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Classical 101

Artists and Politics: "Throw the Bums Out"

Valentina Lisitsa

Ukranian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa is in the news, having been publicly fired from an upcoming appearance with the Toronto Symphony. Lisitsa has tweeted extensively on the political situation viz a viz Russia and Ukraine.

Her tweets are unsavory. There are references to Nazis, and to dog feces. The sincerity of her pro-Ukrainian stand can’t be questioned. The Toronto Symphony reports dissension from the local Ukrainian community, and the fact these tweets are found hateful (by whom, exactly) led to the artists ’s dismissal.


The Internet is an enormous megaphone. The world is very much smaller than it was a century go. But artists have always led the way to dissent. Picasso’s Guernica shows the slaughter of an e tire Spanish village by Franco; The great buildings of the renaissance were meant to show power and wealth. The cathedrals were built for the glory of God and to intimidate everyone else.

Being perceived as pro-German during the First World War could ruin your career if not take your life. Paderewski, the former premiere of Poland, was deported. In Boston, Karl Muck was fired from the Boston Symphony. It was claimed he refused to play The Star Spangled Banner at a run out concert in Providence R.I. The truth was the orchestra hadn’t packed the music. Muck always performed the National Anthem in Symphony Hall. He was sent back to Europe and never returned.

Verdi’s opera Don Carlo was picketed by the Catholic Church in 1950. Vanessa Redgrave, a pro-Palestinian, was fired by the Boston Symphony. The orchestra refused to play if she was to narrate Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Earlier this year a nutcase got on stage with hateful signs while Anna Netrebko was bowing after a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. Netrebko and Valery Gergiev have been picketed for their pro-Putin stance a the expense of gay rights. The list is long, and growing.

Today, when there’s no such thing as privacy and when any expressed opinion can be argued against-often violently the free speech cases are harder to leave alone. I’,m free to be provocative. So are you. The difference is the whole world can listen. All to the good. But it adds another dimension to running any kind of performing organization. You have to be aware of any public statements, all the time. And persons making these statements can sacrifice careers-jut like the old day.

I’m not convinced that the fracas in Toronto was begun in the community. It could be a TSO board member didn’t like Lisitsa, so out she went. Organizations make tact a contractual point. (God knows I wouldn’t sign). We are in danger of a further dumbed down society if free speech rights are retired. We are in danger of all consuming argument if those rights are distorted by hate speech.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.