Russian conductor Valery Gergiev is no longer, as of last Monday, Honorary President of the Edinburgh International Festival. In the words of the Festival’s official announcement: “The board of trustees of the Edinburgh International Festival has asked for and accepted the resignation of Valery Gergiev as Honorary President of the Festival.”
It’s unquestionably the right decision, and it can’t have come as much of a surprise to anyone. Gergiev is a long-standing friend and supporter of Vladimir Putin, and enthusiastically backed the Russian President’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
It’s only the latest in a string of sackings and expulsions for the man described as “the greatest conductor alive” by his European agent Markus Felsner, who dropped Gergiev from his roster last weekend. Gergiev has also lost gigs at Carnegie Hall, La Scala and the Lucerne Festival.
Nor is the EIF’s announcement the only example of solidarity with Ukraine from within Scottish classical music. At last Saturday’s concert in Glasgow, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s musicians (as well as visiting conductor Sir Andrew Davis) cast aside their traditional concert garb in favour 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 the RSNO’s support for the people of Ukraine in his introductory remarks at the concert.”
Further afield, many more figures across the world of classical music have come out in solidarity with Ukraine, and condemnation of Putin’s invasion. The big question, though, is why any of this matters. Cynics might argue that these are empty gestures enacted by well-off musicians safe and comfortable far away from the invasion, with little at stake. But there are two key reasons why these actions matter, especially in the world of classical music.
First, and most obviously, because of the message these cancellations and expressions of solidarity send, of outrage at the invasion and of refusal to engage with Putin’s regime. In the rarefied world of classical music, however, they matter profoundly because that art form has long been such 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 sense of self.
That said, is it fair or right to demand that all Russian musicians condemn their own country’s actions? It’s a vexed question. On the one hand, silence implies consent. On the other, even Russian musicians with international touring careers may have a network of vulnerable friends and family within Russia to consider. The Mariinsky’s star soprano Anna Netrebko made a statement opposing the war, but also wrote: “Forcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right. This should be a free choice. Like many of my colleagues, I am not a political person. I am not an expert in politics. I am an artist and my purpose is to unite people across political divides.” Netrebko may have a high enough profile to discourage retaliation, but others might not be so lucky.
Some international ensembles have considered dropping Russian music from their concert programmes. A step too far? Perhaps it’s more useful to celebrate music’s power for change and subversion – itself a long tradition in Russian culture, as the RSNO’s statement points out: “Music has long been utilised as an act of resistance. Just as we stand with the people of Ukraine, we also stand with those in Russia who have been unwillingly brought 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; Rachmaninov, a Russian who celebrated Ukrainian culture and was one of the founders of the Kyiv Conservatory; and Tchaikovsky, who himself was posthumously censored by Putin’s government for his sexuality.”
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