Hey, What About Lisitsa’s Take On Rachmaninoff?

Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa has been at the center of a Toronto Symphony Orchestra firestorm.  (Gilbert Francois)
Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa has been at the center of a Toronto Symphony Orchestra firestorm.
(Photo by Gilbert Francois)
By Arthur Kaptainis

TORONTO — Am I ever mad at Toronto Symphony Orchestra president Jeff Melanson. Not for failing to uphold the principles of free speech, the exercise of which by hot-headed Russian-speaking Ukrainian pianists interests me only slightly, but for cancelling a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto that I really wanted to hear.

Jeff Melanson is the Toronto Symphony's executive director.
Jeff Melanson is the Toronto Symphony’s president and CEO.

The soloist, as half the world is now aware, would have been Valentina Lisitsa, who has been identified for years in program biographies as Ukrainian but will now for all time be known as a fierce critic of the Ukrainian political establishment whose oft-tweeted contempt for politicians — and, arguably, Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians in general — led the TSO boss to give her the boot (very much at the last minute) on Friday, April 3.

This action, unannounced by the orchestra but made public by Lisitsa, followed what Melanson calls “four months of crescendoing community concern” and seven back-and-forth communications between his people and her people concerning the ostensibly offensive content of her social-media postings (available to all at NedoUkraïnka @ValLisitsa) and her refusal to recant.

You can take your pick of several tweets, but her posting of an image of three hogs with gigantic painted testicles will do. “Here are the faces of the Ukrainian leaders” is the caption as translated by the pianist’s opponents, although the word “Ukrainian” does not appear in the original, and “bureaucratic faces” appears to be the best rendering in English.

I’m a native of Toronto who grew up with Ukrainian neighbors, took ineffective piano lessons from a Ukrainian pseudo-virtuoso, formed an indelible friendship with the son of a famous Russian intellectual from Crimea, and have eastern-European credentials of my own (my father having been born to Lithuanian parents). So I might be more aware than some of the various degrees of antipathy that exist between the peoples of these far-off lands and the tensions that were in place long before Ukrainian Ukrainians started to agitate for closer ties to Europe, and Russian Ukrainians (among whom, with some footnoting, we must count Lisitsa) reciprocally heightened their allegiance to the motherland.

It is by no means the only ethnic no-go zone in the world, but one that peace-loving people are well advised to avoid unless a clear advantage is expected from the support of one side of the conflict or the other. It is not evident what the the Toronto Symphony has to gain, although many music lovers have speculated that donations and subscription dollars from Ukrainian Canadians would have been compromised had Lisitsa appeared.

Rachmaninoff, whose Second Piano Concerto Lisitsa didn't play.
Rachmaninoff, whose 2nd Piano Concerto Lisitsa didn’t play in Toronto.

Lisitsa has said her manager was told as much by an orchestra executive, who also said the Ukrainian embassy had weighed in on the matter. The pianist’s manager refuses any comment. Melanson denies the donor conspiracy theory and the influence of any government but acknowledges no one in the orchestra’s office was aware of Lisitsa’s tweets before “members of the community” — not exclusively Ukrainian, according to Melanson — contacted the orchestra in December. It is hard to push this element of the controversy past the stage of he-said, she-said.  I see only a few Ukrainian names on the orchestra’s donor roll. In any case, the alienation of other subscribers by this nasty affair has obviously negated whatever good will the orchestra might have fostered among ethnic Ukrainians.

Which means we must take Melanson at his word that he made the decision to sack Lisitsa on moral grounds and not because he expected lost revenues or irksome protests in front of Roy Thomson Hall. (Certainly if he expected to avoid trouble, he miscalculated spectacularly.) My first question for him in a telephone interview was whether supporters of Vladimir Putin — such as Valery Gergiev — or those with reservations about the motives of the Ukrainian political elite are welcome at the orchestra. “We aren’t choosing sides in the politics here,” Melanson said. “Her political persuasion is neither here nor there for us. It is the intolerant language and offensive tweets that are the issue.”

