artists who are not in favor of the war.

For Moracchini, the cancellation of Russian artists sets a disturbing precedent. "There is something indecent [about it]," he said, "a witch hunt that scares me."

A similar situation recently arose in Wales, when the Cardiff Philharmonic announced that they would remove Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Marche Slave, stating only that the programming was "inappropriate at this time." The orchestra was ridiculed for the decision, as audiences claimed that canceling a performance of Tchaikovsky would do nothing to help Ukrainians affected by the war.

However, the Cardiff Philharmonic then released a subsequent statement clarifying that the decision had been made because one of the orchestra's players has family members who are directly affected by the war in Ukraine. The player, and the orchestra's administration, felt that the military character of the two Tchaikovsky works made them unsuitable for the present climate, and many commentators agreed after reading the revised statement.

The Cardiff example presents a case where the orchestra's decision was, in many eyes, justifiable, but the organization's true motives were not initially evident to the public, resulting in a bit of a social media witch hunt.

It is clear that one cannot take a blanket stance on the de-platforming of Russian musicians; rather, each situation must be considered on a case-by-case basis.


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