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Twitter Outrage Takes Toronto, Canceling Two Pianists

Pianist Valentina Lisitsa
Gilbert Francois
Courtesy of the artist
Pianist Valentina Lisitsa

Valentina Lisitsa is a pianist whose worldwide reputation was built on social media. She is now experiencing a major backlash due to what she's been writing on Twitter.

It came to a head with the cancellation of Lisitsa's scheduled performances Wednesday night and Thursday night with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which announced earlier this week that she would not be appearing to play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the ensemble and Finnish conductor Juka-Pekka Saraste. Both TSO management and Lisitsa have said she will still receive her full fee.

Seven years ago, Lisitsa was a talented but struggling pianist. Now based in France after living for several years in North Carolina, the 41-year-old was born in Kiev to a family of mixed ethnic Ukrainian, Russian and Polish heritage. In the early 1990s, she moved with her husband to the United States and was flailing as a freelance musician. But after she began uploading videos of herself to YouTube, she became an Internet star.

More than 80 million people have watched her videos online. As of two years ago, she had accrued all the benefits of a more traditionally cultivated career — including a record deal with the Decca label, performances at major international venues and representation by IMG Artists, one of the world's leading classical music management firms. She tours internationally and has recorded both as a soloist and as a collaborator, including an album of Charles Ives sonatas with violinist Hilary Hahn.

'NedoUkraïnka' On Twitter

Along with continuing to post on YouTube and Facebook about her musical life, Lisitsa began using Twitter to talk about Ukraine and its politics around the time of the Maidan protests, which resulted in the ouster of the country's pro-Russia president in 2014. But soon her tweets and retweets became very barbed: "If people are really interested in digging deeper, they can see that I am not pro-Putin, I'm not pro-Russian. I'm an equal-opportunity slanderer!" she said, laughing, on the phone Thursday from Toronto.

But Lisitsa's detractors say her activity on social media, and most particularly on her Twitter account, has crossed a line. Canadian classical music blog Musical Toronto has published (password: MusicalToronto) a file it says was provided by TSO management and contains the tweets protesters found most offensive.

Unlike her YouTube videos and most of her Facebook posts, which generally stick to her life as a musician, her Twitter presence has routinely disseminated her political views.

Those tweets and retweets include referring to those she termed "conscious Ukrainians" as "dog feces." She retweeted an image depicting a putative pre-homo sapien "Ukropithecus" Ukrainian as an apelike creature wearing both an Adolf Hitler hairstyle and a giant swastika. (This image has since been removed from Twitter, but it may be seen in the document published by Musical Toronto.)

Lisitsa also juxtaposed an image of teachers in Odessa wearing ethnic Ukrainian dress with an image of a group of what appear to be sub-Saharan Africans, in traditional outfits, carrying spears. In another instance, Lisitsa tweeted, perhaps sarcastically: "In a new European Ukraine, the camps will give the subhumans [ethnic Russians] condemned to the gas chambers an opportunity to offset their carbon footprint."

She arrived in Toronto on Thursday in hopes of still finding a space to play for her fans this week despite her acrimonious split with the TSO. Aside from one small performance for an elderly couple who had traveled to see her play, she says she has had no luck finding a venue willing to let her perform in the midst of the fray. According to Lisitsa, a church that had agreed to host a performance backed out immediately after she announced the planned concert, saying that it had received "hateful calls."

The Political Climate

The Lisitsa controversy comes during a season in which Russian artists who endorse and strongly support Vladimir Putin and the Russian government, such as conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko, have faced protests at many of their international concerts. Many of these demonstrations have concerned Russia's treatment of its gay citizens. Others have been in reference to a divisive donation Netrebko gave to the Donetsk Opera Theatre; there, Netrebko posed with a top leader of a group of armed separatists who seek to establish a territory separate from Ukraine called Novorossiya.

However, despite giving public endorsements of Putin in Russian media, both Gergiev and have issued statements in English that downplay politics and instead emphasize goodwill and their dedication to music and the arts above all else. Neither Gergiev nor Netrebko has engaged political foes in social media battles the way Lisitsa has.

The Symphony's Response

The TSO has issued a brief statement about the situation with Lisitsa: "Due to ongoing accusations of deeply offensive language by Ukrainian media outlets," it reads, "we have decided to replace Valentina Lisitsa in our April 8 and 9 performances of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. Valentina Lisitsa's provocative comments have overshadowed past performances. As one of Canada's most important cultural institutions, 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." The orchestra's administration, including CEO Jeff Melanson (who arrived at the symphony in November), has declined repeated requests from NPR for further comment.