These are valid distinctions, whatever the radical free-speechers might tweet on the matter. Everyone with a stake in civil society recognizes that free speech has its limits, and that to cross the boundaries invites consequences. If I write that So-and-So gave a poor performance at such-and-such concert hall and, instead of supporting this judgment with aesthetic observations, declare that people from his or her ethnic background are by nature lazy and inept, I should expect my career as a critic to end three minutes after I post the review.

So the question in the Lisitsa affair is not whether her right to free speech has been violated — her twitter account remains active — but whether the postings themselves cross the line. No one would call them refined. Hog testicles. A psychotic in a straitjacket shouting “Hail Ukraine!” The snout of a pig through a fence presented as “how it looks outside the great Ukrainian fence.” A simian figure surrounded by crude tools and wearing a swastika. Several  other references to Nazism. Perhaps most infamously, an image of teachers in Ukrainian folk costume accompanied by a photo of Africans in tribal garb. A less noticed but equally hurtful tweet appeared after Lisitsa’s slenderly protested appearance last September with the Pittsburgh Symphony: “Whatever works to bring Ukrainians to classical concerts. Haven’t seen many.”

The post with the ethnic costumes might seem to clinch the matter. Here we have an implied slight of traditional Ukrainian culture with an image that itself takes for granted the primitive nature of African culture. What more do you want? Yet even here there is a context. Lisitsa claims that Ukrainian teachers are required on the first day of school to wear these costumes, an expression of nationalism she regards as ominous.

Valentina Lisitsa will perform soon in Spokane, Dayton and Calgary.
Valentina Lisitsa will perform soon in Spokane, Dayton and Calgary.

A few of her communications show a degree of political sophistication. Under the hashtag IfScotlandWereUkraine, Lisitsa speculates satirically that “PM Salmond would communicate with PM Cameron only via Gaelic-English interpreter” and that “everyone, both sexes, (would have) to wear kilts with no underwear. Or be suspected of being latent Unionist.” These clearly fall under the aegis of fair comment (and are hardly irrelevant, given the persistent if wavering presence of the far right in Ukrainian politics).

To return to the question: Did Lisitsa cross the line? Yes, but as a native of Kiev in the midst of a scalding political debate that has attracted inflammatory commentary from all sides. Also in a forum — social media — where excess is the new normal. “I do not use this language and I do not communicate with people who use this language,” a Russian speaker who has seen the Lisitsa tweets told me. “But by the standards of social media it is not out of the ordinary.”

By contrast, the Toronto Symphony’s action is quite out of the ordinary. To say it has backfired is putting it mildly. “Gutless” was the reaction I heard on a morning radio call-in show by a business analyst who obviously knew only the basics. “Stupid” would be another good word. The late notice to Lisitsa, the fond supposition that a substitution would go unnoticed, the grossly unfair engagement of Stewart Goodyear as a replacement without explaining to this Toronto pianist the nature of the cancellation, the messy subsequent yanking of the concerto from the program, the strange silence of Toronto Symphony music director Peter Oundjian, the spectacular prominence now given to Lisitsa’s political effusions among millions who knew nothing about them — these are tactical blunders that reflect very badly on Melanson in his first season as CEO of the orchestra.

Yet what bothers me the most about all this unpleasantness is the denial of a strong and imaginative pianist her Toronto Symphony debut. That is the “speech” that should matter. Lisitsa was foolish not to control the tone of her tweets, but Melanson was more foolish by far in creating this tempest. How the scandal will affect Lisitsa’s career is unclear.  Her concerts with the Spokane Symphony (April 18 and 19), Dayton Philharmonic (April 24 and 25), and Calgary Philharmonic (June 5 and 6) are all going ahead as scheduled. The damage to the Toronto Symphony’s reputation, I fear, will endure for years.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for The Gazette (Montreal) and the National Post (Canada).



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