Politics and Music, Mingled Together, Spark Uproars

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Music has been political since at least Handel’s Water Music and probably long before that, but the instant gratification of the Internet in general and social media in particular now facilitate communications with speed and often relative anonymity, too, and sometimes the confluence of the two – music and politics – becomes downright combustible.

Here are some recent examples, the last two of which have transpired in just the last few weeks.

At the Met, the shows went on, despite protests of Putin’s policies (and conductor Valery Gergiev’s support thereof) during a recent run of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanthe – and despite even more sustained dissent during an earlier run of John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, an opera described in one post as “despicable pro-terrorist anti-Semitic anti-American [and] anti-Israel.” (Let the record show that a planned HD screening of the latter was scrubbed.)

More recently, two more incidents involving art and politics have caused considerable attention-getting flaps, with one resulting in a much-admired, oft’-lauded NC-based artist being yanked from engagements in Canada just as rehearsals were on the verge of beginning.

The first incident occurred in Avery Fisher Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center before the premiere of John AdamsScheherazade.2, for violin and orchestra. (The soloist was Leila Josefowicz, the orchestra was the NY Philharmonic, and the conductor was Alan Gilbert.) For a review from Classical Voice North America, click here.

Anthony Tommasini set the stage in his NT Times review, starting with the Arabian Nights tales that inspired the new work:

“… [A]s Mr. Adams said in a brief discussion with the conductor Alan Gilbert at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night, he was ‘shocked and appalled’ by the ‘casual brutality’ toward women that is a given in the ‘Arabian Nights….’

“Mr. Adams [got to] thinking about the continuing physical and mental brutality against women not just in enclaves of the Middle East but also in America – for example, he said, on the airwaves that carry Rush Limbaugh. What would a Scheherazade for our own time be like? This work offers his answer in the portrait of a beautiful, empowered and fearless woman confronting oppression.” The remarks elicited  applause. And then there was blow-back – from Limbaugh and his partisans, the most biting of which pieces is here.

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The second incident involved New Bern resident Valentina Lisitsa, the Ukrainian-born pianist of Russian descent, whose politics with regard to the ongoing strife in the land of her birth prompted her to take to social media in what may perhaps be viewed as somewhat heated terms. The upshot of this was the cancellation by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra of her engagements to play Rachmaninoff’s second concerto this week; she has been replaced by Stewart Goodyear.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported the story, which has since been taken up by arts news sites around the world, including Norman Lebrecht’s column and ArtsJournal.

In neither of the fairly current cases was the artist’s stated viewpoint reflected in any way in the music under discussion. So the questions the March and April flaps prompt are these: Should Adams and Lisitsa have done what they did? And should there have been such vehement reactions?

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The Toronto issue continues to boil furiously. Here are updates from overnight:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/columnists/why-the-tso-set-a-terrible-precedent-by-barring-pianist-valentina-lisitsa/article23845288/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/music/tso-tightens-security-for-this-weeks-roy-thomson-hall-concerts/article23836395/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/music/pianist-says-tso-donor-threatened-to-cut-funds-if-she-performed/article23830400/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/classical-music-world-reacts-to-tso-dropping-pianist-valentina-lisitsa/article23830354/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/music/kate-taylor-controversial-pianist-should-take-responsibility-for-her-statements/article23827338/

http://www.musicaltoronto.org/2015/04/07/update-tso-pulls-concerto-in-wake-of-controversy/

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Here’s what I hope will be a final update on this subject, with thanks to our colleague Arthur Kaptainis, writing from Toronto for Classical Voice North America:
http://classicalvoiceamerica.org/2015/04/10/hey-what-about-lisitsas-take-on-rachmaninoff/.

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