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Alex Ross on the Russians

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Alex Ross on the Russians

 Alex Ross does an excellent job of surveying the whole problem of Russian musicians in The New Yorker: Valery Gergiev and the Nightmare of Music Under Putin.

On February 23rd, Gergiev led the first performance in a run of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” at La Scala, in Milan. (Yes, he was supposed to be leading an American orchestral tour and an Italian opera production simultaneously.) The following day, as the invasion began, Beppe Sala, the mayor of Milan, declared that Gergiev’s engagement would be cut short unless he denounced the assault on Ukraine. That decisive action changed the conversation. Rotterdam and Munich issued similar ultimatums, and, one day before the first Vienna concert, Carnegie announced that Yannick Nézet-Séguin would take Gergiev’s place on the tour. Not surprisingly, Putin’s court conductor condemned nothing. His posts in Munich and Rotterdam were rescinded, and other engagements in Europe and America were cancelled. Gergiev’s career outside Russia was effectively over.

Not just Gergiev, of course, but other musicians as well, such as Anna Netrebko whose career is certainly not over, but currently on pause.

The melee around Putin’s musicians is following a familiar pattern: first, ignore the issue for as long as possible; then, join a moralizing stampede. Many Russian musical figures have spoken out against the war, and their courage is bracing. Yet the notion that every Russian should have to repudiate Putin before being allowed to perform in America or Europe is grim. There is no way of knowing what constraints musicians labor under, what consequences they face.

Yes, and the example of Shostakovich and other Soviet-era musicians is sobering. For years he kept a suitcase packed by the door in case the KGB came for him in the middle of the night as happened to a number of associates. For much of Russia's history its musicians and artists had little choice about supporting the regime and we should not forget that. Ross writes:

I’ve also turned to Shostakovich, the angel of dread. His Symphony No. 13 is subtitled “Babi Yar,” in honor of the one of the most horrific massacres of the Holocaust.

I think Ross hits the right note and the conclusion with reference to the Shostakovich Symphony 13 is excellent. I would have added that the finest performances of Shostakovich symphonies I have heard have been with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by ------ Valery Gergiev.

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