"The pressure, the intimidation, is huge," Lisitsa said. "I think I was not allowed to play not for the nature of hateful tweets or whatever it's being called. It's my political views that made somebody to put pressure on the symphony, let's not deny it. It is censorship, though I never come to concerts and talk about politics. I would never dare open my mouth. I respect my audience, and I never preach to them one way or the other. It was to teach me a lesson, to censor me, and to send a warning to others."

Is it censorship, since the Toronto Symphony is a private organization? "Well," Lisitsa said, "You can say that in the U.S., there are now outrageous cases where people, for example in Indiana, are in private companies, and can turn away gay couples. Where do we stop it? Where do you let this, if you call it censorship or not, stop?"

Although the TSO has not publicly identified which of Lisitsa's more than 13,000 tweets it deemed offensive (most of which are written in English and most of which, in recent months, address the Ukrainian situation directly), Lisitsa claimed on her public Facebook page that the concerning tweets contained "of all things, Charlie Hebdo caricatures depicting lying media!!!" Later in the same paragraph, the pianist accused the orchestra of "helping them [those she refers to as her "haters"] to assassinate me — not as a living person yet, but as a MUSICIAN for sure." Lisitsa posted these comments within a lengthy open letter addressed to her fans.

The Backlash

In speaking with NPR, Lisitsa elucidated that idea of physical harm she mentioned in her open letter: She said she has received multiple death threats. They came, she said, "from people using actual names, not under avatars, not under other names, in the Ukrainian community." When asked if she has gone to the authorities about this, she said, "I was told to go to the FBI, but frankly I didn't have time. But there were death threats against me, against my family."

Many of Lisitsa's supporters have turned to social media to vent their outrage. The comment sections of TSO's Facebook posts, going back at least a month, have been plastered with angry responses and a now-commonplace image of Lisitsa, which she says she made herself. It's a portrait with a Canadian flag over her head; her mouth is covered with a duct tape X.

Who Claimed What?

In an interview Musical Toronto published Wednesday, Melanson is quoted as saying that Lisitsa "had originally led us to believe that these might be someone else's words, and that someone else was managing her blog or Twitter, so we wanted to give her the opportunity to address these things, which really are some of the most egregious things one could possibly read, or write."

"I never said such things!" Lisitsa insisted. "We exchanged quite a few emails. I have it all in writing. And if Mr. Melanson keeps putting accusations like that — not only of me, but of his subordinates — I think he should be prepared to repeat the same statements in court, under oath. If he personally decides not to be truthful, or spin the facts, or actually add something which never happened, I think he should just step aside, or step down, and deal with it as a private individual, and not to smear the symphony."

In the same Musical Toronto interview (as in an interview with The Globe and Mail), Melanson also said that there was no financial pressure to cancel Lisitsa's appearance: "There was no pressure whatsoever by donors. That is complete fabrication, and she is basically distorting the truth and making this up." Lisitsa refutes this claim and says that she has written evidence of this as well. She says that her manager at IMG, Tanja Dorn, also had a conversation with a TSO administrator who said that a Ukrainian donor would pull his sponsorship if Lisitsa appeared.

Lisitsa's record label, Decca, declined NPR's requests for comment. Lisitsa's next scheduled public performance is an appearance with the Spokane Symphony in Washington, where she will be playing Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini April 18 and 19. Brenda Nienhouse, the executive director of the orchestra, confirmed that those performances will go ahead as scheduled. The orchestra, Nienhouse said, is "very excited to have her back."

Stewart Goodyear Enters — And Exits

The situation in Toronto became even more entangled Tuesday, when Stewart Goodyear, the pianist and Toronto native whom the TSO had hired last to step in for Lisitsa, announced that he would not be performing with the orchestra after all. "I found myself in the middle of a social media frenzy," Goodyear wrote on his Facebook fan page. "Words of bile and hatred were hurled in my direction from all sides. Suddenly I was accused of supporting censorship, and bullied into declining this engagement. What started out as one of the happiest moments of my life turned into a shattering display of mob hysteria."

Goodyear went on in his own Facebook post to address Lisitsa more directly: "With all due respect to the pianist who I was going to replace, one must own one's opinions and words, and have the courage to defend her position. ... Free speech has consequences, and one [must] own one's position. Dragging other people who have nothing to do with her position does nothing constructive."

"He's absolutely right," Lisitsa said of Goodyear. "Freedom of speech has consequences, and you have to defend them, and stand by them, and that's exactly what I've done. I could have taken money quietly; I could have gone away. I decided to open this kind of boil of sickness, and let it come out."

"The only thing I want to say about Stewart Goodyear — and he wrote some really hurtful things about me and my friends, he called them a mob on Facebook — I think the orchestra owes him an apology," Lisitsa said. "He says that the orchestra didn't tell him the reason for the cancellation. And in that the orchestra is behaving arrogantly and also dishonestly. He's a wonderful pianist, and I have huge respect for him and what he plays. He just recorded the Rachmaninoff! How fair was it for the symphony to subject him to such things?"

Goodyear said in a telephone interview Thursday that Loie Fallis, the TSO's vice president for artistic planning, called him last Thursday to inquire about his availability. " 'There's a possible cancellation,' " is how Goodyear recalls the conversation. " 'Do you have Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto under your fingers?' "

Goodyear said the TSO called him again Saturday to confirm that there was a cancellation. Goodyear, who has a recording of the same concerto coming out on the Steinway & Sons label next week, said he was initially thrilled by the timing and that the TSO administration pointed out that his appearance would be "wonderful promotion" for the recording. There was, Goodyear said, absolutely no mention of the reasons for Lisitsa's absence until after his own contract was signed.

"Most times," Goodyear said, "when they need a replacement, it's because someone has tendinitis, there was an illness, they were unable to do it. And that's what I thought. So I didn't even ask [why]." He said the TSO didn't tell him until Monday that it had been Lisitsa who was scheduled to play: "It didn't even dawn on me to ask who the [other] pianist was." And he says that his manager at Columbia Artists Management, Mark Alpert, was also not told the reason for the cancellation.

Goodyear's contract was signed over the past weekend. "Monday morning," Goodyear said, "I get a call from the CEO [Melanson] telling me what I'd gotten myself into." Goodyear added that Melanson seemed surprised Goodyear hadn't been told about the situation with Lisitsa. "Even then, I still didn't have an understanding," Goodyear said. "I knew only that they released her of [her] contract, and they were telling me, 'There might be a [public] response.' I didn't know a thing. I was in blissful ignorance."

The Rachmaninoff Concerto

The 37-year-old Goodyear also pointed out that he has enjoyed a very long history with the Toronto orchestra, stretching back to his first appearance with it at age 12. He adds that among his appearances with the ensemble, he stepped in when the orchestra was in very bad shape: "I replaced a pianist when the Toronto Symphony was going bankrupt, and they needed help. I was there for them."

"The Rachmaninoff Second was a piece that meant a lot to me," Goodyear continued. "A lot of chapters in my life began with Rachmaninoff Second. It was always my dream to play this piece with the musicians of the Toronto Symphony. The rehearsal I had with them on Tuesday was one of the most beautiful musical moments of my life. I knew this was a moment to be savored, this was a moment to be kept."

After that rehearsal, Goodyear said, he, Fallis and Saraste decided the Rachmaninoff Second was going to be dropped. The concerts were held with Mahler's Fifth Symphony, originally planned as the concert's second half, as the only work on the program.

"I have absolutely no feelings but warm feelings towards Valentina," Goodyear said. "We are all musicians. We are all artists. We are all here to communicate our love of music. There are people on Twitter who are telling me that as I was replacing Valentina Lisitsa, suddenly I was an ambassador for censorship, that I was supporting censorship, which is utter nonsense."

"I believe in free speech," Goodyear added, "and most importantly, I believe in free reactions to free speech. There was a reaction to what Valentina wrote. But they thought they earned the right to respond, they thought they were in their right to call me inferior, they thought they were in the right to say awful, awful words of hatred in my direction. They thought they were in their right to attack me personally and artistically, without knowing who I am."

Lisitsa said she has no regrets in the aftermath of this firestorm. "Just like with YouTube," she said, "in a way, it's a strange parallel. When I started on YouTube, I believed in it, and I kept doing what I was doing, even with lots of negative feedback from the musical establishment, even now. I think the same has happened right now. My case got completely out of my hands."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 10, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story stated that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra official who both initially contacted pianist Stewart Goodyear about performing this week's concerts with the orchestra and then participated in a conversation with Goodyear and guest conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste about canceling the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto was TSO CEO Jeff Melanson. It was Loie Fallis, TSO vice president of artistic planning.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.